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Calling the shots: McConnell-Serio’s career a string of successes

Pitt+women%27s+basketball+head+coach+Suzie+McConnell-Serio+and+the+Panthers+will+face+their+first+ACC+opponent%2C+Miami%2C+on+Monday%2C+Jan.+2+at+7+p.m.+
Pitt women's basketball head coach Suzie McConnell-Serio and the Panthers will face their first ACC opponent, Miami, on Monday, Jan. 2 at 7 p.m.

Pitt women's basketball head coach Suzie McConnell-Serio and the Panthers will face their first ACC opponent, Miami, on Monday, Jan. 2 at 7 p.m.

Pitt women's basketball head coach Suzie McConnell-Serio and the Panthers will face their first ACC opponent, Miami, on Monday, Jan. 2 at 7 p.m.

By Dan Sostek / Sports Editor

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Suzie McConnell-Serio was going to play with the boys.

Long before the native Pittsburgher was gracing the sidelines of the Petersen Events Center and revitalizing the University of Pittsburgh’s women’s basketball team as its head coach, she was just a fourth grader shooting hoops in a gymnasium.

Talented but teamless, her school — Our Lady of Loreto, a Catholic school in Brookline — didn’t have a women’s basketball squad. If she was going to play, she would have to accept another offer to join the boys’ team, where a coach had noticed her skills in the school gym.

She accepted his offer, joined the league and did all she could to fit in with the rest of the team.

“I had long hair,” McConnell-Serio said. “Then in fifth grade, I guess to blend in more, I went from long hair to short hair. But I still stuck out.”

McConnell-Serio’s integration with the boys opened the door for her sister, Kathy McConnell-Miller, who joined the boys’ team one year after Suzie did.

“The boys didn’t like that so much,” McConnell-Miller said. “When it became an issue, and Suzie had sparked an interest in girls playing basketball, the coach decided if there’s enough interest, then we’re going to start an all-girls team.”

Those two years of scoring against the boys not only helped form a girls’ team— launched an irreplicable career.

McConnell-Serio, 49, has spent more than three decades playing with and coaching women on a winding career path with stops at every level of competition. An NCAA record holder, WNBA Coach of the Year and Women’s Basketball Hall of Famer, she has achieved more in her still-budding basketball career than most players can ever dream of accomplishing.

Born and raised in the Steel City, McConnell-Serio is one of eight siblings in a basketball-centric family that saw six children play in or coach the sport at various levels. The passion for the game is a genetic trait in the McConnell family, as the siblings’ children have found success playing the sport — highlighted by her nephew T.J. McConnell, who made this year’s Philadelphia 76ers’ roster.

She developed her game at Seton-LaSalle High School with her pre-collegiate career culminating in a PIAA State Championship win with Kathy by her side.

Her point guard prowess drew numerous athletic scholarship offers, and McConnell-Serio considered five schools — Penn State, Maryland, Rutgers, Georgia and Louisiana Tech — before making Happy Valley home.

“When you’re a student athlete, I think you get a gut feeling that, ‘This is where I want to be for the next four years,’” McConnell-Serio said. “And that’s exactly how I felt being at Penn State.”

She also chose Penn State to be close to Pittsburgh, the first — but not the last — time the city influenced her career decisions.

As a Nittany Lion, McConnell-Serio was dynamic from day one. She was an immediate starter as a freshman, embarking on a record-setting career spanning from 1984 to 1988, in which she passed from the point guard position like no one else has since been able to duplicate/.

The game was different then. Because of single-sport specialization and increased focus on training, McConnell-Serio said the talent pool is better, and there’s more opportunity for play.

While she said she needed to improve her strength at Penn State — “I wasn’t growing any” — the 5-foot-5 guard averaged 12.6 points and 9.7 assists per game as a freshman. McConnell-Serio eventually broke the NCAA career record for assists in a career, finishing with a total of 1,307.

“I don’t even know what the previous record was,” McConnell-Serio said of the record she still holds to this day. “I never paid attention to statistics.”

This lack of emphasis on personal accomplishments doesn’t surprise those close to her.

“She would be perfectly comfortable going through life and people not recognizing her,” McConnell-Miller said of her sister. “To her, she does what she does because she loves it. Not because people notice her or because she receives awards by doing it.”

