Longtime Dartmouth Coach Quits
Dartmouth coach Chris Wielgus directs her charges during practice in March 2008. (Valley News - Jeffrey Fehder) Purchase photo reprints »
Dartmouth College women’s basketball coach Chris Wielgus’ team finished the season with nine consecutive losses. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Purchase photo reprints »
Hanover — Dartmouth College women’s basketball coach Chris Wielgus resigned yesterday, ending a 30-year career in the collegiate ranks after four consecutive losing seasons.
A suburban New York native who was one of the first half-dozen women hired by Dartmouth’s athletic department, Wielgus led the Big Green to 12 Ivy League titles and 393 victories during 28 years, broken into 8- and 20-year stints, in Hanover.
“Chris is an iconic figure in the department and at this institution,’’ said third-year Athletic Director Harry Sheehy, who must replace the coach of a marquee program for the first time in his tenure. “I said to her this morning, ‘You are Dartmouth women’s basketball.’ It will be a challenge for us, and she will be missed tremendously.”
Wielgus and her assistants declined comment through Rick Bender, the athletic department’s director of communications.
The Big Green is only four years removed from its seventh NCAA tournament berth under Wielgus, whose teams won four Ivy titles between 2005 and 2009. The program’s fortunes began to erode the next season, when it finished fifth in the Ancient Eight, its worst standing since 1992-93.
Dartmouth has gone a combined 30-82 the last four seasons, including 6-22 overall records, 4-10 league marks and just two home victories during each of the past two campaigns. Dartmouth’s performance the last three years is its worst stretch since Ivy play began in 1976.
Although the Big Green raised hopes among what remains of its fan base when it won four consecutive Ivy games this winter, it closed the season with a nine-game losing streak and a flameout loss at last-place Columbia in its finale.
“We wanted to see progress,’’ said Sheehy, who said he began work on landing Wielgus’ successor within hours of meeting with her yesterday morning. “During my three years here, there has been no real progress in wins and losses. We were a very young team, but Chris has said publicly that it wasn’t an excuse.”
Wielgus proclaimed that she expected to win another Ivy title before the 2011-12 season, but the Big Green instead suffered a school record 13-game losing steak. The squad began this season with the second-youngest roster among NCAA Division I teams, the result of numerous players quitting the team or not exhausting their eligibility the past three years.
Wielgus at one point said attrition was a good weeding-out process for her team, but there were instances during the 2011-12 campaign when the team had only two substitutes available because of defections and injuries. The coach was certainly aware of her predicament before this past season, but gave an upbeat sound bite nonetheless.
“If someone comes to me and says ‘Chris, you’ve got to win,’ I’m like, ‘No kidding,’ ’’ she said in November. “Nobody puts more pressure on me than I put on myself. I think everyone else is more paranoid than I am. I hear that the sky is falling and we’re never going to pull ourselves out of this, but I’m just going to do my job. I’m not worried about it.’’
Wielgus graduated from Springfield (Mass.) College in 1974 and moved to Woodstock with her then-husband, Chuck Wielgus. She was a substitute teacher in physical education and coached the Wasps field hockey team for a year before unsuccessfully pursuing Woodstock’s girls basketball coaching job. She was hired at Dartmouth in 1976, taking over the nascent women’s basketball program from tennis coach Chris Clarke.
Teaching at Woodstock during the day and guiding Dartmouth practices at night, Wielgus had to recruit some of her players off the street, didn’t have a parking pass and shared a cramped office with other women’s coaches and administrators.
Players had to provide their own practice uniforms and there were constant, patronizing reminders that men’s sports came first. Wielgus drove a team van to away games and earned $1,200 in salary her first year.
“I was told that I didn’t have it as hard as a man … because the men lost and that was tougher to deal with,’’ she recalled last summer. “So my pay was not half what the men’s coaches made then.”
Dartmouth won four consecutive Ivy titles before finishing third during the last season of Wielgus’ first tour at the helm. She left in 1983 with her husband when he took a job in South Carolina, then worked as a New York City banking consultant from 1989-91.
Wielgus came back to college coaching when she guided Fordham to a league title and a combined 37-21 record from 1991-93. She returned to Dartmouth and promptly captured back-to-back Ivy crowns with a team that had finished sixth in the Ivies twice during the previous three winters. Leede Arena once again became the place to be on winter weekends, with crowds of more than 2,000 packing the cinder-block structure.
“I would have to say we’re the envy of the Ivy League,’’ Wielgus said in March 2000. “We’re used to playing in a noisy gym, not the kind of obscurity some of these other teams deal with.”
The last few years, however, Leede has hosted fewer and fewer spectators during women’s games. A recent clash with Cornell, played on a Tuesday after being previously postponed because of weather, drew roughly 100 people.
Wielgus was known for baking cookies and distributing them throughout the athletic department and for hosting Thanksgiving team dinners at her home.
She said she rarely slept after tough losses, however, and viewed her line of work as something of a meat-grinder.
“Coaching is not something I would recommend to anybody,’’ Wielgus said in 1999. “It’s such a difficult profession. No one understands how hard it is until they do it.”
Turnover among Wielgus’ coaching assistants appeared to play a significant role in her program’s recent decline. Standout recruiters Courtney Banghart and Chris Leazier departed within two weeks of each other during the spring of 2007 and Dartmouth’s talent level dropped steadily thereafter.
Star forward Brittney Smith, a former Ivy Player of the Year, chose not to return for her final season of eligibility during the winter of 2011-12 and the Big Green never brought in any players remotely close to her in ability.
Wielgus finished with an overall record of 393-342, giving her more victories than celebrated Dartmouth bench bosses such as Alvin “Doggie” Julian, who won 378 men’s basketball games, baseball’s Tony Lupien (313) and men’s hockey’s Eddie Jeremiah (305).
“I’m not the type of person that looks back and says ‘I did a wonderful job of coaching,’ ” Wielgus said in 2006. “I’m just a teacher of the game and I hope (the players) learn it.”