BLACKSBURG, Va. — Dennis Wolff can still laugh about how his life has changed from 2009, when he was fired as men’s basketball coach at Boston University, to today, with his career on a different trajectory as the first-year women’s basketball coach at Virginia Tech.
“My family has joked that I’m like a G-rated Dennis Wolff now, which in the scheme of things is probably a good thing,” said Wolff, 56, who won a program-record 247 games in 15 seasons at BU and led the Terriers to two NCAA tournament appearances.
Virginia Tech point guard Aerial Wilson laughed when the coach’s statement was recounted to her recently. He may not curse much anymore, “but if you’re not giving 100 percent, he’s gonna say something. He’s not gonna hold his tongue.”
The challenges facing Wolff and the Virginia Tech women’s program were far from a laughing matter, however. The Hokies, who made eight NCAA tournament appearances between 1996 and 2006, had suffered through a miserable 2010-11 campaign, one that centered more on the status of former Coach Beth Dunkenberger than the team’s 11-19 overall record and 1-13 mark in ACC play. Dunkenberger resigned after the season, the fourth straight campaign in which the Hokies failed to win more than four ACC games.
Wolff was well aware of the problems. As director of basketball operations for the Virginia Tech men’s basketball team last season, his office was just down the hall from the women’s team at the Hokies’ practice facility.
“This was an unhealthy environment. Players weren’t acting right,” he said. “I think it was difficult for everybody. The coaches were on pins and needles and all of that. So what I tried to do in all this is change all that. Change the attitude. Change the culture. It may not be reflected in our record right now, but I think we’ve taken steps forward.”
He started by dismissing last year’s leading scorer, Good Counsel grad Shanel Harrison, from the team when she violated team rules. “I warned her more than once, and I didn’t have the intention that I was gonna come in here and clean house,” Wolff said.
Wolff also had to adjust to a world he previously knew from only a parents’ perspective. His daughter, Nicole, was the McDonald’s high school player of the year in 2002 and went on to play for Coach Geno Auriemma at Connecticut. So Wolff already knew, for instance, that recruiting in women’s basketball starts earlier than in the men’s game because the top female prospects are more easily identified at an earlier age.
On the court, though, he says there are “subtle differences” between men’s and women’s basketball because the female version isn’t played at the rim. The biggest deviation, however, comes with how he relates to his players. Instead of barging into the locker room after games, he waits for a manager to give him the okay to enter. He also likes to joke about all the hugging in women’s basketball. “I don’t know if Malcolm [Delaney] ever wanted me to hug him,” Wolff said, referring to the former Virginia Tech men’s basketball star.
The change hasn’t been all that daunting for his players, most of whom grew up with male coaches in AAU basketball and simply call Wolff “tougher” than the previous regime. But to compensate for any other deficiencies, Wolff hired two female assistants — Billi Godsey, a former UMBC assistant from Cheverly, and Chantelle Anderson, Vanderbilt’s all-time leading scorer and the No. 2 pick in the 2003 WNBA draft.
It may be too early to determine if the changes have paid off, especially because there are no seniors on this season’s roster. The Hokies already have three ACC victories, including an upset of No. 8 Maryland on Jan. 26. But they’ve also lost nine of their past 10 games since opening conference play with two straight wins and currently have a 7-18 record heading into Wednesday’s game at No. 5 Duke.
The lone bright spot during that span — beating the Terrapins in College Park, the program’s first win over a top eight team since 1998 — gave the players hope that they’ve finally distanced themselves from a season and a coaching staff that didn’t yield any answers a year ago.
“It seems like when we follow the game plan to a ‘T’ and we pretty much execute everything he wants us to execute, we find ourselves in more games and we find ourselves winning more games,” said sophomore Monet Tellier, the team’s leading scorer. “That was definitely a surprise to me, but it’s something you should expect as a player — for them to know what they’re talking about.”
Wolff said he had no regrets about the unusual journey in which he’s now immersed. He always had an appreciation for women’s basketball, even while he was honing his craft in the men’s game for 35 years.
“The way I would describe it is I don’t care. If you’re a competitive person and you’re entrusted with coaching a youth soccer team, you’re probably gonna coach that as well as you can,” Wolff said. “This is my team and we’re all in this together.”