Cover Story: Utah State WBB Looks For New Path Forward
18 min read

Cover Story: Utah State WBB Looks For New Path Forward

It's a team effort for this one. I've put together an extensive rundown of potential candidates, and Parker knocked it out of the park with a state of the program. WBB Cover Story:
Cover Story: Utah State WBB Looks For New Path Forward
Photo via Utah State Athletics

LAS VEGAS – When the Utah State women’s basketball team takes the court next season, it will look very different. For a team that just wrapped up a 5-25 campaign, change is a welcome respite. A glimmer of hope.

The catalyst for the change, as it often is, is a shift in leadership at the top. In what turned out to be the final game at the helm for head coach Kayla Ard, Utah State was blown out by Boise State and eliminated from the Mountain West tournament.

This was, apparently, the last straw for the administration. Athletic director Diana Sabau had seen enough and was ready to move on.

The game itself was not notable in any way, other than the fact that it was Ard’s last. In fact, it was pretty representative of Ard’s overall tenure. The Aggies were not set up for success, were never really competitive, and couldn't realize their potential. They lost 85-49 and were out of the game by halftime.

In the postgame press conference, as captured in a now-viral clip, Ard was asked about her plans to rebuild for next year. Her response broke the news that she was no longer with the university.

“I’m not going to be rebuilding. I just coached my last game at Utah State,” said Ard. “I spoke with Diana (Sabau) and they’re going in a different direction and I respect her decision and I hope they get a really good coach in.”

As was widely expected to be the case for most of this season, her four-year career at Utah State is over. Assistant Lindsay Woolley will be the interim head coach while the leadership team at Utah State conducts a search (more on that later).

Ultimately, Ard being sent away was not unforeseen. To put it plainly, she was not a good fit in Logan, and her tenure never really got off the ground. She amassed a record of 24-90 (10-62) in her four years at the helm, without claiming a single winning campaign. The Aggies suffered five losing streaks of eight games or more, including a 16-game losing streak in her first year and a pair of 13-game losing streaks.

The program has not been a powerhouse throughout its history – waiting through a significant hiatus shortly after its arrival in 1982, before finally returning for the 2003-04 season. Its best year is a 21-10 (11-3) effort in 2011-12 under the leadership of Raegan Pebley. That was Pebley’s last year in Logan, as she jumped to Fresno State and later to TCU.

Even against the backdrop of Utah State's relatively lackluster history, Ard's time at the helm marked a clear decline. The team took an immediate step back when she arrived, notching a 4-20 record in her first year compared to 8-23 the year prior. Her sophomore campaign showed promise and she led the Aggies to an 11-19 (5-13) season, but mass attrition sent Utah State back to the basement of the MWC before it had time to establish any roots. Back-to-back nearly brand-new rosters faltered, the Aggies went 9-51 over the last two seasons, and Ard's fate was sealed.

For Utah State, this provides an opportunity for a newly minted athletic director to make her first hire, putting her stamp on a program in need of an identity. Sabau is sharp, well-connected and very keen on the promotion of women's basketball, having seen firsthand the rise of Ohio State women's basketball into a national power.

There's momentum on campus surrounding women’s sports, too. The Aggies won conference championships in both soccer under head coach Manny Martins and volleyball under Rob Neilson this academic year. They did so with an unprecedented amount of support, both from fans and the university, and have more on the way as they continue to build their respective programs. Utah State isn't exactly selling out football stadiums for women's volleyball, but the environment in the Wayne Estes Center, dubbed "Club Estes," is unlike anything else in the Mountain West.

It would be very difficult for Utah State not to notice that sentiment. There's an appetite for winning programs in Logan, no matter the sport. The HURD didn't take long to adopt those teams, and in a basketball-crazed city, it's easy to see the massive potential for this fledgling women's basketball program. There may never be a better time than this for the Aggies to make their move.

Building something special starts with winning, and winning starts with hiring a winning coach. Utah State has a knack for finding good men's basketball coaches, but hasn’t done so on the women’s side in quite some time. Again, this is an area where Sabau has excelled before. During her time at Ohio State, she was tasked with leading the search for a new women's hockey coach. The program was desolate and marred by scandal, playing in America's strongest conference, and in desperate need of a complete cultural change.

