KINGSTON - In an attempt to revive their moribund women’s basketball program, the University of Rhode Island has handed the reins over to a lifelong winner. Tammi Reiss, a three-time All-American at the University of Virginia, was announced as the ninth head coach in program history on Thursday afternoon.
Reiss comes to Kingston from Syracuse, where she was an assistant coach for an Orange program that won 89 games in four seasons. In a fitting bit of foreshadowing, Reiss’ first game on the bench for the Orange came in a 57-54 win over URI at the Ryan Center in 2015.
“I think the University of Rhode Island is a sleeping giant,” Reiss said. “I’ve studied the Atlantic 10 for a long time now. The location here is unbelievable. I could sell this to anybody. I love the conference, unbelievably competitive. I can’t pinpoint why [the program] hasn’t been successful, but in my mind there is no reason it can’t be.”
Following a storied collegiate playing career that included three trips to the Final Four, Reiss played for two seasons in the then-newly formed WNBA. After serving as an assistant at Cal St. Fullerton and San Diego St., she settled in for four extremely successful seasons in upstate New York.
“She’s done it at the highest level and been incredibly successful,” URI athletic director Thorr Bjorn said. “That brings instant credibility. She also brings that personality to the table. She wants to build those relationships with these students.”
Bjorn selected Reiss from a pool of 30-some applicants, his third women’s head coach hire since becoming AD at URI. His first two selections - Cathy Inglese and Daynia La-Force - won a combined 76 games in 10 seasons.
Looking to improve on that track record, Bjorn is attempting to simulate what he has been able to accomplish with the men’s basketball and football programs. Working side-by-side with the head coaches for those teams, Bjorn has been able to upgrade facilities and improve yearly win totals.
“It takes time,” to rebuild a program, he said. “I think of what we did on the men’s basketball side, and what Coach [Jim] Fleming has done [with the football team]. You build it up, and it just keeps rolling.”
Reiss and Bjorn developed a quick-forming relationship in a series of phone conversations over the past few weeks. The personal connection between the two made the hiring process easy for all involved.
“I’ve never talked with an administrator that I’ve connected with so much,” Reiss said. “All the things that are important to me, he could finish my sentences. It was like talking to someone I’ve known all my life. The more I talked to Thorr, the more interested I got in this job.
“Other schools would have had to pry me away from him, to tell you the truth. He believes in me and I believe in him.”
“Forming that relationship is the most important thing to me,” Bjorn said. “It’s those conversations on the phone [finding out] if it’s the right fit. When you’re in a rebuild mode, it’s a lot of work. You want to partner with someone.
“She had that [partner quality] from the first phone call. So genuine. I couldn’t be more thrilled.”
Reiss signed a five-year deal with the school moments before her introductory press conference. Both of her predecessors lasted exactly five seasons before being fired. To avoid a repeat of that fate, Reiss plans to mine familiar territory and branch out to some unchartered waters.
“For me, my stronghold is the Northeast: Boston, New York, Philly and New Jersey,” she said. “I’m also looking internationally, to bring in some high-impact international kids. That could really take a team in the bottom of the Atlantic 10, to the top, very quickly.”
Many of the same facilities that Bjorn strove so hard to improve on with Fleming and others can also impact the women’s team. Former men’s head coach Dan Hurley pushed for a revamped weight room that is used by nearly the entire athletic department, and the Ryan Center renovations have made Kingston a more desirable landing spot for basketball stars.
“This arena is beautiful,” Reiss said. “Great arena, great atmosphere, great weight-room. You have enough here to win. I was really, really surprised how great the facilities were when I came on the tour.”