‘Play like your hair is on fire’: Behind the scenes with Lynne Roberts and the No. 8 Utah Utes

A day with Utah head coach Lynne Roberts helps showcase the program’s turnaround.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lynne Roberts, University of Utah women's basketball coach, in her Salt Lake City office on Wednesday, March 15, 2023.

There is a silence in Lynne Roberts’ office as her Wednesday morning begins to unfold, but the calm is soon broken.

Utes assistant coach Jerise Freeman has entered and she is yelling good morning to the entire floor, certainly loud enough for everyone to hear.

“She does that ... every day,” says Roberts with a smile.

None of this was unusual. Roberts knew what was coming. She knew the early morning would be quiet, and she knew Freeman would burst through the door like a firecracker. These Utes have enjoyed unprecedented success this winter, largely because of consistency and routine. Here’s what a day with Roberts looks like as some of the biggest moments in the history of Utah women’s basketball approach.

The morning routine

It’s 8:10 a.m. on Wednesday morning, and Lynne Roberts has been in her office at the Huntsman Basketball Facility already for 20 minutes.

The University of Utah women’s basketball head coach is generally in the building that early. She jokingly laments that her associate head coach, Gavin Peterson, sometimes beats her there, but no matter. The 8 o’clock hour, in her office with the building mostly silent, belongs to her. That first hour is for checking emails and catching up on whatever needs catching up on, but on this particular Wednesday, the second-seeded Utes are two days away from playing No. 15 seed Gardner-Webb in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at the Huntsman Center, so things are a little more cranked up than usual.

First-year assistant Jordan Sullivan is in Roberts’ office, the two going over the Gardner-Webb scout ahead of a 9 a.m. film session downstairs. As they talk, the Pac-12 championship trophy, complete with the net that was cut down after Utah beat Stanford on Feb. 25, sits on the front-left corner of Roberts’ desk, a glaring reminder of what’s been accomplished, but also that there are more steps to be taken.

Coaches often speak in opposing numbers, not opposing names. For example, part of the focus of this pow-wow centered on Gardner-Webb’s No. 12, No. 1, and discussing which Ute is going to guard No. 2.

This may be an NCAA Tournament weekend, but things are normal around the office. Utah is set to conduct its 87th practice of the season, so a practice schedule is printed off, complete with what’s going on, from film/scout at 9 a.m., all the way through each individual drill, and how long each will take, on the women’s practice court through about 11:30.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lynne Roberts, University of Utah women's basketball coach, at the end of practice in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 15, 2023.

Two things of note on that practice plan. Each one always includes a thought of the day. Wednesday’s thought of the day?

“1-0: play like your hair is on fire.”

Additionally, normalcy means recruiting never stops, so down at the bottom of the back side of the practice plan, it says a class of 2024 recruit is visiting. Roberts is later asked how high of a priority this recruit is.

A turn of her head and a sly grin, followed by, “Yeah, she’s a priority.”

The 87th practice

It’s now 8:55 a.m., and Roberts, practice plan in hand, is on the move. Out the women’s basketball offices, down a set of stairs, she runs into the recruit and her father, who were just retrieved from outside by Utah’s creative director for marketing and recruiting, Samantha Michel.

They talk for a bit before entering the film room, where the recruit and her father will begin their morning. The practice plan indicates that everything this morning is regimented, and Sullivan does not intend to waste any time. Gardner-Webb is her scout, so she rolls through some film, pointing out a number of factors on both sides of the ball, with Roberts chiming in when necessary.

By 9:30 a.m., Utah is on the practice floor. Before anything tangible begins, a ball rack, stamped with the NCAA March Madness logo, containing new basketballs stamped with the same logo, is rolled in by an athletic department official. That got a reaction from anyone who was on that side of the gym that was paying attention. At a minimum, it was a reminder of what’s about to come Friday, and it’s not just a regular game.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lynne Roberts, University of Utah women's basketball coach, runs practice in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 15, 2023.

Utah packs a lot into almost two hours. Rebounding, ball-handling, different variations of shooting, offensive execution, transition execution going both ways.

Roberts has a reputation as having her finger on the pulse of every nook and cranny of her program, but she wasn’t micromanaging on Wednesday. She was overseeing a high-energy session being conducted by a group of players that don’t need much in the way of motivation right now. Roberts appeared almost stoic at one point about an hour in, watching as Freeman, who starred for Roberts at Pacific in the mid-2000s, helped keep the energy up with her always-positive demeanor.

