A Bentley loss in women’s basketball is about as rare as a sunny winter’s day in Moscow. But midway through the first half last Wednesday night, it looked like Bentley University’s women’s basketball team might not get their coach her 1,000th career victory that night. Lots of alumni, fans, and media had traveled to the gym on the Waltham, Mass. campus for this Division II game, hoping to see Barbara Stevens join the exclusive 1000-win club. Only four other women’s basketball coaches had won as many games: Pat Summitt, Geno Auriemma, Sylvia Hatchell, and Tara VanDerveer.
With a record of 16-1, there was no doubt that Bentley would get Stevens number 1,000 sometime soon, but at this point, the Falcons were down 22-13 to Adelphi University, a team that had beaten Bentley four straight times over the past couple of years. Stevens called timeout to calm her team, and the Falcons proceeded to outscore Adelphi 27-9, closing out the first half with a 14-0 run. Adelphi made two more valiant efforts to get back into the game in the second half. Bentley responded with decisive runs both times. The rest, including a confetti shower when the final horn sounded, is history.
Nina Houghton of Portland, Maine is a Bentley alumni who played for Stevens from 1987 to 1989. She didn’t make it to Bentley for the big game (it snowed a lot that day, and besides, she didn’t want to jinx the team). Houghton live-streamed the game and emailed her congratulations to Coach Stevens at its conclusion. Houghton says she wasn’t surprised by the team’s response to Stevens’ timely timeout.
“She never panics,” said Houghton, who starred for Cape Elizabeth High School back in the early 80s. “It’s a testament to her understanding of the game and her players … good coaches know just what to say.”
Another former player from Maine, Bri Fecteau, also live-streamed the game from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and echoed Houghton’s reaction. “I pictured her in the huddle telling the girls in that calming voice, ‘Okay, the jitters should be out…so let’s go do it.’ “
Stevens began her coaching career at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. at the age of 23. At Clark, she notched the first 123 wins of her career. She came to Bentley in 1986 by way of UMass-Amherst, where her teams were 34-49. It was there, she has said, that she realized she didn’t need to be coaching Division I, or advancing on the women’s basketball career ladder, to be happy. “For me personally, it’s not about… the ego,” she told the Associated Press a day before the game with Adelphi. “It was about my happiness, feeling that I could make a difference.”
Houghton and Fecteau agree that this “team-first, ego-last” philosophy has been the key to Stevens’ success. She consciously recruits players who fit into that mold, something that is harder and harder to do in this age of AAU super teams and parent-coddled “stars.”
“We’ve all been on teams where personalities don’t mesh,” says Houghton. “When you’re spending 10 months out of the year with (teammates), personalities are not insignificant… she’d never recruit someone with a big ego.”
Fecteau got to see Stevens’ philosophy in action during her visit to Bentley as a high school player. Fecteau had hopes of landing a spot on a Division I team after her successful Westbrook High School career. Her decision came down to two Division I schools (Providence and UMaine) and Bentley. The first time she saw a Stevens-led practice, she made up her mind that Bentley was the place for her.
“The way the team paid attention when she spoke … just the way she teaches and breaks everything down … I was sold,” says Fecteau, who was a member of the teams that won Stevens’ 500th and 600th career games. “You’ll never come across a Bentley grad who’d say ‘I wish I’d played Division I.’ “
Of course, success helps to keep her players happy. But it’s pretty clear they also buy in because Stevens never forgets she’s not just coaching basketball — she’s coaching people.
Houghton had been recruited by Stevens’ predecessor Kathy Sanborn, who moved on after her freshman year to coach at her alma mater, UNH. Right away, Houghton says she knew that she and the team were lucky to have Stevens. Houghton recalls how Stevens called her in her dorm room one day when she was laid up with bronchitis. Houghton had been the Northeast-8 Conference Rookie of the Year her freshman year and had started all 32 games for Bentley, but things weren’t going as well for the sophomore center.
“She told me it was going to be OK … she could tell I needed it. That meant the world to me,” says Houghton, who wound up her career as Bentley’s all-time leader in blocks and third in defensive rebounds.
Three other conversations with Stevens have stuck with Houghton over the years. The first was when Stevens took her aside and told her to leave some of her “niceness” on the sidelines during games. The second was when she lost playing time to a younger player during her senior year. The third was when Coach Stevens reached out to Houghton after her husband passed away seven years ago.
“She’s still ‘Coach’ to this day,” says Houghton. “She’s a mentor. She’s an icon…we all adored her.”
Stevens has also been a mentor to Fecteau, who wound up third in career assists at Bentley and went on to become an assistant coach at Harvard for several years. Fecteau predicts that Stevens, in her 41st year of coaching, is far from finished roaming the Bentley sidelines.
“She gets attached to the kids and gets invested in their lives,” says Fecteau. “It’s like a second family.”
Plus, after Stevens’ Bentley team went 35-0 and captured the program’s first-ever NCAA Division II championship four years ago (with a come-from-behind 73-65 win over West Texas A&M), Fecteau wouldn’t be surprised if Coach Stevens keeps going until she’s helped her players win another crown.
“She doesn’t allow many people to outwork her,” Fecteau says. “She’s a 10 when it comes to competitiveness.”