COLUMBIA — Before Robin Pingeton became head coach of the Illinois State women's basketball team in 2003, she served as an assistant to Bill Fennelly at Iowa State. One piece of advice Fennelly gave her when she took the Illinois State job has stuck with her.
"He said, 'Robin, hire the most loyal people that you can find, and job descriptions will take care of themselves.' And that’s exactly what I did," Pingeton said.
Kansas Jayhawks (14-5, 1-4 in Big 12)
at Missouri Tigers (9-9, 1-3 in Big 12)
WHEN: 7 p.m.
WHERE: Mizzou Arena
RADIO: KTGR/1580 AM, 100.5 FM
Missouri coach Robin Pingeton and her coaching staff are familiar with Kansas. While Pingeton and her staff were coaching at Illinois State last season, their Redbirds faced the Jayhawks in the quarterfinals of the Women's National Invitation Tournament. Illinois State defeated the Jayhawks, 71-51.
One thing that makes a rivalry great is success from both sides. That’s exactly what you get in the women’s basketball version of the Border Showdown. Kansas holds a 41-36 overall lead in the series against Missouri. Each team has won eight games in head-to-head competition since 2003.
Sophomore forward Carolyn Davis leads the Jayhawks with 18 points per game. Davis scored a game-high 20 points as a freshman the last time Missouri and Kansas played each other. Kansas won that game 61-59 at Mizzou Arena on Jan. 30, 2010.
Senior guard RaeShara Brown leads the Tigers with 16.6 points per game. Ever since junior forward Christine Flores broke her finger on Jan. 12, Brown has shouldered even more of the scoring responsibilities. She has averaged 20 points in the Tigers' last three games.
That's one of the reasons why when Pingeton became the Missouri women's basketball coach in April, six members of her staff at Illinois State decided to move more than 250 miles from Bloomington-Normal to Columbia to join her with the Tigers.
Pingeton has a longstanding relationship with the members of her coaching staff. The coaches wear suits and sit on the bench, shouting directions and encouragement to their players. But off the court and outside of the locker room, whether they are on the road or on recruiting trips, Pingeton says they remain a family.
Pingeton says there are times when she and her staff spend more time with each other than anyone else, including family. So relationships are important. It's a formula that seems to work well.
In Pingeton's seven-year tenure at Illinois State, the coaching staff led the Redbirds to three Missouri Valley Conference regular season titles, two conference tournament titles and a 144-76 record.
"We knew exactly what we were getting into, and we all possess the same qualities, values, what’s really important to us as we move this program forward, so to be surrounded by great people makes it a lot easier," Pingeton said.
From pick-up to Division I-A basketball
Randy Norton was coaching boys basketball at Assumption High School in Davenport, Iowa, when he got the phone call. He knew it was only a matter of time before he heard Pingeton's voice on the other end of the line.
A former girls basketball player at Assumption, Erin Maher, who was playing for Harvard at the time, scrimmaged with Norton's boys team in the summers when she came home. She also worked out at St. Ambrose University where Pingeton was working in her first head coaching job. Eventually Maher invited Pingeton to come to one of Norton's pick-up games.
After playing on the court with each other, Norton and Pingeton immediately began a friendship. Pingeton became close to Norton's wife, Claire, and they got to know each other so well that Nick Norton, the youngest son in the Norton family, was the ring bearer in Pingeton's wedding.*
When Pingeton left the Davenport area for Iowa State, she mentioned coaching with Randy Norton some day. Three years later, the opportunity was there.
"She called me, and she had Drake, Illinois State and Wichita State all offer her jobs, and she asked, 'Are you in no matter where I go?' I said yes," Randy Norton said.
After finding success with Pingeton at Illinois State, location again became an issue for Randy Norton when Pingeton decided to come to Missouri. The answer was a little trickier this time, and the Norton family chose to split in half.
Randy Norton and his son Nick chose to come to Columbia, where Randy Norton joined the Missouri coaching staff and Nick Norton began attending Rock Bridge High School as a freshman, where he plays on the varsity basketball team.
