USF women’s basketball has earned NCAA Tournament berths each of the past four seasons. The Bulls have been hailed as one of the top teams in the nation, earning the No. 22 spot in the preseason AP Poll.
But, it wasn’t always that way.
Coach Jose Fernandez is entering his 19th season at the helm of the USF women’s basketball program. The team’s record in Fernandez’s first season was 4-24, last year, the Bulls went 26-8.
“To be at a place for 18 years is special,” Fernandez said. “I’ve seen this university grow and change for the better, going from Conference USA to the Big East and now to the American.”
Fernandez took control of the women’s basketball program in the 2000-2001 season, which is the same year USF System President Judy Genshaft got her job. While Fernandez has only seen just one system president, he’s seen USF change in a lot of other ways.
USF is now on its fifth men’s basketball coach in Brian Gregory, and the fourth athletic director while Fernandez has been coaching. He feels that USF is still heading in the right direction even under new leadership.
“There’s a lot of coaches I’ve worked with, a lot of players I’ve coached,” Fernandez said. “We’re under great leadership now with a new athletic director in Michael Kelly, he was here when I was building this program.”
Another face that has been at USF while Fernandez was building the women’s basketball program was USF softball coach Ken Eriksen, who is entering his 23rd season for the Bulls.
“We’re the Last of the Mohicans,” Fernandez laughed. “We talk a lot during the year and bounce a lot of different ideas. I usually have [Eriksen] come over and say a few words to our team because he’s been very successful not only with this program, but with USA Softball.”
Before Fernandez got his job at USF, he was the top assistant coach for Barry University where he helped coach the Buccaneers to a 22-8 record, which still stands as one of the program’s three 20-plus win seasons.
Even outside of USF, Fernandez has been coaching for a long time. He knew he wanted to be a coach when he graduated from high school. Fernandez was offered a student assistant coaching position at Miami-Dade College, then got promoted as a full time assistant when he graduated with his associate’s degree in 1991.
“My high school coach, Tom Moore, was a huge influence for me and the gentleman that hired me at Miami-Dade, then I worked with him at Barry University, who passed away a couple years ago, Cesar Odio, those were the two mentors that prepared me and led me on this path,” Fernandez said. “I’m very thankful for the influence that they had on me, not only as a coach, but as a person.”
When Fernandez got his opportunity to coach at USF, it was a chance for him to turn the program around. He took over a team that, by most accounts, was not winning for various reasons. Fernandez led the Bulls to their first Women’s National Invitation Tournament in 2004.
“When you’re turning a program around, it’s easier to turn it around,” Fernandez said. “It’s harder to sustain it.”
Since then, USF has been involved in a postseason tournament in all but one year. The Bulls have played in six NCAA tournaments and eight WNIT, which they won in the 2008-2009 season.
Fernandez has found a way to sustain his own program at USF and, while he may have kept some of his tactics a secret, he said finding the right players for the program is a key factor in producing success.
“There’s no special formula or anything,” Fernandez said. “We talk about our kids, we don’t rebuild, we just reload. We continue to recruit kids that fit your style of play and fit your culture. We don’t take any shortcuts on character or work ethic or any of that stuff.
“Right now, we pick and choose who we want to coach. We turn away more than we take. I’m very thankful for the guys that trusted us and took a chance on us a long time ago to get this thing going.”