Everything head women’s basketball coach Shea Ralph said at her introductory press conference

Vanderbilt introduced the ninth head women’s basketball coach in school history on Wednesday.

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Shea Ralph at her introductory press conference. (Twitter/@VandyWBB)

Simon Gibbs, Alyssa Muir, and Sam Curtis

Just one week after firing Stephanie White, Vanderbilt on Tuesday announced the sixth head women’s basketball coach in program history: Shea Ralph.

Ralph may be a first-time head coach, but she’s not a stranger to coaching. The former UConn standout and WNBA player quickly returned to the sidelines when her professional career came to a close, and eventually found her way back to her alma mater, where she joined Geno Auriemma’s staff as an assistant. She spent 13 years as an assistant coach for the UConn Huskies, and has won seven national championships—one as a player and six as a coach.

On Wednesday, Coach Ralph was introduced as Vanderbilt’s head coach in a press conference with athletic director Candice Storey Lee and Chancellor Diermeier.

Here’s a transcript of everything that was said in the opening press conference:

Opening Remarks

Chancellor Daniel Diermeier: Good afternoon. My name is Daniel Diermeier. I’m the Chancellor of Vanderbilt University, and I’m very pleased to join Candice Lee today to welcome Shea Ralph as Vanderbilt’s next women’s basketball coach. At Vanderbilt, we look for the best and brightest in each field, and then we want to create an environment where they can succeed. That is true for the university, and that is true for Vanderbilt athletics as well. Shea Ralph brings a celebrated basketball biography, a career as both a student-athlete and a coach and she comes from Connecticut and, of course, the University of Connecticut is the gold standard in women’s basketball.

Shea took part in seven of UConn’s 11 national championships as both a student-athlete and a coach. On a personal note, when we talked last week, I remembered watching her play during her national championship run as a player, which was great to talk about that. And then, in addition to her performance and the focus of performance on the court, coach Shea Ralph has been instrumental in also supporting academic success of her players off the court as well. We don’t take shortcuts here at Vanderbilt. Coach Ralph put in nearly two decades, learning her craft as an assistant coach and supporting her players under the guidance and mentorship of one of the sports all time greats. This hiring decision that we’re announcing today is consistent with the approach that we’ve been taking at Vanderbilt over the last year. The spirit of our overall campaign, which we call Vandy United, is about giving student-athletes the resources that they need, whether that is in forms of facility, but also in terms of the leadership and the coaching, that will enable them to be successful. She is part of a new generation of Vanderbilt coaches for a new era of Commodore athletics. As we did with Vandy United, we worked closely with Candice, and she took decisive action and moved forward in making sure that Coach Ralph would join us here at Vanderbilt. A new coach [and] a new basketball operations facility infuses the whole program and college athletics with a new level of energy and commitment. Coach Ralph shares our ambition and our vision, fueling Vandy United. We’re delighted and happy for her to join the Commodore family. And now I’d be pleased to hand it over to Candice Lee. 

Athletic Director Candice Storey Lee: Thank you Chancellor Diermeier. As the athletic director, I’m equally passionate and invested in all of our programs. That’s what our student athletes deserve, and that’s what the job demands. Any coaching transition, regardless of the sport, requires the same level of care. But there’s no doubt—and as a former women’s basketball student athlete, I understand the opportunities and the potential for this program in a very personal way, and I share a very special connection with all the former players who feel the same way that I do—that this is a program that can win championships.

When I met with our student athletes last Tuesday evening, I asked them to give me a couple weeks to complete the search. I knew it could be a little shorter or maybe a little longer than that and that the focus was not going to be on the speed of the search, but on finding the best person to lead us to this next chapter. I asked them to trust me. I reminded them that I’m a product of the same program—so it was both professional and personal for me—and that I felt responsible both to and for them. While, as in the case of our football search, I didn’t necessarily have the time constraints of a signing period, I knew that our current and our incoming student athletes were eager to know who their new coach would be, and I also felt it was necessary to move quickly enough to give the coach an opportunity to meet with them before the semester ended and final exams began. We received interest from some amazing candidates and we interviewed an impressive and diverse group, including sitting head coaches. If you’re wondering how the Vanderbilt program is perceived, the level of interest confirmed that this is a great job. People across the women’s basketball world, they see it the way I see it—that this is a program with unlimited potential. Most importantly, Shea sees the job as I see it.

