There is an unseen force from which Utah women’s basketball coach Lynne Roberts is running.
If it were made visible, it would come not so much in the form of losses, as much as in the form of darkness.
It must be avoided, must be conquered.
From a young age, even in an otherwise charmed life, from the meaningful to the whimsical to the nonsensical, from walking up steps to playing Parcheesi or pingpong to pursuing professional career advancement, she’s felt its presence looming nearby. The charm itself has dared to invite it in, giving no excuses for its arrival. It’s always a threat. Always a monster. Always a few steps behind.
“I’m driven away from failure,” she says. “Just the idea of it worries me.”
Mediocrity to her competitive soul is a bitter drink. Failure is poison.
At one troubled point in her career, that prospect swirled around her — on the court and off it. Building a competitive team is one thing, but when Katie Couric from “60 Minutes” interviews one of your former players, reporting on the handling — or mishandling — of a sexual assault that occurred in student housing near your campus, at a party at which a number of your players were in attendance, worry doesn’t quite characterize the emotions of the moment.
Constructing a winning program, a safe environment, out of those ashes is, indeed, a steep challenge. It took the better part of three years to accomplish that.
The volumes crowding a bookshelf on the wall in her posh corner office at the Huntsman Basketball Facility adjacent to the arena in which her current team plays is her protective shield, a kind of home base, at least for the on-the-court competitive part, but for some of the other stuff, too.
In those books are notes from every season she’s been a college head coach, 17 years now. In them are typed and scribbled observations detailing every practice she’s ever crafted, every game she’s mentored, every speech she’s uttered, every bit of wisdom, both practical and theoretical, that she’s gained.
Her binder for 2018-19 is not yet on that shelf, instead it prominently sits, still active, atop her desk, the one crowded with other papers of a thousand sorts, bits and pieces meant to help her team win.
Sometimes, they do. Sometimes, they don’t.
And when they don’t, good lord in heaven, Lynne Roberts suffers.
“Sometimes, I just sit and stare at the ceiling,” she says.
The Ute women started this season in a blur, sans suffering, beating every opponent they faced. Then, they finally lost one. And then, they lost five straight. With five regular-season games yet to play, Utah sits at 18-6, still able to finish with its best showing since the school was invited into the ultra-competitive Pac-12. The Utes have hope to be included in the NCAA Tournament field, something none of Roberts’ 12 previous Division I teams — at Pacific and Utah has achieved.
That’s a different force Roberts is not running from, rather she’s running toward: “I want to do things that have never been done before.”
It’s what motivates her.
Failure to the left, success to the right.
She’s forever stuck between them, vanquishing as she goes.
Roberts spent her initial years in Watsonville, Calif., perhaps best-known as the home of Martinelli’s, the sparkling apple beverage used by teetotalers who want to raise a non-alcoholic toast on special occasions to honor the force to the right. Later, her family moved to Redding, Calif.
Her early life was idyllic, Rockwellian.
Her father was a strawberry farmer/nursery manager, her mother an educator. She grew up as the caboose in a loving family that was made complete by two boys and one girl. Her brothers played some sports, but even more significant in their lives were academic pursuits, and the prodigious brains that propelled them. Both benefited from an environment of nourishment, barreling onward to great prosperity. Her brother, Chris, climbed to a pinnacle in a bio-tech company as a chemist. He helped develop a primary vaccine used to beat Hep C. Stephen, another brother, is a leading national researcher at a hospital in Manhattan, seeking to defeat a form of pediatric leukemia.
Years head coach: 17
1997-2001: assistant coach at Seattle Pacific
2002-2006: head coach Chico State
2006-2015: head coach Pacific
2015-2019: head coach Utah
Overall head coaching record: 291-226
Record at Utah: 70-51
There wasn’t much room for any kind of lightweights among her siblings. Professional success was a given. Not only had they run from losing, they had pretty much throttled it en route.
“None of us had an excuse not to succeed,” Roberts says.
Her route to the right didn’t wind through the library, though, it came on the hardwood.
She was good for what she was — a scoring guard in high school and, later, at Seattle Pacific University, always chased by defeat, usually finding victory. When she hung up her sneakers and shorts, she wanted to conquer the world, but got lost in the fog of indecision, thinking she might want to be a teacher, like her mom. That idea ran aground on the fact that she didn’t really like school, although she saw the value in it and was a decent student. She felt much more at ease in a gym.
While working as an assistant hoops coach at her alma mater, she earned an advanced degree in athletics administration and decided to joust her windmills with a sweatshirt on her back and a whistle around her neck.