Sabau came back with Nadine Muzerall, a standout assistant at Minnesota. After one year of rebuilding, Muzerall led the Buckeyes to their first NCAA tournament appearance and then to their first Frozen Four. They returned to the Frozen Four in 2021 and returned with a vengeance in 2022, winning their first national title (and returning to that game in 2023). They qualified for their fourth consecutive Frozen Four earlier today, and are widely considered the best team in America.

Utah State probably won't be shooting quite so high here, but it's a situation Sabau is familiar with. She's made hires in spots like this before.

No timeline has been set, but it appears that the university has no desire to drag its feet. Many potential candidates are still coaching in conference tournaments and could be coaching in the NCAA tournament, presenting a significant conflict, but the leadership team will move as quickly as it can within the confines it faces.

Outside of the coaching search, many questions about the situation in Logan still linger, chief among them the potential turnover on the roster. The Aggies have some promising young players and had just one senior, Allyzee Verdan. The rest of the team would be eligible to return. The transfer portal opens on March 18, the first day of class for the student-athletes after spring break, and will remain open until May 1.

Until the coaching staff and the roster begin to take shape, it's important to underscore what this move means. Firing Ard came with a hefty price tag (her buyout, at least before any potential negotiation, was around $160,000), and undergoing a search is a costly pursuit in terms of both time and money. Utah State wouldn't do that if it didn't have plans to invest more time and money into this program. This decision wasn’t made lightly, and it wasn’t made to maintain the status quo.

As the summer approaches, there is sure to be a level of excitement around this program that hasn’t been felt in years. Never before has Utah State had the opportunity to invest this heavily in women’s basketball. It doesn't need to be an afterthought. It can't be an afterthought. Not anymore.

Utah State has come a long way, with more resources and higher expectations now than ever before. When a team dons the Aggie Blue and Fighting White, the standard is to win, no matter the sport. It's time for women's basketball to make that leap.

Parker Ballantyne covers Utah State women's basketball for The Aggship. You can follow him on Twitter at @PShark14 for updates on the Aggies.

Early Names To Know

Head Coaches

Tammi Reiss, Rhode Island: As home run swings go, Utah State couldn't go much bigger during this impending search than Reiss. She's 93-42 in five seasons at Rhode Island with an A-10 regular season title (2022-23), a second-place finish (2021-22), a conference tournament title game appearance (2023-24) and two NIT berths (with another one likely on the way this season) over the last three years.

That's impressive on its own, but it's made quite a bit better by the context of the program she inherited. She took over after three straight single-digit win seasons under Daynia La-Force and needed only two years of building to guide the Rams to their first 20-win campaign since 1995-96. Rhode Island has just six such seasons since 1982-83, and three of them (the best three, by win total) belong to Reiss over these past three seasons. Utah State badly needs a rebuilding specialist, and Reiss is plenty familiar with that role.

She's also, importantly, familiar with the state of Utah. Originally from New York and a graduate of Virginia, Reiss played and coached professionally for the Utah Starzz, where she found a second home in Salt Lake City – co-owning the Manhattan Club in town and a salon called Blush after her playing career ended. She eventually got back into basketball as a coach, working for the legendary Beth Burns at San Diego State, parlaying that into gigs at Cal State Fullerton and Syracuse, and finally into the role she now fills.

The tricky part comes on the financial side, as it so often does. Reiss signed a 10-year contract extension (onto an already significant commitment) with Rhode Island in 2022, worth $4.4 million in total (and approximately $425,000 a year). Her buyout, as of that signing, was in the range of $1 million. The contract also included a clause that extends her term by a year for each season with at least 20 wins, which she's done twice more since then.

Utah State, in theory, has the money to compete with that. But, Ard was making roughly half as much on her base salary ($215,000 a year) and is due a buyout of roughly $160,000 (though that may be negotiated down). Women's basketball is a priority for Sabau, but to get Reiss to pick up the phone – let alone leave a program she's built for another reclamation project across the country – would require a level of financial commitment from the Aggies that this program has never seen before.

