Sequestered in her Minnesota lake house, on an annual weeks-long summer recharge, Lynne Roberts couldn’t stop chewing on the words of her mentors.
Oregon head coach Kelly Graves, who she had known since high school, had called in the weeks prior. UCLA coach Cori Close chimed in. Even Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer, an icon of women’s basketball, had given her unprompted guidance after a 4-15 Pac-12 season.
And Roberts, the Utes’ basketball coach, knew the truth: when the calls start coming in bunches, your back is usually against the wall in this profession.
“They said the bottom line was I needed to be better,” Roberts remembered. “You’re a better coach than how your team is playing. That was essentially the Reader’s Digest version.
“I had a come-to-Jesus meeting with myself. Like, get it together, figure it out and just dig deep.”
Roberts, at that point, was going on a seventh year of a rebuild at Utah. Essentially all she had to show for it was a brief heartbeat in 2018, when the Utes started 18-1 and shot up to No. 14 in the country. Other than that, there were no NCAA Tournament appearances and no winning records in the Pac-12. Even after that 18-win start, she had managed just 21 wins the next two years and any momentum had vanished.
In the past when she retreated to the lake house, she always thought Utah was trending in the right direction. She told then-athletic director Chris Hill it would take six to seven years to get the job done. She’d done similar reclamation projects at Pacific and Chico State, but this time, for the first time, she was behind schedule.
Maybe she was just going to be the next failed coach at Utah, a program with only one Sweet 16 since the turn of the century.
“We were all a little bit concerned,” former player Danielle Rodriguez said. “We knew their vision. We thought they could do it. But when you start seeing those down years. … We thought if only she could just get more time.”
Two years later, she has a top-10 team in the country. The Utes won the Pac-12 regular-season title for the first time in program history. They head into the NCAA Tournament as a No. 2 seed and have a legitimate chance to make a Final Four.
The herculean rebuild, one that almost ran out of time, is complete.
“There’s so much energy in the program again,” Rodriguez said. “And that’s because she stuck it out.”
Inheriting a mess
On the first day Roberts walked into the Utah offices, she could tell the issues extended beyond Utah never having a winning record in the Pac-12, or that it was a tough place to recruit, or that the facilities were behind.
“This place was flatline,” Roberts said. “It was dead last in the Pac-12 in terms of energy and excitement and attendance.”
Everything about the program reflected that. Players were punching the clock.
“Even things like getting shots up on your own, or just the extra stuff, it wasn’t happening,” Rodriguez said.
Roberts soon found out why. Players were tired of the conditions. They didn’t have a practice facility, and every day they were moving around.
Sometimes practices would be at 4 p.m. in the volleyball gym, and players would pick up their stuff and walk uphill to get there. The next day, practice would be moved to east campus at 1 p.m., kicked out because maybe there was a gymnastics meet. It was clear, women’s basketball was an afterthought.
After practice was over, in the early years, the players also didn’t have food waiting. They were allotted one meal a day, everything else they were on their own.
“It is hard to be competitive in that environment,” former player Tanaeya BoClair said.
So Roberts had to come in with two charges. She had to re-teach a program how to be competitive, while at the same time advocating for more resources.
The first part, she had done before. Her practices had become famous for the “Blood Drill,” essentially a 5-on-5 fast break drill where players are forced to take on multiple defenders. Games were always to eight and whoever won had to finish it with a free throw.
“It taught us like, ‘OK, like let’s get competitive, like let’s be in attack mode,” BoClair said.
Beyond practice, everything in the program was geared toward some competition. They went on a team retreat to Bear Lake one year and Roberts split up players into different countries. Four players were on team “Germany,” four were on team “France.” They did different challenges and kept score the whole time.
“It was anything from trivia to dancing,” BoClair remembered. “The final performance was dancing at the end of the night, the last opportunity to earn points.”
And while players embraced being competitive in everything, Roberts went to bat for the resources.
“If it’s something that you really need, and you can validate that need, there’s a good chance that you’ll get it,” Roberts said. “But not everything, either.”
A practice facility was built early on in Roberts’ tenure. A kitchenette was put into the lounge area, and food became available. Hot and cold tubs were installed to ease recovery. Without having to change gyms, practices were always at the same time.
“I’m a firm believer that college athletics is almost like an arms race of who has the best things,” Erika Bean, a former player, said. “I think in order to compete with some of the best and get some of the top talent, you also have to be able to provide those same types of resources. And so I think that has certainly helped in the success in the building of Utah.”
A changing perception
Utah saw a marginal bump from Roberts’ initial adjustments. Utah finished above .500 in the first four years Roberts was there. In 2018, the program entered the top 25 for the first time since 2007.
But at a rebuild like Utah, it wasn’t enough. In order to maintain momentum, Utah needed more than just facilities and culture. It needed better recruits and a better fanbase.
Without those things, Roberts saw 2019 go in the opposite direction, where she went 14-17 and 6-12 in the conference. The COVID year was worse.
“You need a fanbase to really be something, and we just didn’t have it,” Roberts said.
Which brought her to the lake house that summer, wondering if maybe this was just too much.
Utah, even in its best years in the Mountain West during the 2000s, struggled to get a crowd. And in terms of recruiting, it is tough to get top recruits excited about a place with no external excitement.
“The fanbase was pretty small,” former player Emily Potter said, speaking to the historical problem. “We have always had some diehard fans, but getting people out on Fridays, and especially on a Sunday afternoon in Utah ... it was pretty dead.”
Roberts had a last-ditch hope, though, as she left the lake house. She just landed a commitment from freshman Gianna Kneepkins, a Gatorade Player of the Year in Minnesota who was highly recruited. If she was good, she had the potential to change the perception of Utah to other top recruits.
Beyond that, Roberts went on a blitz to get the fanbase re-engaged. She went from everything from booster events to Utah Chamber of Commerce meetings to giving a pep talk to the Salt Lake City Women’s Business Center.
She has created a tradition after home games where players signed autographs for 10 minutes on the floor for everyone who attended.
“I’ve never turned down a speaking engagement,” Robert said. “I’ve never turned down a media request. Like it’s constant. I think the word is just advocating for my players and our program, whether that’s in the department, with the university, and the community. We need to be accessible.”
Her approach is working. The fanbase slowly started to come back and Kneepkens was the Pac-12 freshman of the Year last year. Utah made the NCAA Tournament in 2022 for the first time in a decade.
It snowballed into this season, where suddenly Utah landed transfers like this year’s Pac-12 Player of the Year Alissa Pili from USC and reeled in recruits from the East Coast.
“In those early years, Utah didn’t land a single player from east of Utah,” Rodriguez remembered. “Now you have players from talent-rich areas like Minnesota, and really only have one player from Utah starting. ... One player can change things.”
With the influx of talent, Utah beat Stanford to win a share of the Pac-12 title in front of 9,600 people this season.
“That first year I think we only had 40 season-ticket holders who would come to every game,” Rodriguez said. “We would joke about how many people we thought would come. I think there were more people at the Stanford game than every game combined in the four years I was there.”
Soaking it in
On Sunday, Utah became a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament and will host the first two rounds — beginning with Gardner-Webb on Friday — for the first time in the program’s history.
As the brackets were announced, a room packed with fans cheered. In the front of the room sat a roster loaded with talent, including two Minnesota stars, a Texas transfer, a Player of the Year who picked SLC over USC.
This scene represented so much of what was missing at Utah for so long: an engaged fanbase and a roster befitting of a top team. Roberts had to soak it all it.
“I was a year behind schedule,” Roberts laughed. “But we did it.”