A self-described “risk taker” of a point guard, McConnell-Serio said she only really paid attention to her assist-to-turnover ratio, hoping to monitor and improve her efficiency with the basketball.

Following her success in State College, McConnell-Serio earned one of 12 spots on the 1988 United States Olympic team that summer in Seoul. As a key contributor, she helped the U.S. team win gold, defeating Yugoslavia in its final game. She was also a member of the 1992 U.S. team, which took bronze in Barcelona.

“To play in the Olympics and to stand on that platform and to wear that gold medal around your neck, the American flag is the top flag and they play your national anthem during the ceremony, it’s a moment you never forget,” McConnell-Serio said. “It’s something special and something every athlete strives for. I don’t think there’s a greater moment in sports.”

So what did a superstar basketball player — after setting Division I records and earning international accolades — do after her college graduation in 1988?

She went home and coached high school ball, of course.

With the WNBA still seven years away from formation, McConnell-Serio received and accepted an offer to coach women’s basketball at Pittsburgh’s Oakland Catholic High School in the spring of 1990.

“I just decided to do it,” she said. “Even though I was going to have my child in October and basketball season would start right around there. But it was one of the best decisions I made.”

She had prolific success at Oakland Catholic, averaging 24 wins per season while winning three PIAA Class AAAA championships and finishing runner-up twice.

Her coaching career at Oakland Catholic wasn’t McConnell-Serio’s full-time job. For a while, she did motivational speaking for Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield.

But over the last three years of her coaching career at Oakland Catholic, she added a different vocation: professional basketball player.

McConnell-Serio had just given birth to her fourth child, Madison prior to the inaugural WNBA season in 1997, — but seeing former teammates and opponents enter the league sparked her interest to return to the game.

In order to get back in shape to play professionally, McConnell-Serio began going to the gym at night and playing against men’s teams at Oakland Catholic.

Family members helped her take care of her children, and McConnell-Serio said the family was “just making it work.”

The Cleveland Rockers selected her with the 16th overall pick in the second round of the 1997 draft. She proved to be a steal of a selection, earning All-WNBA First Team honors and the Newcomer of the Year award during her rookie campaign.

pDespite her success in the league, McConnell-Serio retired after three seasons. Although nagging injuries contributed to the decision, she was tired of missing out on watching her children grow up.

“I’m getting ready to go out for a game and it was the night of one of my daughter’s recitals,” McConnell-Serio said. “It was breaking my heart that I wasn’t there. She was in a dance recital and she was four years old and I wasn’t there for her.”

She would eventually return to the WNBA by a different route.

Still coaching at Oakland Catholic, McConnell-Serio received a voicemail telling her to call back. It was from Roger Griffith, the CEO of the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx, who knew her from her time as part of a WNBA touring team.

Griffith asked her if she was interested in coaching in the WNBA.

“As an assistant?” McConnell-Serio asked.

“Head coach.”

The offer caught McConnell-Serio off guard.

“I was shocked. I was coaching high school,” McConnell-Serio said. “I thought at that time, the natural progression was going from coaching high school to college, and thought that that’s what I would have done, if I ever left high school.”

McConnell-Serio traveled to Minnesota for the interview but wasn’t too keen on the offer at first.

“I was ready to turn the job down,” she said. “I didn’t feel like I could move my family or ask them to move.”

But her family supported the trek to Minnesota, and McConnell-Serio took the helm of a struggling franchise that had recorded a measly 10 wins the season before.

McConnell-Serio made it her goal to rebuild the program — a feat that would jumpstart a tangible theme throughout her coaching career.

She brought a team with no career postseason berths, and a 10-22 record the previous season, to the team’s first-ever playoff appearance and an 18-16 record in 2003. In 2004, she earned the WNBA Coach of the Year award after leading the Lynx to a three-seed in the playoffs.

But amidst two subpar seasons, McConnell-Serio resigned midseason in 2006.

“We immediately came back to Pittsburgh. My husband and I are both from here,” she said. “Nothing was keeping us in Minnesota.”

In doing so, McConnell-Serio found herself in the right place at the right time.

A few months after the Serio clan returned to Pittsburgh and McConnell-Serio had started doing TV analysis for the Big Ten, Dan Durkin resigned as the head coach of the Duquesne Dukes’ women’s basketball team following a 7-20 season.

