Published March 17, 2016
COLUMBUS — After more than a quarter-century of coaching, Felisha Legette-Jack finally gets to return to the stage she was on last during her stellar playing career at Syracuse University in the late 1980s: the NCAA tournament.
Before coming to UB in 2012, Legette-Jack had already established herself in the basketball coaching world. After serving as an assistant at Syracuse, Boston College and Michigan State, Legette-Jack received her first head coaching gig in 2002 at Hofstra, guiding that program to unprecedented success.
Then she took over at Indiana University, where she spent six seasons, coaching the Hoosiers to three postseason appearances and a program record-tying 21 wins in one year. While her teams reached the WNIT several times, one thing Legette-Jack hadn’t done was lead a team to the Big Dance.
That is, until this year, when she achieved that goal under improbable circumstances, with a group no one expected to make it past the first round of the MAC tournament, let alone win it and go dancing for the first time in program history.
“It takes me back to when I was 23 years old because that’s the last time I was in the NCAA tournament,” Legette-Jack says. “I’m just as giddy as the players are. I’ve been to the WNIT many times as a coach, but never got the chance to dance on this stage.”
Now that the national spotlight is on the program for making the tournament, much of the nation knows by now that MAC coaches at the beginning of the season predicted UB to finish last in its division. UB exceeded those expectations wildly, becoming the first No. 8 seed to win the conference tournament.
“This is the story that I’m going to share in a book one day because this is the team I want to reflect on,” Legette-Jack says. “A lot of great things have happened in my life, from playing at Syracuse to marriage and having a son, but this is like the culmination of all of that, and to do it at this point in my life…”
The way they did it is remarkable. The Bulls lost 87 percent of their scoring from last season to injury or graduation. And they added a host of international players who hadn’t played together before.
“The odds were against this team. But when you build a ball of fists and you stick together and have each others’ backs and trust each other, great things seem to happen,” says Legette-Jack, who has compiled 68 wins at UB.
The Bulls have compensated for the loss of scoring productivity by playing excellent defense, something Legette-Jack has preached throughout her coaching career. It’s what helped her be so successful as a player at Syracuse. She graduated in 1989 as the program’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder. “We spoke one language this year: defense,” she says.
And, despite what the naysayers had to say, the Bulls believed in what they were doing. “We don’t get excited when people praise us and we’re not going to get disappointed if they don’t appreciate what we’re trying to build,” Legette-Jack says. “That’s why we stand in a circle before every practice and end that way. Those are the people that matter, the people in that circle. We don’t let anybody infiltrate our circle.”
The Bulls have improved each of Legette-Jack’s four years in Buffalo. They won 12 games her first season, 17 the next, 19 last year and have 20 so far this season.
“We’re not just getting better — we’re making history,” she says. “And we want more.”
It’s a great story, one that just might make for a good book someday.