A shift in culture: Coach McCarthy transforms women’s basketball program

At 38-3, the UAA women’s basketball team just completed their best season in school history, and were arguably the greatest team Seawolf Athletics has ever assembled. From placing as the runner-up in the national championship game, to shattering 32 school records, to breaking five NCAA Division II records (including the 38 wins), the Seawolves had what one might call a dream season.

However, the team was living more of a nightmare just four years ago, when the program was slammed with several sanctions by the NCAA.

In the 2011-12 season, former head Tim Moser, had promised full-ride scholarships to recruits. When these promises could not be upheld, Moser used his own funds to help out the young ladies. On four occasions he gave cash, totaling $7,320, to volunteer assistant coach Elisha Harris to deposit into the student-athlete’s bank accounts without the players’ knowledge, a huge no-no in collegiate athletics.

“This was a terrible mistake by two individuals, and we are doing our level best it does not happen again,” UAA Chancellor Tom Case said at the time of incident.

Moser suddenly resigned following the 2011-12 campaign without explanation. Moser, now an assistant coach with the Colorado State women’s team, led the Seawolves to an incredible 165-32 record and advanced the team to the Final Four twice. He is also the main culprit behind one of the the largest violations in UAA’s history.

The year-and-a-half long investigation began when one of the players that received money from Moser approached athletic director Keith Hackett. She noticed her scholarship for 2012-13 was smaller than the previous year, and discussed it with Hackett. After researching her scholarship, UAA found out that she was receiving the right amount, and the “full-ride” she was getting the year before was due to Moser.

However, this was not the only offense that the program was involved in during this period of time. A secondary violation, committed by booster Brad Keithley, an Anchorage lawyer, took place during that same season. Keithley paid for a van to take the team on a tour to the White House while the Seawolves were on a trip on the East Coast. He not only paid for transportation, but meals and entertainment as well. These actions, against NCAA rules, were valued at over $150 per student-athlete.

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The infractions piled up for UAA, and they had no choice but to take the punch that the NCAA threw at them. The sanctions included two years of probation— until May 2016, an external audit for the program and a loss of three-quarters of a scholarship. In addition, 16 wins were vacated from the 2011-12 season.

“With the NCAA, you have to take the penalty and you have to move forward. You can’t feel sorry for yourself, and you must do what is right for the program,” Jane Pallister, the senior associate director of athletics (internal affairs) and overseer of women’s basketball, said via phone.

That certainly was a tough pill to swallow. With loss of scholarships, the critical eyes of the public and the NCAA breathing down their neck the rest of the way, the fate of the women’s basketball team was uncertain, and it could have taken a significant amount of time to recover.

“I didn’t know the severity of the NCAA violations. I didn’t know we were that close to the death penalty,” current head coach Ryan McCarthy said at a press conference in Indianapolis prior the the 2016 NCAA Div. II title game.

As a result of Moser’s departure, McCarthy was hired the following season, in which the Seawolves went 17-10. Instead of using the sanctions as an excuse for a lengthy rebuilding process, he has used it as motivation, as UAA’s record has improved each year. Just four years later, the University of Alaska Anchorage women’s basketball team just had their most dominant season ever.

UAA also received guidance from the top, such as Athletic Director Keith Hackett and Chancellor Tom Case, all the way down to the last player off the bench and the fans to help recover.

Pallister gave credit the the administration for helping through this process.

“We have a lot of support from Chancellor Case as well as Vice Chancellor Bill Spindle,” Pallister said. “Everybody in the department wants our team to be successful so we get a lot of leadership form the top and if we didn’t have their support, I am not sure we would be where we are right now.”

Another key member of the rebuilding procedure is head coach Ryan McCarthy. When hired, he was thrown into a onerous situation, one that many would not have the guts to take on.

“Looking back, it is one of those things like, yeah, that was a mess, but at the time I embraced it. I was 29 and I was a head coach so I was floating,” McCarthy said.

Although he was grateful for the position, he still had to piece together a winning team. That is difficult when there are only eight players left on the roster when you take over.

“I remember going to an intramural game looking for two players so that we could practice five-on-five,” McCarthy said.

Pallister had endless kind comments about McCarthy and what he has done to turn this program around.

“Ryan is a competitor. He is a tough coach but he also brings his team together and they truly are a family…He has an amazing basketball mind,” Pallister said. “I have the upmost respect for him. He not only cares about the win-loss record but about the budget and making sure that women’s basketball has a good reputation in town.”

Since taking over the program four years ago, McCarthy has an astonishing 117 wins and led the team to its deepest tournament run in school history. Huge strides have been made on this roller coaster of a journey.

“We have obviously came a long way from that particular season, but I think in many ways that was kind of the building and starting of the culture of this group based on the players that we were able to keep around and set a tone on where we were headed to,” McCarthy said.

One of the players McCarthy was able to inherit was Jessica Madison, who was a freshman during that 2011-12 season. She, as well, gave much of the credit to the new head coach for turning things around.

“When McCarthy first came here he didn’t have a lot to work with, so our first year was definitely a struggle,” Madison, who just played her final season as a Seawolf, said. “Over the years he did a great job recruiting and getting girls to buy into the system to get where we are today.”

She also noted that the veterans who stuck around after the incident played a vital role in recovering.

“Jordan Martin was great taking us under her wing as freshman. Alysa Horn was a great leader,” Madison said.

It was not easy for Madison. Having to go through this during her first year as a college athlete, she gained a lot of experience.

“I learned that to stick out what you started and if you work hard, good things will happen. I am very happy I stuck it out and got to play under coach McCarthy,” Madison said.

With all of NCAA’s complicated rules, it’s not hard to slip up or have something go unnoticed, especially with the success they have had recently. However, the administrative team at UAA is working to prevent the incidents from two years ago from ever happening again.

“We are very conscientious of compliance. It is really easy now that the girls are runner-ups to want to give them things. Not in a bad way, but just to congratulate them and we have to keep reminding people that we just can’t do that,” Pallister said.

McCarthy has also made sure to keep up on NCAA rules.

“I have learned a lot about compliance. It can be time consuming, but at the end of the day you want to do things the right way and you want to make sure that you put your student-athletes in a position where they can be successful,” McCarthy said.

From nearly being banned from postseason play, to competing for the national title, the UAA women’s basketball team has taken a difficult situation and turned it around.

Dedicated Seawolf fans and alumni have been through a lot of ups and downs the last five years. With outstanding administrators, a heck of a coaching staff and eager young ladies representing the program, UAA women’s basketball should only be known for their achievements from now on.

The youthful Ryan McCarthy has rebuilt the image of the UAA women's basketball team in his three seasons as the program's head coach. Photo credit: adam eberhardt