Mahler: Wielgus Leaves a Lasting Legacy at Dartmouth
Dartmouth College women's basketball coach Chris Wielgus gestures to her team during a time out on March 5, 2013 at Leede Arena. The Big Green's 53-45 loss to Cornell was its seventh consecutive setback, while the Big Red snapped a four-game losing streak. Valley News - Tris Wykes Purchase photo reprints »
Dartmouth coach Chris Wielgus directs her charges during practice in March 2008. (Valley News - Jeffrey Fehder) Purchase photo reprints »
For 28 years, the name Chris Wielgus has been synonymous with Dartmouth women’s basketball.
She has been the face of the program, the turbo-charged engine behind its explosive successes and the beacon for hundreds of Dartmouth women student-athletes.
But in recent years, the wins have been fewer and harder to come by. And yesterday, after four consecutive losing seasons, Dartmouth announced Wielgus’ resignation in a one-page news release supplied by the college’s sports information department.
Around the basketball and Dartmouth community, the news was met with shock and sadness.
“I’m sorry to see her go,” said Aggie Kurtz, who as an associate athletic director, hired Wielgus in 1976. “I thought she was a terrific coach. She really stepped it up and turned (the basketball team) into a real team and program.”
Kurtz recalled a meeting she had with Wielgus in those early years, discussing the fact the program was in danger of being dropped.
“Basically we needed wins to keep the program alive,” she said. “When I told that to Chris, she said, ‘OK, they want wins, we’ll go out and win.’
“And that’s exactly what she did.”
Yes, she did. In 28 seasons at Dartmouth, Wielgus amassed a 393-342 record, making her the winningest basketball coach in school history.
But a look at the Dartmouth record book shows Wielgus is the second winningest coach of any sport, behind only baseball coach Bob Whalen’s 460 wins.
Legendary hockey coach Ed Jeremiah had 308 career wins; long-time baseball coach Tony Lupien won 313 games; and revered men’s basketball mentor Doggie Julian has 379 wins on his Big Green resume.
Coaches used to talk of how Wielgus would go to bat for a Dartmouth colleague without concern for her own position, using her winning record and reputation to stand up to the administration for a struggling program.
Wielgus had friends throughout the Ivy League, as well. Down in Cambridge, Mass., Harvard women’s basketball coach Kathy Delaney-Smith commented on the surprise announcement in an email.
“I have always thought that Chris is one of the best in the country. Her longevity of success and the quality of the student-athletes she has produced speaks volumes,” Delaney-Smith said. “During my 31 years in the Ivy League, the longest running rivalry has always been Harvard and Dartmouth.
“She will be missed.”
Those who missed Wielgus the most were those with whom she was closest: her players.
“Oh, my gosh,” said Jayne Daigle, the 1985 Ivy Player of the Year. “Oh, my gosh; what sad news.
“One time when I was in grad school in Boston, just thinking about all the people (I had come across), and I remember thanking God that Chris was one of the people put in my life. I just love her to pieces.”
Daigle, a star at Lebanon High School, came to Dartmouth in 1982 and played for Wielgus for two seasons before Wielgus left Hanover. Even after Wielgus’ departure — and well after Daigle graduated — the two stayed in contact.
“We would correspond back and forth,” Daigle said. “I still have some of the notes she wrote me ... one congratulating me after our senior year. At that time, I had toyed with the idea of going into coaching, but Chris talked me out of it. She said it wasn’t the same thing as being a player.
“She’s the reason I didn’t go into coaching. And in the end, it was the right thing for me.”
When she hit campus in 1976, Wielgus, who had graduated from Springfield College in 1974, was the right thing for Dartmouth. She took an informal group of women who played less than 10 games a season and turned them into an Ivy League basketball powerhouse eventually playing in the national tournament. She built the program — and the reputation of Dartmouth basketball — into a national contender, yet never forgetting her Upper Valley roots.
Even before it was the trendy thing to do, Wielgus made herself and her players accessible to the community. She organized clinics and autograph sessions that brought the young girls under the program’s umbrella. In an era when women’s athletic events struggled for identity and attendance, Wielgus’ teams generated excitement and enthusiasm in the community. Her games were attended nightly by hundreds of local youths screaming madly for their heroes.
“Chris was recruiting locally and she knew how important a local following would be for her team,” said Kurtz. “She was one of the first coaches to put that idea into action.”
After building the program into the premier basketball outfit in the Ivy League, Wielgus left after the 1984 season, when she took some time away from the sport before returning to coaching in 1991 at Fordham University.
Two years later, she was back in Hanover, this time to heal a program that had been torn by player dissatisfaction and personality conflicts. Wielgus picked up where she had left off, leading Dartmouth to the Ivy title and to a berth in the NCAA tournament. She had now resurrected and rebuilt the program twice. But there would be no third time. Dartmouth had its last winning season and Ivy title in 2008-09 season. As the talent spread more evenly across the Ivy League, Dartmouth’s losses mounted.
But Wielgus was philosophical about the changing landscape. She once told Daigle that the banners that count are the ones that come after you’ve built the program.
Now we will see just how good a basketball contractor Wielgus turns out to be.
For one, Daigle hopes her former coach finds peace in her future.
“Maybe now she will have time to enjoy her grandchildren,” said Daigle. “I’m just hoping for the best.
“Maybe God has a new plan for Chris.”
Don Mahler can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3225.
This column has been amended to correct an ealier error. The following correction appeared in the Thursday, March 14 edition of the Valley News.
In her 28 years as women's basketball coach at Dartmouth, Chris Wielgus amassed a record of 393-342, the winningest basketball coach in Dartmouth history. The length of her tenure at Dartmouth was incorrectly reported in a story in Wednesday's paper.