She hadn’t considered looking for a job at the collegiate level but was more than intrigued by the local opportunity. Duquesne hired her April 12, 2007.

“It was an opportunity to get into college coaching,” she said. “I loved everything about it.”

Coaching collegiately was a different animal for McConnell-Serio. The distinction didn’t come as much through preparation or in-game management, but instead with recruiting athletes.

“[Recruiting] is the biggest difference,” McConnell-Serio said. “Our success is because of recruiting. We have to have players.”

While McConnell-Serio said she enjoys the game-related aspects of coaching more, she has proven to be an impactful recruiter. Players respect her accolades and achievements, which makes it easy to buy into her teaching.

“She obviously knows what she’s doing,” forward Stasha Carey, who was a member of McConnell-Serio’s inaugural 2014 recruiting class at Pitt, said. “She’s been an Olympian, she’s been through the process, she knows what it’s like. It’s definitely easy to trust her.”

Back at Duquesne, McConnell-Serio, who was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame after her first season with the Dukes in 2008 righted the sputtering program, going 123-68 in her six seasons there.

Her success elicited the attention of a nearby neighbor — former University of Pittsburgh athletic director Steve Pederson.

Pederson was looking to fill a head coaching position after Pitt fired Agnus Berenato following two consecutive winless Big East seasons.

“This was the big time job in Pittsburgh,” McConnell-Serio said. “This is the BCS school, this is competing at the highest level in the ACC. That excited me. It was an opportunity. It’s a challenge.”

Exactly six years after Duquesne hired her, Pitt officially hired McConnell-Serio April 12, 2013. Her sister Kathy joined the staff a month later as the associate head coach. She had previously served as the head coach at University of Tulsa and University of Colorado, as well as an assistant for the WNBA’s Tulsa Shock.

“She has won everywhere she has been, so in my selfish ways I wanted to see the way she worked, how she worked and learn from her,” McConnell-Miller said. “I’ve become a much better coach working with her.”

McConnell-Serio’s ability to revive the sputtering program materialized faster than anyone could have thought, including herself.

In her first season, McConnell-Serio led the Panthers to their first three conference wins since 2010, but still struggled through an 11-20 season.

But with her first recruiting class under her belt, Pitt went 20-12 in 2014-2015, with a 9-7 record in conference play. Under McConnell-Serio, point guard Brianna Kiesel bloomed, and the Panthers earned their first NCAA tournament berth since 2009.

“Never [did I think the turnaround would occur that quickly],” McConnell-Serio said. “There’s no doubt, we overachieved. There’s no doubt that we exceeded expectations. These players, they continued to believe and fight and work together and develop chemistry and believe that every time they stepped out on the floor they would win.”

Family members like nephew Matty McConnell, a freshman guard at Robert Morris University, knew that success would eventually come when Pitt hired his aunt.

“I knew she’d be able to [turn Pitt around],” McConnell said. “She went in to Duquesne and turned that program around. I knew it wouldn’t happen right away — it took a year. But like she did at Duquesne, she turned [Pitt] around. She’s doing a great job there.”

At Pitt, McConnell-Serio appears to have found a final landing spot. In her introductory press conference in 2013, she noted that Pitt was the only job she would have left Duquesne for, emphasizing that Pittsburgh is her family’s “home.”

She feels that she can impact her players’ future in college, more so than at any other level.

“Each level has been so rewarding, and each presents its challenges, and I’ve loved all of them,” McConnell-Serio said. “But right now, I’m probably having a bigger impact on someone’s life being at the collegiate level.”

According to her sister, that is why Suzie McConnell-Serio coaches. It’s about educating, not ego.

“She does what she does because she loves it. Not because people notice her or because she gets awards for doing it,” McConnell-Miller said. “She is a wonderful teacher and keeps giving back to the game that has given so much to her.”

McConnell-Miller doesn’t think her sister has fully grasped what her career has meant to her pupils and the sport as a whole.

“Suzie is one of the most humble people I know,” McConnell-Miller said. “I still don’t think she’s realized the impact that she’s had on so many young women and how she’s impacted our game.”

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Calling the shots: McConnell-Serio’s career a string of successes