LOS ANGELES >> When Lindsay Gottlieb first got the call from USC, she hadn’t given any consideration to a future beyond the NBA. It’d been less than two years since she joined the Cleveland Cavaliers, blazing a new trail as the first women’s head coach to leave a top Power Five job for an NBA staff. She was one of six female assistants in the league this season and had no intention of leaving such an opportunity behind.
Then, last month, while preparing her scouting report for a game against the Chicago Bulls, Gottlieb noticed USC’s women’s head coaching job had opened. As the university announced the retirement of coach Mark Trakh, Gottlieb, who formerly coached at California, was especially struck by comments made by USC leaders about “providing the necessary resources” to build a top-caliber women’s program again.
“Then,” Gottlieb recalled, “Mike called me.”
At USC, the once-illustrious program that dominated women’s college hoops through the 1980s had wilted considerably since. During the last 15 years, the Trojans made it to the NCAA tournament just once. As USC finished 11-12 in the final season of Trakh’s second stint as coach, it became clear to Mike Bohn, the Trojans’ athletic director, that the program needed to be overhauled.
So Bohn called Gottlieb to gauge her interest. She was transparent. She wasn’t looking to leave Cleveland, but sure, she’d hear him out.
By Tuesday, three weeks later, Bohn sat next to Gottlieb in front of a gold-and-cardinal Zoom background, introducing her as USC’s women’s basketball coach and extolling a return to the prominence that once defined the program.
Gottlieb called the opportunity “transcendent.” That’s ultimately what it took for USC to lure her away from the NBA.
“We’ve all been waiting for the commitment from this president of this university and this AD to say these young women matter and the success of this program,” Gottlieb said. “So I’m excited to be the leader chosen to take on this challenge.”
She told Bohn before she was hired that she, like so many others, saw USC as “a sleeping giant.” Its hoops legacy ran deep, back to the days of Cynthia Cooper, Cheryl Miller and back-to-back NCAA titles in 1983-84. Its location in a recruiting hotbed certainly didn’t hurt either.
But as the Pac-12 rose in prominence in recent years, USC struggled to find its footing. Resources were allocated elsewhere. As Gottlieb coached Cal to seven NCAA tournaments in eight seasons, including a Final Four run in 2014, she watched USC cycle through three coaches, the last of them Trakh, who had left the program once before for personal reasons in 2009. During his second stint, Trakh was one of the lowest-paid coaches in the conference.
So Gottlieb pressed Bohn on whether USC was ready to make a real commitment to women’s hoops. As they continued their conversations, it became clear to her that Bohn was offering an opportunity to build a program in whatever image she envisioned.
“There’s kind of this runway in front of me, this blank canvas to say, ‘You tell us what a winning basketball program needs,’ ” Gottlieb said. “I get the chance to say, ‘What positions do we need? How do we make this program unique?’ That was really appealing to me in terms of the commitment.”
She hopes the program she’s building will be “a paradigm for the modern, changing NCAA, where women have equal access to benefits.”
Simply managing to hire Gottlieb, who is viewed as one of the top young female coaches in basketball, was a statement that USC intends to follow through on that promise. ESPN reported Gottlieb agreed to a six-year contract, suggesting she will have the latitude to rebuild the program as she sees fit.
“Finding the right leader for our women’s basketball team was absolutely critical as we strive to be the most student-athlete-centered athletics program in the country,” Bohn said Tuesday. “Lindsay has a proven track record of success and brings instant credibility, locally and nationally, to our program.”
Gottlieb takes over a program that isn’t bereft of talent. USC returns a young core led by All-Pac-12 sophomores Endyia Rogers and Alissa Pili, while adding a 2021 recruiting class ranked No. 7 in the nation. But the Pac-12 slate is expected to be as unforgiving as ever.
“It’s not about a lack of talent in the room,” Gottlieb said. “It’s about figuring out what impacts winning and the ways that we get to do that.”
A top coach certainly seems like a good place to start.
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