Starting From Scratch
Last week, Mississippi State assistant coach Sean Covich was hired to restart West Virginia’s idle men’s golf program. On Tuesday morning, Covich will be officially introduced during a news conference at the WVU Coliseum.
After that, the heavy lifting begins.
Starting Division I programs from scratch is never easy, especially when the sport happens to be golf in the Big 12 Conference, but that is what Covich is tasked with doing at West Virginia.
The last time anyone wearing a West Virginia University polo shirt was swinging a golf club in collegiate competition it was 1982, and, obviously, a lot has changed since then.
The No. 1-ranked golfer in the world that year was Tom Watson, who is now playing on the senior tour. The No. 1 song this week in 1982 was the Paul McCartney-Stevie Wonder collaboration “Ebony and Ivory” and one of the best selling cars of that era was the Chevy Chevette.
Do we really need to go any further than that?
Starting successful programs from scratch is nothing new at WVU, though; men’s soccer began in 1961 and five years later in 1966 the Mountaineers were playing in the NCAA tournament.
Rowing started here in 2000 and the following year the WVU Varsity 4 team was invited to race at the Women’s Royal Henley Regatta in England.
The bulk of the women’s sports programs WVU now offers began in the mid-1970s in response to federally mandated Title IX requirements. Women’s basketball and gymnastics have experienced considerable success through the years, along with women’s track and cross country.
But no sport at WVU has enjoyed more success or greater growth since its inception than women’s soccer, and if Sean Covich needs any friendly advice on how to build a program from scratch, all he has to do is walk over to the Natatorium and have a little talk with the Mother Mary of WVU women’s soccer, Nikki Izzo-Brown.
Izzo-Brown was in New Jersey hunting for the next Frances Silva when I finally tracked her down on her cell phone.
“So, Nikki, what do you recall about that first year in 1996 starting up the West Virginia women’s soccer program?” I asked.
“What do I recall?” she began, giggling. “Well, what I remember is Notre Dame was just coming off the national championship in 1995; I didn’t have an office or a pen to my name; we had to train at Laurel Point – which is 20 times worse than what it is today for youth soccer – and I was asked to bring in 30 new players, without hardly any scholarship money, to try and balance out our (gender equity) numbers.
Izzo-Brown, like Covich, was an up-and-coming young coach with lots of ideas and plenty of enthusiasm to boot. She convinced her best friend Jennifer DePrez (now the wife of Army men’s basketball coach Zach Spiker) to be her assistant coach and the two shared an apartment together in Morgantown.
All they did 24-7 (no, not just 24 days a month, seven months a year) was eat, drink and breathe women’s soccer because they were both single at the time. If Izzo-Brown was ever out with friends their conversation may start out in one direction but almost always ended up with how she could make WVU soccer better.
When an office was finally located for her (a renovated restroom on the main floor of the Coliseum that still had the plumbing fixtures sticking out of the floor) she was asked to share it with men’s tennis coach Ed Dickson.
The two became fast friends and would often share each other’s grievances, oftentimes in colorful language. One day, Dickson brought in a big pickle jar and declared that any new curse words they uttered would require a small payment to that pickle jar. In no time Nikki had that thing stuffed full of quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies.
Following an idle year in 1995 getting the program started, Izzo-Brown’s first season in 1996 saw the Mountaineers produce a respectable 10-7-2 record in a very strong Big East Conference, but hidden within that record were 12-0 and 11-0 beatings to Connecticut and Notre Dame respectively.
“I appreciate being Big 12 Coach of the Year this year, but I think, man, I should have got this back in ’95 because that’s when I was doing all the work,” Izzo-Brown joked.
When she took over, West Virginia was making the big jump from the Atlantic 10 to the Big East, which meant nobody from West Virginia University knew much about the Big East administrators that they were dealing with.
“We didn’t know anybody, who to call if we had problems or whatever,” Izzo-Brown said. “We didn’t even have a field to play on and they asked me to play our games on turf at Mountaineer Field. Well, Don Nehlen didn’t want us on their field – and I wouldn’t if I were him, either.”
West Virginia was also not looked upon favorably by the top teams in the Big East. Izzo-Brown remembers once being at a league meeting for coaches and the head coach at Notre Dame began to speak up to the group – with Izzo-Brown sitting right next to him – complaining that he had to go to West Virginia and play an upstart program when he could be scheduling games against top-ranked Santa Clara.
“And I’m sitting right there when he’s saying this!” said Izzo-Brown. “He couldn’t even wait until I was out of the room.”
Later that year, Notre Dame flew into Morgantown on the day of the game, the Irish players eating airplane peanuts and getting taped on the bus ride to the stadium. When they arrived, Izzo-Brown had her girls breathing fire and the undermanned Mountaineers nearly upset Notre Dame in double overtime.
“I’ll tell you what, he never did that again,” said Izzo-Brown.
In the beginning, Izzo-Brown’s teams were known for their tough, physical play and low-scoring affairs.
“That’s the only way we could play with them because we didn’t have the technical players back then to match their skill level,” said Izzo-Brown.
But soon that changed with All-American players such as Chrissie Abbott and Katie Barnes, and in no time Izzo-Brown was beating Notre Dame and Connecticut on a regular basis.
“It’s one thing to read a book and say ‘OK this is how to coach’, but it’s another thing when you don’t even have the chicken salad,” she said. “But you just figure it out.”
Today, 14 consecutive NCAA appearances later, Izzo-Brown is in the midst of one of the best runs of sustained success ever at West Virginia University – and that includes the late 1950s and early 1960s in men’s basketball and the mid-2000s in football.
Since joining the Big 12, West Virginia is 17-2-1 in conference play with two regular season titles, one Big 12 tournament championship, and a pair of top 25 national rankings.
And it’s all a product of Izzo-Brown’s never-ending drive, dedication and enthusiasm. Because of that, today she doesn’t have women’s soccer alumnae but rather women’s soccer disciples.
“That experience of building something and knowing what it’s like to be on the bottom and then clawing your way to the top is humbling, and it makes you appreciate the type of human being you want to be. But also, when you are at the top, what type of person you want to continue to be,” she pointed out.
Izzo-Brown admits she wouldn’t be the coach she is today if she had walked into a situation that was already established for her.
“It’s the best thing I could have ever done professionally was starting a program from scratch,” she said. “When I started I had to teach my players everything. I was the captain, cheerleader, coach, strength coach, travel coordinator, team psychologist … everything.”
Izzo-Brown was also not the most popular person among her WVU coaching brethren at the time and that didn’t really matter to her because she wasn’t interested in winning any popularity contests – she was only interested in winning soccer games.
“I was the one spending the money,” she said.
According to Izzo-Brown, the most appealing aspect of building a program from scratch was having the freedom to determine the course and direction of the program.
“Nobody was telling me what to do because nobody here at the time knew anything about women’s college soccer,” she pointed out. “I was able to build my own culture. Developing a culture takes time.”
No, it won’t be easy starting WVU golf in the Big 12 for Sean Covich, for sure, but the journey can be a very rewarding one for him and his Mountaineer golfers if he can maintain a positive outlook when things aren’t going well.
“The fun part for him is they are always going to be the underdog,” said Izzo-Brown. “You can creep up on people that way. There is not a whole lot of pressure on those kids or on him right away, but he does have to stay positive because there are going to be a lot of obstacles along the way.”
Indeed, the heavy lifting is about to begin.
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