From the moment we first spoke, I appreciated how genuine she is, her drive, her intellect, her commitment to developing young people, and her sheer joy and gratitude for what she gets to do every day. I also learned rather quickly about her desire to be a head coach and to do so at a place where elite academics and athletics combine to form an incredible opportunity to succeed—not just a place like Vanderbilt, but Vanderbilt. During a search, you end up talking to many many people, and we wanted to do our due diligence. And we feel fortunate to have engaged several individuals as we made this very important decision. When I talked to Geno Auriemma, the thing that stood out most was—he told me that Shea is absolutely relentless in everything she does. And every person I’ve talked to, including Shea, made it clear that she does not like to lose. We must be relentless in all that we do, not just in women’s basketball, but in all that we do at Vanderbilt. I was drawn to Shea’s energy, her passion, the adversity she overcame as a student athlete, and the perspective that she brings from one of the truly elite programs not only in women’s basketball but in all of sports. And everyone that I asked to meet with her during our search walked away equally impressed.

This is her first head coaching job, but few people have more experience competing for championships. She has excelled in every facet of the profession both in terms of her incredible recruiting success and her mentorship of a procession of all Americans. Her ability to develop student athletes into the best players and people that they can be is unquestioned, and the examples are numerous. She knows what winning looks like. She’s not afraid of seizing this opportunity. She and we see what this program is today and what it can and what it will be. You can’t dispute Shea’s pedigree coming from UConn, but she’s not sitting here today just because of pedigree. She earned this opportunity with her drive to win, her passion for student athletes, and her vision for the program. Searches always require a lot of hands on deck, so to each of you who played a role, I thank you for your efforts and for your commitment. In particular, thank you to Chancellor Diermeier for once again providing the support to do what was necessary in the way that I felt was necessary to begin a new chapter. To my fellow alumni, we heard you. You all shared a desire for such criteria as a great basketball mind, someone who was demanding, but respectful, and someone who embraces alumni in the Nashville community. To Commodore nation, we’ve talked a lot about Vandy United recently. To me, Vandy United is about all of us coming together to move this entire athletics program forward—students, alumni, faculty, staff, supporters—all of us who care so deeply for this amazing university. And that’s why at the end of the day, I felt the responsibility to all of you to choose the very best leader for this program, and I found her in Shea Ralph. Shea, we could not be more excited that you’re here. We know there’s much work to be done. But, we also know that we’ll look back on this day as the start of the restoration and transformation of Vanderbilt women’s basketball. It’s now my pleasure to introduce our new head women’s basketball coach, Shea Ralph.

Head Coach Shea Ralph: Thank you so much, Candice and Chancellor Diermeier. And good afternoon everyone, I am so happy to be here today with you all. I’m incredibly humbled and proud, not only to be your women’s basketball head coach, but also to be your partner in building something great together here at Vanderbilt University. I’m blessed to be joined here today by my amazing family—my husband Tommy and my two and a half year old daughter, Mason, who has quickly become the most popular person on campus. They are my North Star, and I want to thank them for believing in me always, for loving me unconditionally, and for giving me a strength and purpose that will always push me to be the best possible version of myself in every arena of life. I love you both and I can’t wait to start our new chapter here in Nashville. My mother and my stepfather are also here today. My mother was an amazing basketball player in her own right at the University of North Carolina where she was an All-American, [also] recently earning her PhD and is now a college professor. And maybe the best part of resume is that she’s probably the world’s greatest grandmother. I’m so happy that both of you guys are here with me today, and I can’t thank you enough for the sacrifices you made for me that allowed me to sit in this chair. I’d also like to thank my former team, coaching staff, and administration at the University of Connecticut. I’ve spent almost half of my life at UConn as a player and a coach, and I will always bleed blue. However, I could not be more excited to join Commodore nation and help bring our women’s basketball program to national prominence. The last week has been one of the best weeks of my life. Thank you to Kristine Kelly, Michelle Towns and the rest of the Vanderbilt community for welcom

ing my family and I with open arms. To Candice Lee, you are a trailblazer in college athletics, and I’m honored to work beside you in building this historic program back to where we all know and believe it can be. I am also grateful for your belief in me and inspired by your tireless efforts to grow Vanderbilt women’s basketball and our athletic community as a whole into something special. And, last but not least, I am ecstatic that my young daughter will be able to have a walking, breathing example of greatness that looks like her to show her that one day, she too can be a trailblazer. I have four core values that guide me in my life each and every day. Those are family, growth, integrity, and leadership. These values are at the core of who I am as a woman, a wife, and a mother and will be the core of my coaching philosophy here at Vanderbilt. I believe sustainable excellence starts and ends with people. In order to achieve something great, you have to have the right people around you, all pulling in the same direction. I will look for key qualities that I know I can’t coach, for example confidence, competitiveness, coachability, a tireless work ethic [and] being a great teammate, just to name a few. This will ensure that during this growth process, through all the ups and downs that will come, no matter what we will all have each others’ backs and we’ll always be able to fall back on our values. I look forward to surrounding my team with people who have the knowledge and experience to help them achieve what they all told me, just yesterday, they want—a program that wins big on and off the court. I have spent my entire life preparing for this moment.

