Women’s Basketball: Operation overhaul

Nina Mandell

Beth Combs hardly inherited a dream program when she accepted her first head coaching job at Colgate. The team hadn’t had a winning record for 14 consecutive seasons, and Combs had to rid the program of its losing tradition.

Three years later, she helped guide the team to its first ever NCAA tournament berth.

But now, with Colgate behind her, Combs is starting from scratch at Northwestern.

The Wildcats are coming off six straight losing campaigns, and Combs sees her second head coaching gig as a chance to return NU to national prominence. The Cats went to three NCAA tournaments in four years in the ’90s.

“My goal is to bring this program to a level of respect not only in the Big Ten, but nationally,” she said. “There was a time when Northwestern basketball was one of the premiere programs in this country. Our goal as a coaching staff is to get Northwestern to that highest level that we can achieve.”

Senior Samantha McComb, who was a co-captain under former NU coach June Olkowski, said Combs’ style bodes well for the struggling team.

“She’s very demanding of us,” McComb said. “She set a great example for us as far as discipline. She set the bar very high for us. She knows what she wants and gets it out of us.

“I think both coaches brought a very different type of intensity to the team. Combs does a great job of controlling her emotions and making us want to work for her in a different way besides screaming and yelling. She set a tone for us and makes us want to play for her.”

Combs said she has learned a basketball program must have four core elements: desire, accountability, respect for the game, and trust in your teammates and ability.

Or, as Combs puts it, she’s looking for “HART.”

At Colgate, Combs took over a team that resembled the current NU squad. During her first season, the team finished at .500 in the Patriot League and 14-17 overall — the most wins for the program since 1990. She won coach-of-the-year honors in the league.

In her third and final season at Colgate, Combs’ squad captured its first Patriot League Championship and first NCAA bid.

The team lost by 20 in the first round to Tennessee, but Combs said the tourney appearance proved her team had improved.

“The Patriot League at that time was a non-scholarship league,” she said. “You were getting Ivy League-caliber players that really had the skills academically first and also the basketball skills.”

Combs said one of the main reasons she accepted the job at NU was to work with some of the top student-athletes in the country. She said finding players who meet NU’s academic standards won’t be a challenge.

“There are women out there who are the best basketball players in the country who also do have a brain,” she said. “I think women want to have the best of both worlds.”

Combs said the culture of women’s basketball in the United States makes it necessary to recruit well-rounded players.

“(Stanford coach) Tara VanDerveer has been able to put people on the court year after year that are the top basketball players in this country and are also earning a Stanford degree,” she said. “I see no problem with the recruitment of student-athletes that have to pay attention to both the academic and the athletic side.

“I really enjoy coaching that type of student-athlete.”

Combs earned her college degree in psychology from Illinois, where she was a four-year varsity letter winner. She went on to coach high school volleyball and basketball before becoming an assistant at Eastern Illinois.

She joined Colgate as an assistant in 1998 and was named interim head coach in 2001.

Combs grew up in Decatur, Ill., but said NU is where she belongs now.

“I grew up an Illini, I’m sorry to say,” she said. “But I’m bleeding purple these days.”

Reach Nina Mandell at [email protected]

NU vs. Creighton

When: 7 p.m. Today

Where: Omaha, Neb.