BOWLING GREEN, Ohio -- There’s a familiar saying that nobody wants to be the coach who follows the coach, the person who follows directly in the footsteps of another who blazed a trail. All right, fair enough, but surely it’s no more challenging than attempting to defy physics by being in two places at the same time.
Picked to succeed Curt Miller, her boss for 11 seasons at Bowling Green and the coach who took the program to a Sweet 16, eight consecutive conference championships and a 258-92 record before he departed for Indiana, Jennifer Roos couldn’t worry about stepping out of his shadow. She was too busy talking herself into setting foot in his office.
“As silly as this sounds, I struggled to move offices,” Roos said of her ascension. “There came a day where I would run from my office into his office and pick up the phone because the administration had already transferred my phone number to his number. That’s when it finally hit me that I need to move. So I stayed late one night, and I took down all my pictures and then had maintenance come in and hang up all my pictures [in the new office] the next day.”
The remodeling continued last weekend with the biggest win of a new era in northwest Ohio.
When Miller accepted the coaching job at Indiana after last season, he and Roos had what she termed a series of “heart-to-heart” conversations. There was an opportunity for her to go with him to Bloomington and remain his top assistant amid all the perks of a Big Ten athletic budget. There was also an opportunity for her to stay and apply for the vacant position at Bowling Green. She had filled in for two games last season after Miller suffered a mild stroke, but there were no guarantees someone with no other college head coaching experience would get the full-time gig.
And there were no guarantees it was a good thing for her if she did.
Given the landscape of college basketball and the realities of the Mid-American Conference, it’s difficult to envision any coach doing more with the Falcons than Miller did in dominating the league and being relevant in the early rounds of the NCAA tournament.
“If you go to a team that needs a culture change, it’s going to take some time and age you,” Roos said. “If you stay here, are they hearing the same message they've heard the handful of years that I've been here as an assistant coach? To be honest with you, I probably had more friends tell me to go somewhere else.”
She stayed, and after a 65-40 win against previously unbeaten Dayton, Bowling Green looks fortunate for rewarding the decision.
The program’s fifth win against a ranked opponent and its first since beating Vanderbilt more than two years ago was every bit as impressive as the score suggests. Bowling Green sized up one of the nation’s best transition teams, slowed the pace of the game to a Sunday stroll and methodically picked apart the Flyers, first through the individual excellence of Alexis Rogers and eventually through unflappable execution from players like Chrissy Steffen and Jillian Halfhill, screen after screen, drive after drive wearing down Dayton like water cutting through a rock.
“We obviously thought Dayton thought they could come in here and just beat us,” Halfhill said. “They’re 14th in the nation; who wouldn’t think that? But we knew that we could win.”
Rogers is the player who makes this particular iteration of Bowling Green intriguing beyond just the MAC title race, a 6-foot-1 former high school All-American who transferred from Duke and is playing her best basketball in recent weeks -- going for 20 points and 10 rebounds against Dayton and averaging 20.8 points and 9.0 rebounds in her past four games. But Halfhill is the kind of player a program like Bowling Green is built around year after year. A 5-foot-6 in-state product who collected nine rebounds against the Flyers, not even close to her season high of 13 boards against Colorado State, she invests every bit of herself in the program. It's a coach's job to channel that effort into improvement.
Pace was everything in Sunday’s game plan, and Halfhill was the one most directly responsible for translating Roos' instructions into action on the court. If the ball handler who averages a team-high 33 minutes a game didn't resist the temptation to push the ball right back at the Flyers, the whole plan would fall apart. After playing sparingly her first two seasons behind older players, Halfhill did everything you could ask of a point guard.
Roos is a former guard, and even in victory, she didn't dote on her junior or lavish praise. It's clear she expects a lot out of Halfhill.
“She’s had a lot of kids in front of her, and now this is her chance,” Roos said. “We practiced [the day before the game], and Jillian and I, I felt of any practice so far, were on more of the same page yesterday than any other day. I would literally call an offense in half-court sets and she was calling the same thing. That happened easily three to five times.”
Part of being the one with final say, Roos lamented, is accepting that you become the bad guy. And when things don't go as well as they did against Dayton, she will again take on that role.
But the players understand. They are both a part of a long winning tradition and part of something new. They believe they have the right coach for balancing those two worlds.
“We love her to death,” Halfhill said. “So we try our best to keep the play the same, keep everything the same, keep winning.”
It's early yet, but it sounds like one of these days, she might be a tough act to follow.