Growing up in North Carolina and developing into a woman at Connecticut has fully prepared me to now spread my wings here at Vanderbilt. I can’t wait to work alongside Commodore nation and this incredible community to build something truly special and lasting with our women’s basketball program. Thank you to all who have paved the way in this historic program, and thank you to my new team who I already adore for your trust and belief in me. This is going to be an awesome journey, and I could not be more excited to be doing it with you. To everyone listening and watching, this is the first day of a new era of our women’s basketball program here at Vanderbilt University. Come join us and be part of a greatness that will transcend the game of basketball. Anchor Down!

Over the years, I’m sure you’ve been asked a number of times, when you’re going to be a head coach and take over your own program. What did you see at Vanderbilt that maybe you didn’t see in other opportunities?

SR: Yes, I’ve been asked a few times, that question. And to be honest with you all, the University of Connecticut is a very hard place to leave. I’m completely invested, I played there obviously, I’ve been there for a long time as coach and I continued to be challenged there in every way. What’s intriguing about Vanderbilt, from the outside looking in, you look at this University and all it has going for it – the athletic programs, the excellence that they display in everything they do – and you wonder ‘why isn’t the women’s basketball program in the elite conversations in our country?’ And I think that we can be, I think that we should be and I’m excited to do that here. 

One thing in recent years of Vanderbilt athletics that maybe has held it back some is facilities. Obviously, there are new facilities planned including a new basketball building. How much of that was part of the discussion and how much of a game-changer do you think that can be for this program in the years to come? 

SR: I mean obviously it’s a game-changer. But, I think more than that, it shows an investment by our chancellor, by the community, by everyone who’s putting forth that effort to make this happen. And when you talk to people, every person that I spoke to, they want and desire excellence for our student-athletes, both in the classroom, which is evident by the historic university and all that comes with that, but also on the field and the court or wherever you compete. So, when I spoke to everyone and I learned about how invested they were in the growth of every individual in every arena, it was more than just the 300 million dollar Vandy United fund that’s happening and all the things it’s going to create for the student-athletes. It was just the investment to me that stuck out. The investment in everyone at this university in our student-athletes as a whole. 

As you start diving into the program, how quickly might a turnaround come? Do you see this as being a two, three, four-year [process]? Do you have a tentative timeline for getting this program back to where it once was? 

SR: I would love for it to be sooner than later, but what I’ve learned over my career is when you build something the right way, it might take a little bit of time but it will forever. And so that’s what I plan to do. I’m not going to take any shortcuts. Just like Chancellor Diermeier said, we don’t take any short-cuts at Vanderbilt and I’m not going to do that with our program. We’re gonna do it the right way. There will be bumps in the way, I’m sure. But I understand that I have complete support and I feel that support, not only in our administration, but by the people I have around me when I put together our staff and by our players. We’re all going to be pulling in the same direction. This kind of stuff isn’t always unicorns and rainbows. It may look like that from the outside in, but a lot of hard-work goes into it. And I know that if I want to build something, and we together want to build something great, then I have to trust that process and know that it might not be overnight. So, would I like for it to happen sooner than later? Of course. And obviously that’s my goal, like Candice said I don’t like losing at all. So, I don’t plan to lose a lot but I understand that sometimes you have to lose a little bit to win. 

You and Candice both mentioned the history of success here. Obviously, the program has struggled a little bit in recent years, but there is a history of sustained success here. Was that an important characteristic of whichever school you chose to be your first head coaching job. And why can that history help rebuild the program in the future?

SR: When I looked at this program and all that it had going for it, the history of success did stick out because that lets me know it can be done. And now, when you talk about all the investments that are being made, Vandy United, the academic side of it. When you talk to players that want that, I can’t coach that. I can’t make Vanderbilt an elite university. That’s here, that’s what we have and it’s an amazing thing to have, it’s very rare. I can help them on the court. But, if they want both, there’s only one place in the country they can do it, hopefully, in the end, and I’m excited about that. So yes, it shows that there’s a history that can be repeated, but I’m hoping to elevate it even higher than that. 

With the understanding that you just got here, what stands out to your as the top-items on your immediate to-do list here?

