A legacy unmatched

Coach Jose Fernandez has coached the Bulls for 22 seasons, winning over 400 games in his tenure. ORACLE PHOTO/ALEXANDRA URBAN

Jose Fernandez has never been one to lose energy or passion. Decades into his coaching career, he still mans the sidelines of the Yuengling Center as animated as the first day he was named coach of the USF women’s basketball team. 

He’s still quick to drop into a defensive stance with his team calling out coverages, hopping on flights to Europe to recruit or giving emphatic fist pumps when the moment calls for one. But that’s who he’s been all these years and one of the key reasons for all his success.

Of the 50 seasons USF women’s basketball has been in existence, Fernandez has been at the helm for 22 of them. Over that period of time he’s managed to turn a once middling program into one of the best in the country.

“I’m very proud that I was able to work with some unbelievable people along the way,” Fernandez said. “In the administration and on my coaching staff and the type of players that I’ve had the opportunity to coach and continue to bring to this program, there are a lot of players and coaches that laid the foundation for where the program is now, a perennial top-25 team every year.”

In the decade prior to Fernadez’s arrival at USF, the team had just two winning seasons between coaches Trudi Lacey and Jerry Ann Winters combined. The Bulls had never reached a postseason.

Brigid Merenda was power forward for the program from 1993-97 and has been a part of USF’s broadcast team since 2012 as the color commentator for women’s basketball. She recalls the days when USF was a far cry from the high standard Fernandez has set during his tenure.

“The program was up and down, up and down like that,” Merenda said. “Full of a bunch of good people, a bunch of people that worked hard, good athletic director Paul Griffin and people that were working hard. But never really got like a 20-win season, maybe 15 wins was considered a good season.”

Now as she watches and calls every Bulls’ home game, Merenda has more appreciation for how far the program has come and who has helped it reach its current levels.

“It’s just been so exciting and thrilling and it’s something that I’m proud of,” she said of the team’s continued success. “I’m proud to say that I played at South Florida. I’m proud to talk about the struggles when I was there and then proud to say that coach Fernandez is such a great leader.

“And I think [he’s] a demanding leader as a result of his belief in the program, his willingness, his time, effort and energy which has been above and beyond extraordinary.”

Fernandez first came to USF as an assistant to Winters after having worked as a coach for several years in his native Miami. He started coaching women’s basketball at the high school level at Lourdes Academy in Miami for three seasons before spending one year as the top assistant at Barry University.

Winters eventually hired him as an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator ahead of the 2000-01 season. A few months later, Winters was released due to claims of racial discrimination.

As a result, Fernandez got the top job and a two-year contract. It was his first time taking over a college program.

“I was on staff, I got a great opportunity to be an assistant coach, a recruiting coordinator at a major Division I university, [in] Conference USA,” Fernandez said. “It was a great opportunity for me and then five, six months later, I’m named the interim head coach.

“A lot of people get opportunities, and I think I got a great opportunity and made the most of it.”

Twenty-two years, 10 seasons with over 20 wins and several postseason championships later, Fernandez has elevated the program to unprecedented heights.

“When I retire and I leave here, this will be one of the best jobs in the country,” he said. “It’ll be one of the best programs, a top-25 program a lot of people would be interested in. But I think we made it that, it wasn’t that [before]. So what’s kept me here was I got everything I need here to be successful. And I chose to not look at a lot of different places. 

“A lot of people have their dream jobs, this has become my dream job.”

Fernandez’s success didn’t come quickly, however. The program didn’t make a postseason appearance until his third season when the Bulls reached the 2003 Women’s National Invitational Tournament. He didn’t win 20 games in a season until the following year. 

There was also very little fan engagement or excitement for the program when he first started. Looking back on those moments and thinking of how far his teams have come leaves Fernandez feeling extremely proud.

“I think you can go into the record books and see what the program was like [when I first got here],” he said. “We didn’t have season ticket holders and there wasn’t a lot of excitement, energy about the program, wasn’t a lot of team success. I thought there was some past really good individual success, but the program had never met any type of postseason play before.

“So, it’s pretty special when you get an opportunity to start a program that didn’t have a lot of history and success and look at where we’re at now.”

One of the keys to turning a subpar program into a powerhouse is cultivating and maintaining relationships, a trait Fernandez has proven to have in spades. From his players to his staff or anyone associated with the team at any level, he continues to put in the extra effort to make the program feel like a family.

Although she never played for him, Merenda said she felt at home right away when she joined the broadcast team.

“He’s always been lovely to me,” she said. “He jokes and he’ll say ‘Oh the media is here,’ whenever I travel with them. 

“Then he laughs and introduces me to the players as ‘she’s one of us’ and that is so welcoming because he appreciates that I spent time there, put some blood, sweat, tears on that floor.”

Michelle Woods-Baxter has been one of Fernandez’s associate head coaches since 2018 and has been with the program since 2008. 

She has enjoyed a front row seat to his intensity and passion, but has also seen a man who is family oriented, funny and willing to do even the most ridiculous things for his players.

“He’s a funny guy,” she said. “On Halloween, he comes in dressed up for the players at the start of practice just to make everyone relaxed and feel comfortable. It’s always funny when he does that.

“Just little stuff like that to make the players enjoy and to have fun.”

While not anytime soon, Fernandez said his energetic and caring personality is what he wants to be remembered for once he finally decides to hang up the whistle, not all of the success. Because at the end of the day, he won’t only be leaving a legacy behind, but a family atmosphere that turned into a USF dynasty.

“I don’t want to just be remembered for how many games we won or how many tournaments we went to,” he said. “I think I’m going to leave the program a much better place than when I found it. 

“I want to be remembered that my former players really enjoyed me coaching them and that I cared more about them as people than as players … I think I’d be pretty honored if that’s the case.”