Seton Sobolewski, Idaho State: If it's a proven winner and a steady, veteran hand the Aggies are after, Sobolewski fits the billing. A native of Arizona, Sobolewski has been at the helm of Idaho State for 16 years, claiming a 272-219 record with three Big Sky titles, two conference tournament crowns and a pair of NCAA tournament berths.

Like Reiss, he signed a contract extension in 2022. Unlike Reiss, his deal only goes through 2027, with a base salary that Utah State could significantly increase – he made $151,287 for this campaign. He may be a bit more willing to consider a move, too, given that he's just an hour and a half up the road and his Bengals have just been through consecutive down years (11-19 in 2022-23 and 2023-24) in the wake of a seven-year winning season streak capped by back-to-back Big Sky titles.

The Aggies would probably prefer a little more recent success, but Sobolewski's track record is pretty hard to question, and he would provide some much-needed stability without coming at too steep a price.

Joddie Gleason, Eastern Washington: Gleason is a fascinating option who could nicely split the difference between Reiss' explosive success as a rebuilder and Sobolewski's quality, experience and relative affordability for a program that isn't exactly flush with cash.

She's only been at Eastern Washington for three seasons, but her record with the Eagles is hard to argue with, and her experience as a head coach extends well beyond this run in Cheney. Gleason and EWU are a game away from the program's first NCAA tournament berth since 1987, touting a 28-5 record after claiming a 56-39 victory over Montana State in the Big Sky semifinals. A matchup with Northern Arizona looms large, though Eastern Washington was clearly the class of the league this season, rolling to a regular season crown with a 16-2 league mark that included what is now a 12-game winning streak after back-to-back losses to the Lumberjacks and Bobcats in late January and early February.

This is, as that tournament dry spell would suggest, not a traditional place for Eastern Washington to find itself. The program had some success under Gleason's predecessor, Wendy Schuller, but that trailed off down the stretch and handed to Gleason a team that went just 10-43 in the two seasons before her arrival. After a rebuilding 9-21 campaign in year one, the Eagles ripped off a 19-11 mark last year (their first 19-win season since 2016-17) and trailed it with this, which is easily the best in school history – seven wins better than the previous single-season high.

Before she took on this current role, Gleason did a little bit of everything. She was the associate head coach under Suzy Barcomb at Seattle for five seasons after a run in the 2010s as coaching rivals in the California Collegiate Athletic Association, with Barcomb at Cal St. East Bay and Gleason at Humboldt State, where she spent 12 years and won a program-record 201 games, earning four bids to the NCAA DII tournament.

Even that run came after another stint as a head coach, her first, at Butte CC from 1999-2004. Naturally, she won there, too, with a 107-45 record good enough to earn the job at Humboldt State. That's quite the history of success, and per, she's doing it while making under $100,000 a year, at least on her initial contract (if there's an extension, it hasn't yet been reported). Again, Utah State can swing that.

The Aggies may not be alone in that effort, though. A season like this one draws a lot of attention, and the California native could have several suitors to choose from if she wants to move on from Eastern Washington.

Tamara Inoue, UC Irvine: Another successful rebuilder in a mid-major job not too far from Logan, Inoue has been tremendous in eight seasons with UC Irvine. She inherited a floundering program with little history of success, taking over a 4-27 team in 2016-17, and turning it into a consistent winner in the Big West – earning a 138-105 overall record. She's done her best work over the last three years, claiming a trio of 20-win seasons and a 67-27 record to go with a 20-11 mark in 2018-19, giving her sole possession of all four such outings in program history.

The Anteaters surged to a regular season title a year ago (25-7, 16-2) and have followed it nicely with a second-place finish (21-8, 15-4) that they'll look to build on further in the Big West tournament, potentially earning their first NCAA tournament nod since 1995. They don't play the most high-flying style of basketball, but they've been among the best defensive teams in the country throughout this recent stretch of form, and they made the NIT in each of the last two seasons.

Before she took over at UC Irvine, she was an assistant at New Mexico State and Santa Clara, having played her college ball at Long Beach State. Getting her out of California may be a tall task, especially with the strong program she's built, but she's an outstanding young coach with an excellent eye for talent on the recruiting trail.