Coaching was her calling.
“I got hooked,” she says.
At the age of 25, she was hired as the head women’s coach at Chico State. There she built a Division II power, eventually guiding teams annually to the D2 national tournament, including in her last year there, a national semifinal spot.
Thereafter, she spent nine years at Pacific, lifting a dragging program. Early in her time in Stockton, Roberts occupied herself not just with creating potent offensive schemes and effective defenses, she guided a program through the hardship and heartache of one of her players being raped by three members of the men’s basketball team. Although criminal charges were not filed, UOP’s judicial review board found that all three of the male players were guilty of violating the school’s policy against sexual assault. One of the perpetrators was expelled from Pacific, another was suspended for a year and the other for a semester.
CBS’ “60 Minutes” subsequently aired, “The Case of Beckett Brennan,” a report that told of the rape that occurred at a party in student housing at the school in 2008, and what happened afterward.
Even now, Roberts does not want to be quoted about the troubling case, but, beyond the tragic personal effects of the assault, it was left to her to push forward, find recruits willing to come to the program in the wake of such a horrendous event. Slowly, her teams started winning, in the later years qualifying for the WNIT out of the Big West and then the WCC. That’s when bigger programs began showing interest in hiring her.
Utah landed Roberts four seasons ago, offering her a shot at coaching a Pac-12 school and continuing her climb. At her introductory press conference, the coach said she intended nothing less than to win championships in a tough league, a goal she hasn’t yet met. But she’s OK with that, at this juncture, knowing all along the ascent would require patience and time to achieve.
“We’re on schedule,” she says. “We’re headed in the right direction.”
Roberts’ teams at Utah won 18 games her first year, 16 the next and 18 last season. This time around, the Utes could get to 20-plus victories. Her hope is to finish in the top half of the Pac-12, a perch from which she believes the Utes will make the NCAA Tournament, a major achievement for a program that has been absent since 2011.
“I believe we can get that done,” she says. “We’re good enough. We were good enough last year.”
Although Utah has since fallen out of the Top 25, it had risen as high as 14th nationally before the recent losing skid commenced. That kind of adversity, though, was expected at some point along the way by Roberts, emphasizing now to her team that it can be overcome.
It must be overcome, otherwise the darkness wins. Failure wins.
And the thought of that is hateful, unacceptable to the 43-year-old Roberts.
“She wants all of us to be successful,” says senior guard Erika Bean. “She wants the best out of her players. I’ve been pushed toward fulfilling my best potential, but she’s very loving off the court, in tune with our lives.”
When stupid shots are taken, turnovers bumbled, defensive assignments blown, loving is not the best word to describe Roberts.
Mistakes made, here and there, defeats absorbed, she can painfully abide, but repeated blunders, a lost season, a season of self-betrayal she cannot.
After losses, Roberts doesn’t sleep. Sometimes, she gets an hour or two in, sometimes, she won’t get a single wink. She has to study what went wrong, tossing it in the air, like food prepared at Benihana’s, letting it hit the grill, then examining it, again. She writes all of it in her book, chronicling what went wrong, turning it inside out, so it will be avoided in the future.
One of the jets powering Roberts’ teams forward is obvious — recruiting. She stresses it, stresses over it. “Coaches don’t win games and championships, players do,” she says. But somebody has to lure them in, organize them and guide them up the path.
Utah has gotten better athletes each of Roberts’ years here. Two of the freshmen — Dru Gylten and Dre’Una Edwards — on this year’s team have scored 20 or more points in a game, the Utes being the only Pac-12 team gaining that distinction. Edwards has scored in double digits 17 times thus far.
Building on those young players, among others, next season Utah will welcome in committed recruit Kemery Martin of Corner Canyon High School, a five-star prospect who was recruited by some of the country’s best programs. Another signed recruit, Brynna Maxwell, from Washington scored 48 points in a recent prep game.
“The future at Utah is bright,” Roberts says. “I believe with hard work we can continue to improve, we can make our way to the upper levels of the conference.”
There’s that somewhere out there, too.
For Roberts, who last year signed a contract extension that will take her into 2023, that isn’t an optional thing. It isn’t a gee-wouldn’t-it-be-great-kind-of thing. It is a matter of fact. It must be achieved. Failure must be defeated, left four freeway exits back.
Pity Lynne Roberts if it ever catches and keeps her. Real success, she believes, is just around the bend, always concurrently just outside and then, with diligence, inside of her reach.
“Losing sucks,” she says. “Winning is fun, it’s what we aim to do. It’s what we can do. It’s what we have to do.”
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.