SR: I think that remains to be seen. I’m looking at the program, I’m talking to the people. And like I told you guys before, I think it’s gonna start and end with people for me. That’s how I operate in my life and that’s how I will operate in this program. So I need to get here, to settle in, to get to know my team, to get with them on the court, to understand what is it that we really need first and foremost. To build trust with them, to be honest with you, is number one on my list. To build trust with my team, to build trust in our recruiting, to build trust with my staff, we all have to get here and dig in together. And then all the other stuff will take care of itself. Basketball’s my comfort zone. I love being on the court, I love teaching the game, but I understand how much of a player’s trust and how much they feel you caring about them and their success means in terms of their ultimate success. So, I need to make sure I build that and take my time with it, and then all the other things, I’ll make sure I have a great staff that can help teach, and we’ll go up from there. 

Your husband obviously was part of the staff at Vanderbilt, I think for six years, he saw some winning in that time. I’m sure you talked to him about this job. What did he give you that was helpful in making your decision? 

SR: He said two words “no-brainer”. That’s what he said. My husband, if you know him, he doesn’t mince words. He tells me when I’m wrong all the time, he tells me when I make bad decisions and he tells me what he thinks about my decisions. But from the beginning he was fully supportive because he knows and believes in Vanderbilt university and understands what an opportunity this is. 

You’ve been around Coach Auriemma for most of your life. What will you bring with you from him as a coach and how will you be different at Vanderbilt? 

SR: The greatest thing that I learned at Connecticut is what it takes to build and sustain eliteness. It’s not easy to do. If it were easy, you’d see a lot more programs doing it. I loved being part of that inter-working environment, understanding what goes into it, the ups-and-downs of it, the years where we won a lot in a row and the years where we lost a lot in a row. So I believe that’s the biggest thing I’ll bring with me, that I’ll understand and have an intimate knowledge of, that not a lot of people have. What I won’t bring? Probably technical fouls. Maybe a few, but not a lot. And I think I have just a different style in general. But that’s not better or worse, good or bad. I think I’m just a little bit different than Coach. But obviously, he’s taught me an incredible amount and I wouldn’t be here to be in the position I am to pass that along to our young women if it weren’t for him. 

The SEC continues to grow in terms of conference and just the grind of the conference. How excited are you for the challenge of going up against these terms each and every night once you hit conference play? 

SR: I am really excited about that challenge. It is hands-down, and I’ve thought for a long time, the best conference in the country. Day-in and day-out you’re battling, and I love a good battle. I’m sitting here telling you this now, if we don’t show up in a battle, I might feel differently but the plan is for that not to happen. But to be honest with you, I think in those really tough moments of adversity, that’s when you grow. So I’m really excited for our players that we’ll have an opportunity to do that literally every day, literally every game. They’re going to be challenged in ways that maybe we wouldn’t see if we played in a different conference. So, I know for me, the most growth I’ve had is when I’ve felt like I have nowhere to go but up or I’m backed against a wall. That’s when I’ve really grown. And so I’m excited for our players to have the same thing.

It was almost assumed over the years that you couldn’t get Shea Ralph to leave UConn. Candice, what was your level of surprise when you found out this was the job that would make her willing to leave?

CSL: I don’t know if I would say surprise. I mean, I hope that we’ve shown that we don’t have to settle. So, you know, the worst thing is somebody is going to just tell me no. And so I didn’t enter into it with surprise. I was delighted. But I mean, I think it’s a job worth saying yes to, so I was glad she felt the same way.

Chancellor Diermeier, with the VandyUnited campaign being launched, and the hiring of both Shea Ralph and Clark Lea, how much facilities can help move the programs forward?

DD: I think the key piece is that we’re committed to excellence, and we’re committed to building a program that supports our student-athletes, that attracts the best student-athletes to Vanderbilt, the best coaches and puts them in an environment where they can succeed. Having the appropriate facilities is an important part of that, but it’s not the only part. Having the right people is more important, I would say—well, just as important. And of course, it helps to attract the right people if they have an environment where they can succeed. So the goal for us overall was to say, ‘This is what we want to do. These are our goals. We’re committed to getting there. Put the right people in place, create the right culture, and then provide an environment where they can succeed. That has been the approach and the plan from day one, and I’m so delighted that we have Shay Ralph now joining us as part of this team.

Coming from Connecticut, where there’s a strong push on recruiting, what are you looking for in recruits and what do you bring from UConn to help you with recruiting here?