Todd Starkey, Kent State: This one is a little out there, as Starkey doesn't have any natural connections to the West having coached at Kent State, Indiana, Lenoir-Rhyne and Montreat (where he played, which is in North Carolina), but his primary territory is certainly familiar to Sabau, and he does have a tie to the region – his son Drew is an actor who lives in Los Angeles, and the two are avid outdoorsmen.

With that out of the way, his ability as a coach is rock-solid. He's had just one losing season in eight years at Kent State, earning a 139-97 record with two regular season titles. The Golden Flashes haven't made it to the NCAA tournament under his direction, but they're reliably good in a strong conference and they run a fun offense. He's compensated about as well at Kent State as Ard was.

Tracy Mason, Southern Utah: There isn't much out there in the way of in-state head coaches who would be either viable in this job or interested in it. Weber State has a first-year head coach (who went 8-25), Utah Valley's Dan Nielson broke onto the scene with an NCAA tournament bid in 2021 but has gone 16-43 in the last two seasons, and though Utah Tech's JD Gustin has been successful, he was suspended earlier this season amid allegations of player mistreatment. Utah State isn't touching that.

That really just leaves Mason, unless Utah State is planning to win the lottery any time soon and start poaching head coaches from BYU or Utah. Now at the end of her sixth year leading Southern Utah, the Saint Mary's graduate has been responsible for the most prolific run in program history – reaching a crescendo last year with a 23-10 record, a regular season and postseason sweep of the WAC, and Southern Utah's first NCAA tournament appearance. That earned her the WAC Coach of the Year title and, shortly after the season, a five-year extension (the terms of which are not entirely clear, though she was making $163,737 in 2021).

The primary concern here is twofold. Firstly, this is just the second stop of Mason's career. She spent 12 seasons as an assistant at Saint Mary's after graduating and turned that into the Southern Utah job ahead of the 2018-19 season. Secondly, that terrific 2022-23 team didn't carry over into this season. The Thunderbirds graduated star guards Cherita Daugherty and Tomekia Whitman and lost center Lizzy Williamson to NC State. They had talent back, chiefly guard Daylani Ballena, center Megan Jensen and forward Samantha Johnson, but Jensen was lost for the year with a December injury and Southern Utah fell to 8-21 as it struggled with a lack of depth and top-end size.

One down season isn't disqualifying, and Mason has proven herself as a talent developer (look no further than freshman Ava Uhrich, who averaged more than 13 points and seven boards a game), but it does give pause to a program like Utah State – it's not especially easy to win a press conference with a coach who just went 8-21.

Michelle Ferenz, Whitman: In the current landscape of college basketball, where head coaching experience is valued above all else and proven winners are hard to come by, the lower divisions of the sport can be a goldmine for programs like Utah State.

The Aggies have seen it firsthand in the Mountain West with rivals Boise State, led for the last 19 years by head coach Gordy Presnell – an Idaho native who attended Northwest Nazarene, Idaho and Seattle Pacific before beginning his career at the high school coaching level in his home state. He jumped into the college coaching ranks at Seattle Pacific, eventually taking over as the women's head coach for his alma mater. After nearly two decades of success at the NAIA and DII levels, Presnell drew the attention of Boise State, where he's built a consistent power and one of the best programs in the MWC.

There are no sure things when it comes to coaching searches, and plucking a winner from the lower ranks does not guarantee Utah State or any other program the level of success Boise State has enjoyed under Presnell, but there's certainly precedent for it beyond just the Broncos.

Plenty of candidates could fit that billing if Utah State was to search through the DII, DIII or even NAIA ranks, but Ferenz stands out as a name worth knowing. A former high school coach herself, Ferenz arrived at Whitman in 2001 and didn't waste any time building a DIII powerhouse in the Northwest Conference. She worked through two losing seasons in 2001-02 and 2002-03 before bursting onto the scene in 2003-04 with a share of the NWC crown and a 19-6 record. Following nearly a decade of consistently solid (but rarely great) teams, Whitman broke through even further in 2012-13, rattling off a 23-6 campaign that sparked a truly dominant run of form across the 11 years since.