If anyone needed a reminder, though, as to who was running the show, all it took was a momentary lapse in focus from the players for Roberts to blow the whistle and have everyone run a sprint to the opposite baseline and back. That was noteworthy because, she would later say, it almost never happens. At one juncture soon after, Sullivan made her way to behind the baseline where the recruit and her father were seated to explain just that, those types of things almost never happen.

Roberts has come to prefer morning practices, and she leaves this one happy with the way things went. Work got done, everyone remained healthy ahead of Friday. Late in the session, Roberts checked in with point guard Issy Palmer, who missed the Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinal loss to Washington State due to injury. The fourth-year junior looked smooth running with the starters, which lined up with Roberts indicating recently she expects Palmer to be a go for the NCAA Tournament.

The recruit disappeared briefly, but reappeared in a red Utah No. 3 jersey to take a few photos with current Utes players and the staff. Roberts briefly goofs around with her actual No. 3, freshman guard Lani White, assuring her the recruit is just borrowing the number briefly.

Recruiting is forever the lifeblood of any program, so Roberts’ next few hours, before the team checks into a local hotel as part of its NCAA Tournament itinerary, is focused on this recruit.

The big pitch

Roberts chauffeurs the recruit and her father to the Eccles Football Center, which includes a 250-seat cafeteria specifically for student-athletes.

This is an informal setting, and the conversation is as such. The news of the day is Aaron Rodgers saying an hour ago he wants to play for the New York Jets, so Roberts, Petersen, and the dad get into that. Family, backgrounds, the benefit of the football complex they’re currently eating lunch in, and NCAA Transfer Portal matters having nothing to do with this recruit all come up. One table over, the recruit, Sullivan, Freeman, Pac-12 Player of the Year Alissa Pili, Gianna Kneepkens, and Kelsey Rees spend 45 minutes over lunch and lighthearted conversation, which is sort of the point, to get a feel for one another and for the recruit to decide whether this is a fit. Roberts acknowledges, mostly seriously, that conversations among her players are probably funnier or better when she’s not involved.

The players leave, everyone set to reconvene for the hotel stay later, and the informal session is about to get a little more formal.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lynne Roberts, University of Utah women's basketball coach, at lunch in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 15, 2023.

Back in Roberts’ office, she gets a recruiting presentation set up on the big screen as the recruit and her dad come down the hall. Everyone sits, the door closes.

Another part of Roberts’ reputation is that more times than not, she’ll shoot you straight. Roberts, whether she meant to or not, goes into a long preamble, which she acknowledges after the fact, but the message she delivered was important.

This recruiting decision belongs to the recruit and no one else. If she wants to commit early, that’s fine, as is potentially committing late. If she wants to take all five official visits, as the recruit indicates she does, do it. Drawing the process out is an option, but if she wants to wait, she may miss out on opportunities, because the coaches recruiting her may not be willing to wait that long. However she wants to go about it, it’s up to her.

Roberts asks how she liked practice, to which the recruit rattles off a handful of reasons why she did. Dad weighs in with positives from what the day has been, at one point confirming part of Roberts’ reputation that she seems to have a handle on everything going on inside her program. For a parent, that’s always going to be a plus.

The actual presentation was effective in getting into the strength of the Pac-12, the state of Utah’s program, and how the recruit would fit beginning in 2024-25. Although, one could argue the heavy lifting in the room was done with the preamble. Those moments, plus the chance to ask questions after the presentation, afforded the recruit and her father the opportunity to hear Roberts speak, not so much from a prepared program, but rather off the cuff, which is often a better view into someone’s demeanor and personality. Things are going well for Roberts and her program at the moment, so she wasn’t going to change her approach.

She gave it to them straight.

The recruit and her dad were on a flight home out of SLC on Thursday, Roberts lamenting the fact they wouldn’t be present for the NCAA Tournament on Friday. The good news is that another recruit was due in town on Thursday, and that one was scheduled to be in attendance Friday. Yes, Roberts tagged this one as also being high-priority.

By the time the recruit and her dad left just before 2:30 p.m., the crux of Roberts’ day, at least in her office, was done. A couple of media-related responsibilities were going to be done past 3, at which time focus would shift to the team hotel stay. Check-in was scheduled for 6, a team dinner at 6:30, and preparations to do it all again Thursday, as another seminal moment in a season full of them approaches, a home game in the NCAA Tournament.

Thursday was lined up as another hectic day for Roberts, probably complete with another loud good morning.

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