SR: Well, that’s a perfect question after what was just said by Chancellor Diermeier. When I recruit—and this was the same at UConn—we’re looking for excellence on and off the court. I don’t think I have to make any changes coming to Vanderbilt. I’m looking for those players who have the drive and relentless effort to be excellent in everything they do. To want to grow, to have a passion for what they’re doing, to be great teammates, to be coachable—all the things that I know I can’t coach, and that you need to be great and excellent in what you do. To have sustainability—that’s what I’m going to recruit. Obviously, there has to be a level of talent, right, they have to be able to compete at this level. But those other intangible qualities are the most important for not only their growth, but for our growth as a program. I know and trust in my ability and my staff’s ability to teach what we need to teach on the floor, to make sure that we’re winning basketball games. That’s not going to be a problem. But we have to have the right people there. And if we have that, then the rest will take care of itself.

To ask you about the game in general, what do you see right now with the sport after the fantastic NCAA Tournament we just saw? There seems to be more talent, more investment and better coaching than ever before.

SR: That was such an entertaining tournament, wasn’t it? The parity in our sport, the level of play, the Cinderella stories, the coaching, the diversity that you’re seeing in coaching—it’s just been amazing. It was just an amazing three weeks, and I love that I’m part of it. And, you know, where’s it going? I think only up from here. I think we can continue to build on that. And right now, [we have to] strike while the iron’s hot. There’s so much buzz around women’s basketball and around women’s sports in general. And hey, look, we can play. We can play basketball. And that’s what we’re going to do here at Vanderbilt. We’re going to put a product out on the floor that’s not only fun to watch, but is also going to be able to [win] championships at that level every year.

Candice, what factors allowed you to make this hire so quickly?

CSL: That’s a good question. I mentioned earlier that I’m just trying to level set for the student athletes. I told them that I thought it would take a couple of weeks. And of course, I was going to be deliberate and move as fast as I could, but I wanted to give myself time. I think I’ve continued to learn that you always have your list, you have your short list, but then you also want to see what else is out there, and you want to be very, very diligent. Every single hire is an important hire; it’s a big deal for us. So I wanted to give myself time to be thorough, but I did go into the search hoping that my gut would not fail me, hoping that it would be very clear. And that’s what happened. I think it’s important to say last Tuesday was a tough day for a lot of people. And we spent Tuesday dealing with emotions and making sure our kids were okay. And I mean, nobody enters this community to lose. Nobody comes here not to compete at a high level. So when you have to make a change, that’s challenging. And so Tuesday was about that, but Wednesday was about the search. And it just—the reality is that it just didn’t take long, as long as perhaps I thought. We had some tremendous candidates. Now, the fact that Shay sits before you—tremendous candidates, and she’s the one for the job. And so it just so happened, it only took six days to decide that.

After so many years of sustained excellence at UConn, what was so attractive about a rebuild?

SR: I’m not really looking at it as a rebuild; more like a revitalization. Because as we talked about before, we’ve seen that it can be done here. And I’m coming in here thinking that this is going to get done. I’m just excited to be part of it. Because I think it’s such an amazing opportunity. And obviously, I’m going to have some growth as a leader that’s going to have to take place. I’m going into this understanding that. But the fact that I’m doing it with the people around me—to speak to what Candice was just saying—that’s what made me confident. Talking to the Chancellor, hearing his vision not only for the for the school, which is already amazing, but also for the athletic department. And there was no difference. He wants us both to be excellent. And then speaking to Candice, and her vision and her investment as a former player, speaking to everyone that I spoke to in the Vanderbilt community only made me more sure, with each conversation, that this can and will be done, and that they won’t let me fail. And I’m excited about that.

Some reports have circulated that your husband is joining the staff at Vanderbilt. Is that something you could comment on at this time?

SR: I did hire him as a full-time caretaker with my daughter right now. 24 hours a day he’s going. No, we haven’t made any decisions right now. I’m not ready to talk about that. We’re really focused right now on just immersing myself in the community [and] meeting the team. Obviously, I’m discussing with Candice who I’m going to hire and put in place because it’s such an important decision for me. I understand as a new head coach, I need to make the right choice. And we talked about people before—again, it starts and ends with people for me. I’m not going to rush through this. I owe it to myself. I owe it to our student athletes and I owe it to the university to make sure that the right people are in place. But we’re going to do that sooner than later. And I do have a shortlist.

Ideally, a couple years down the road what’s your vision for the type of basketball that your team plays, especially offensively?

SR: I love the style that I played, and the style that I’ve been been coaching for a lot of years, but there’s also some other things that I want to try. A lot of what I’ll do will probably depend on, initially, what we have on the floor. What I would love to do eventually is a motion-style that also involves some smart, quick-hit plays where we need to get a certain shot from a certain player. Something that’s fun to watch. High-scoring offense is what I love to be part of. So it’s not going to be a drudgery. I like to score points. I think that’s fun to play. I think it’s fun to watch. So that’s my vision for our offense.