New contract shouldn’t be in coach’s future (Ariel Alexovich column)

INDIANAPOLIS — As Minnesota benchwarmer Hannah Garry sunk a buzzer-beating layup to clinch a 21-point victory over Northwestern, Wildcats’ coach June Olkowski didn’t flinch.

Without changing her tight-lipped facial expression, she walked over to congratulate the Golden Gophers with her head down.

That’s about right.

Thursday night’s first-round loss knocked the Cats out of the Big Ten Tournament and capped their 8-20 (1-16 Big Ten) record and last-place conference finish.

Clearly, there’s no doubt NU had a dismal season — make that a dismal half-decade — but who’s to blame? The lack of talent on the roster? Or Olkowski, the woman making the calls?

Olkowski’s contract expired with the buzzer Thursday night, and if the coach is looking for a renewal, she shouldn’t find one.

When asked about her future at NU, Olkowski made it clear she would like to continue coaching the Cats, but was hesitant about her chances of a contract renewal.

“That’s not up to me right now,” a somber, yet dignified Olkowski said. “I love it here, and we’ll see what happens.”

As far as personality goes, Coach O. has never been anything but friendly, kind and polite toward this gal on the women’s hoops beat. Her players also commend Olkowski’s optimistic attitude, even in the darkest part of the season.

“I never once questioned her desire to win or her commitment to this team,” senior Michelle Zylstra said. “Our relationship is not perfect — not even close — but I have the greatest respect for her work ethic and knowledge for the game.”

And if tenure were based on sophistication and a couture wardrobe, Olkowski would be worth more than any coach around.

But it’s not. A good coach is one who wins, and under Olkowski’s leadership, the Cats have won only seven Big Ten games in five years. The best conference standing the team has earned in her time at NU is a tie for 10th place.

What’s most puzzling about Olkowski’s failures in leading the Cats is her amazing success as a collegiate player. During her playing years at Rutgers, Olkowski helped the Scarlet Knights win the 1982 AIAW national championship.

But Zylstra, the only member of the Cats who has spent four years under Olkowski, said outstanding athletes don’t always make the best coaches.

“There’ an old saying, ‘The best coaches were the worst athletes,'” Zylstra said. “When you’re a top athlete, you expect so much from yourself, and if you had high-profile success in the past, it can be hard later when you’re a coach to back up and see the big picture — that not everyone is like you.”

Perhaps NU just isn’t the right fit for Coach O. After leading Butler to a first-place finish in the Horizon League, she hit a dead end when she came to NU.

In her defense, Olkowski inherited a bad team when she came to Evanston in 1999 — a ninth-place Big Ten squad with a 12-16 (5-11) record. But in five campaigns, she hasn’t even met those numbers.

As much as it breaks my heart to say it, in her time at NU, Coach O. hasn’t proved she belongs at the helm of a program in a major conference.