At the start of the search process for a new women’s basketball coach, George Washington Athletic Director Patrick Nero didn’t necessarily make it a priority to hire someone with name recognition. He instead placed head coaching experience, preferably extensive, at the top of his list of qualifications.
The Colonials wound up getting both in Jennifer Rizzotti, who was introduced Friday as the program’s 10th coach and first female coach since 1988-89. Rizzotti, 41, had held the same position at the University of Hartford for the past 17 seasons after a decorated college playing career at Connecticut that included the school’s first national championship in 1995.
That season, Rizzotti was the starting point guard who helped direct the Huskies to a 35-0 record. The following season, she was named national player of the year prior to an eight-year professional career during which she won two WNBA championships with the Houston Comets.
“It was going to take a special place to take us away from Hartford, and George Washington is it,” Rizzotti said during a news conference at the Smith Center’s Champions Club that included her husband Bill Sullivan, who serves as an assistant on her staff, as well as their two sons. “I’m very aware of the outstanding basketball tradition here.”
Rizzotti replaces Jonathan Tsipis, who left to take the head coaching job at Wisconsin. Tsipis rebuilt the program into an Atlantic 10 power, leading the Colonials to consecutive regular season and conference tournament titles. The program had its most prosperous era under former coach Joe McKeown, who guided George Washington to 16 NCAA tournament berths in 19 years.
Hartford made six NCAA tournament appearances under Rizzotti, five of which were automatic berths for winning the America East tournament. Rizzotti was selected America East coach of the year three times, most recently in 2010, and has 305 wins, the most in conference history.
The Hawks won two NCAA tournament games under Rizzotti, beating Temple in 2006 and Syracuse in 2008.
“It’s appropriate that we’re in the Champions Club,” Nero beamed, “because Jennifer Rizzotti is a champion.”
Inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame three years ago, Rizzotti finished her career at Connecticut with 1,540 points, 637 assists and 349 steals. She became the youngest Division I women’s basketball coach in the country at the time she took over at Hartford in 1999 and has served an assistant to Huskies Coach Geno Auriemma on the U.S. women’s national team.
Rizzotti inherits a Colonials roster with significant turnover. The most notable absence will be graduated 6-foot-6 forward Jonquel Jones, who the Los Angeles Sparks selected No. 6 overall in Thursday’s WNBA draft. Jones soon after was traded to the Connecticut Sun, and Rizzotti joked with the 2014-15 Atlantic 10 player of the year on Friday that the two were switching geographic locales.
Jones, the 2012 All-Met player of the year at Riverdale Baptist High School, attended the news conference in Foggy Bottom, where she received congratulations from Nero and her former teammates for becoming the first player in program history to be selected in the first round of the WNBA draft.
“Just listening to Patrick Nero listing off all these things, it was like, ‘Wow, this woman is going to lead this team, lead this program,’ ” GW junior guard Hannah Schaible said. “I’ve been saying this all day, just so excited. It’s so exciting to see what we’re going to accomplish, how I’m going to get better as an individual, how the team’s going to get better, how this program’s going to get better.”