Nancy Darsch's New York Liberty team was 8-9 and in the midst of a four-game losing streak last season when the coach decided to try something different to get through to her team.
In the locker room at Phoenix's America West Arena, she gave the players a tongue depressor and asked each to write her name on it. She then gathered them into a stack and put a rubber band around it. Holding up a single tongue depressor, Darsch broke it, pointing out how easily a lone stick can snap. Holding up the stack, Darsch demonstrated how strong and unbreakable it was. Her team's victory that night started a streak in which it won 10 of the next 11 games.
"We held on to that," said Liberty guard Teresa Weatherspoon, adding that the stack of wooden sticks was on the bench during their remaining games. "We held on to it for the rest of the season."
Darsch's lesson to her team that night is the same one she is trying to teach her new team, the Washington Mystics, as she tries to turn around a team that went 3-27 in its inaugural season.
"As a coach, you never are quite sure what is going to work," Darsch said. "... I thought, it doesn't matter how old you are or whether you're an amateur or pro, it's all the same. It's about teamwork."
That has been chief among the principles Darsch has been stressing in a training camp that includes only six players from last season's team. With her no-nonsense manner, she has tried to quickly instill her basketball beliefs in the Mystics -- aggressive defense along with "fight and determination and [a] kind of spirit."
Darsch thrives on the intricacies of the game, the X's and O's learned from years scouting for University of Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt, from 12 years coaching at Ohio State and from her own extensive library of videotapes, a collection of the greatest hits of women's basketball. Darsch's stockpile includes tapes from the 1998 world championships, the '92 and '96 Olympics, and she uses a videotape service to get additional college or WNBA games as needed.
"Some people sit down and do two or three crossword puzzles a day or jigsaw puzzles or video games," Darsch said. "Mine is basketball. I like to watch it and see what people are running. I like to try to understand from the outside what the other team is doing. I kind of want to get their philosophy. I want to try to get their favorite plays."
Darsch's love of puzzle-solving was part of the package that led Mystics General Manager Wes Unseld to hire her. Last season, Unseld fired Jim Lewis after 18 games and assistant coach Cathy Parson led the team on an interim basis for the remaining 12 games.
"This woman [Darsch] is a basketball-holic," Unseld said. "She lives and breathes this stuff. And I wanted to make sure to get someone who knew the particulars."
The fact that Darsch had been fired by the Liberty and fired by Ohio State less than two years before was of little concern to Unseld when he chose her over five other candidates, including three college coaches and two coaches from the defunct American Basketball League.
"The reason that she was fired had nothing to do with her not being a good coach," Unseld said.
Darsch said she is proud of her 36-24 overall record in two seasons with the Liberty, which advanced to the WNBA championship game in 1997 but finished 18-12 and out of the playoffs last season. Five of the league's 10 teams last season, including the Mystics, have changed coaches since the league started in 1997, and Darsch said she wasn't totally surprised when she was fired. The mentality in pro sports, she said, seems to be, "If something is not working, you fire the coach."
"I had a gut feeling that there wasn't going to be anything I could do that would be good enough [last season]," she said. "It just wasn't working. It just wasn't a fit."
Sources close to the Liberty said Darsch differed with General Manager Carol Blazejowski on how the team should be run. Blazejowski, who at the time of Darsch's firing said she was disappointed in the team's failure to make the playoffs, declined to be interviewed for this article.
"We came back for Year 2 with pretty much the same team, while other teams made significant additions to their rosters," Darsch said. "I was concerned about that."
Even though the Liberty missed the playoffs, Detroit Shock Coach Nancy Lieberman-Cline said Darsch "did a tremendous job" with the team.
"New York is a unique situation," Liberty forward Rebecca Lobo said. "You've got to win in New York."
Darsch, 48, comes from a winning background. She got her start as a college head coach at Ohio State in 1985 after working as Summitt's assistant for seven years.
Darsch also served as an assistant to Summitt on the 1984 U.S. Olympic women's basketball team that won a gold medal and assisted Tara VanDerveer on the 1996 U.S. Olympic gold medal team.
"One thing I learned quickly about Nancy is her vision in the game," Summitt said. "I haven't had anyone who had better vision. She is a great scouter. She literally can sit and watch a team run an offensive set and draw it up. It's like, `Here's what they just did.' . . . I took her with me to scout in '84 when we won the gold. That was key. . . . I knew she could go scout the opponent and give me a good game plan."
During the 1985-86 season, her first at Ohio State, Darsch led her team to a 23-7 record and a Big Ten title, the first of four there. Her 1992-93 team -- led by freshman star Katie Smith -- was the first Big Ten team to play in the NCAA championship game; the Buckeyes lost to Sheryl Swoopes and Texas Tech, 84-82.
"Big Ten basketball was kind of looked down upon by two or three of the other leagues who thought they played better than we did," said former Ohio State athletic director Jim Jones. "Nancy proved them wrong."
But Ohio State was not able to sustain its success. After reaching the NCAA title game, the Buckeyes played in the postseason only once in the next four seasons.
And in January 1994, a former player, Monica Taylor, filed a lawsuit against Darsch. Taylor played for the Buckeyes for two seasons, but Darsch kicked her off the team in her junior year. In her lawsuit, Taylor accused Darsch of removing her without just cause. The suit eventually was settled out of court, and lawyers for both sides declined to discuss the terms, citing a confidentiality agreement.
Taylor's lawsuit was not a factor in Darsch's departure, said Ohio State Athletic Director Andy Geiger, who fired Darsch after the 1996-97 season. He said he fired Darsch because he felt the program needed "to move in a different direction."
"I think we felt that the Final Four appearance ... would be a tremendous impetus for the program to grow and prosper and it didn't," Geiger said.
Although she initially was bitter about the firing, Darsch said she now realizes that leaving Ohio State "was a good thing for me. I had a lot of burdens on me at Ohio State." In college, she had to be concerned about issues such as recruiting, NCAA rules and alumni.
But in the WNBA, she said, she gets to "focus on the X's and O's part of the game."
With the Mystics, she will get a chance to mold former University of Tennessee star Chamique Holdsclaw, the 6-foot-2 forward who has been hailed as the next superstar of the women's game. It's something Darsch calls "a large responsibility."
That the Mystics got Holdsclaw, taken with the first pick of the WNBA draft, was simply an enhancement to what Darsch viewed as a team that could only get better.
"I felt like there were enough things that I might be able to do and players we could find or we could add that could make a difference," she said. "I just felt I could come in and do something."
CAPTION: The Mystics' job is Nancy Darsch's third head coaching job.