But Claire Norton and daughters Carly and Ally stayed in Bloomington, where Ally* has a chance to repeat as Illinois state champion as a senior on the Parkland High School girls basketball team this season. The path the Nortons chose has not been easy.
"We’re making it work," Randy Norton said. "We all go through times when it’s hard. I think it’s just all of us, and I think it goes in cycles."
But after more than eight months of living apart from his wife and daughters, the end of the separation is in sight.
"We just got to get to the end of May, and we plan on getting our house sold back in Bloomington and buying a house here, and away we go," Norton said.
Women's youth basketball
For more than a decade before talking to Pingeton about a coaching position on the Illinois State staff, Willie Cox was used to coaching away from his family. He was an assistant coach for the men's basketball team at Loyola-Chicago from 1989 to 1993 while his family lived more than three hours away in Peoria, Ill. During the basketball season, Cox was lucky to see his family twice a month for "two-day stints."
"I think it was probably hardest on my wife, Juanita, because she didn’t have that extra help with everything around the house," Cox said. "She had to really jump in with both feet and do everything."
Cox left Loyola-Chicago to return to Peoria for the opportunity to coach his daughter Cassandra in middle school.
"It was a deal where, 'Wow, I could get out of coaching college to coach my daughter, and she may like this for a week and be done,'" Cox said.
He took the risk and went back to Peoria, where he went on to coach his daughter on an AAU summer team. The father and daughter eventually made it to two Illinois state tournament berths with the Peoria Central High School girls varsity basketball team. The adjustment from men's basketball at the collegiate level to girls youth basketball was refreshing for Willie Cox, too.
"Women seem to really get on board right away. I also found out that you needed to explain to the women what you were doing and why you were doing it," he said. "If we’re boxing out, we need to box out because we’re not the most athletic team. And it’s creating good habits. If you create good habits, then it’s going to make us a better team."
Cox's recruiting abilities in AAU basketball, along with his knowledge of Illinois State's recruiting grounds helped Pingeton decide to offer him an assistant coaching job at Illinois State. But in 2003, when he took the job in Bloomington, Ill., his family got to come with him.
Because the coaching staff became a family off the court, they were able to pass their message of unity to the girls playing for the Redbirds. Now at Missouri, Cox and his peers want to spread that message to the Tigers.
"It’s been a challenge to not be getting our team to just be a team, but to be a family, where they truly care about each other, they truly look out for each other, and they feel like they are all a part of it," Cox said. "We're not all totally there yet, but it's still a work in progress."
Pieces fall into place
Pingeton added one more assistant coach to the Illinois State staff in 2003 that has joined her at Missouri. Jenny Putnam had played at St. Ambrose from 1997 to 2001 and Pingeton was the head coach* there for Putnam's first two seasons.
Putnam had brief assistant coaching jobs at Marycrest International University in Davenport, Iowa, and Northwest Missouri State before being offered a spot on Pingeton's team at Illinois State. She fit right in.
"Coach Putnam used to babysit Coach Norton's kids," Pingeton said. "I surrounded myself with the most loyal people I could find, and it certainly paid great dividends because they’re very good at what they do and are very knowledgeable."
Kristi Cirone, Jim Couretas and Heather Page also made the journey from Illinois State to Missouri.
Cirone played for Pingeton and her coaching staff at Illinois State from 2005 to 2009, where she earned the Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year award three times. After playing for two WNBA teams and briefly overseas, Cirone is now a student manager for Missouri working toward her master's degree.
Couretas played football for three years at Northern Michigan before an injury his junior year cut his career short. He was a graduate assistant for multiple sports teams for two years at Illinois State before coming to Columbia to be an assistant director for strength and condition.
Page spent her first four years at Illinois State as a student manager, followed by two years as a graduate assistant before coming to Missouri. Now, her responsibilities include video editing and making accommodations for the Tigers.
Whether they are coaching in Illinois or Missouri, the staff has remained close. A family.
"At this point now, seven years later, we can probably finish each other’s sentences," Pingeton said.