In that time, the Blues have claimed nine seasons with 20 or more wins, five conference championships, seven NCAA DIII tournament berths and a 15-6 record within those appearances, advancing once to the Sweet 16 (before the pandemic canceled the tournament), twice to the Elite 8 and all the way to the title game in 2014. They came up short of another tournament run this season, but still earned a strong 20-6 record (12-4 in the NWC).

Ainsli Jenks, Ridgeline HS: Speaking of outside-the-box hires, Utah State wouldn't need to go far to find Jenks, who has crafted nearby Ridgeline HS into one of the best programs in the state of Utah, claiming a 156-37 record in eight seasons. The Riverhawks have surged over these last three seasons, too, with 74 wins to only four losses and three appearances in the UHSAA 4A championship game, winning each of the last two.

Much of this recent success can be attributed to a handful of star players to come through the program, chiefly Elise Livingston (a Utah Valley commit) and five-star junior Emilee Skinner. Therein lies much of the intrigue for Utah State fans – the 6-0 Skinner is one of the best high school prospects not just in Utah, but in the country, ranking 10th in ESPN's list of top 2025 recruits. She was named the Utah MaxPreps High School Girls Basketball Player of the Year earlier this month, and has garnered interest from some of the nation's top programs, from Arizona and Utah nearby to Iowa and North Carolina well away from home. Utah State has been at least tangentially in the mix for her services, too, hosting her on a visit in October.

The theory behind Jenks as a candidate is intertwined with her connection to Skinner, and the hope that she could keep the all-world recruit in Cache Valley as a building block alongside freshman phenom Gracie Johnson. Could their pairing serve as the bedrock for a Utah State program that desperately needs to improve its in-state recruiting presence, which is currently non-existent? Sure. Is that a good enough reason to hire a coach without any experience at the college level? Probably not. Jenks could be an interesting name for an assistant coaching spot, especially if the Aggies hire someone without significant ties to the state, but anything more than that would be asking a lot.

Assistant Coaches

Wesley Brooks, Ohio State: In the early stages of this search, Brooks appears to be one of Utah State's top candidates, if not the outright leader. He's young, graduating from West Virginia in 2004 and adding a master's degree in 2006 after serving as a manager under John Beilein, which he turned into a job as WVU's director of basketball operations for one year before becoming a full-time assistant at Robert Morris.

Brooks has been all over in the years since. He spent three years as an assistant at Texas Southern, four at North Texas, two at Utah and four at Michigan, jumping to Kevin McGuff's staff at Ohio State ahead of the 2021-22 season. In his three years with the Buckeyes, Brooks has helped the team to a 78-20 record with an Elite 8 berth in 2023, a Sweet 16 appearance in 2022 and a regular season title this time around (their second of this stretch). Ohio State is among the nation's best teams in 2023-24, likely slated for a No. 2 seed and potentially another deep run in the NCAA tournament.

The appeal on the coaching side is easy to see. Brooks is an ace recruiter for Ohio State with connections all over, touted for his energy and player development. In working with the guards and wings at OSU, he's helped to produce the 2023-24 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year (Celeste Taylor), six all-conference selections and the No. 13 pick in last year's WNBA draft, Taylor Mikesell. He's thought to be one of the top up-and-coming coaches in the sport.

His connection to this job is also pretty clear. In addition to his stint at Utah, where he was responsible for coaching forwards, Brooks worked briefly with Sabau before she departed for a role with the Big Ten, and is now a star pupil for McGuff – with whom Sabau spent nearly a decade in Columbus.

Mike Petrino, Boise State: There are a lot of assistants in the Mountain West who would fit well for this job, but Petrino is the class of the bunch. A native of Montana who spent nearly a decade as a high school coach in The Treasure State, Petrino has been all over the West, working for four years as an assistant at Wyoming and five at Montana, the last of which saw him serve as interim head coach during the shortened 2020-21 campaign.

He went 12-11 in his lone season leading the Grizzlies and left to join Presnell's staff at Boise State shortly after, spending his last three years with the Broncos. There are much worse programs for the Aggies to mimic, and Petrino offers a steady hand with head coaching experience and ties throughout the MWC footprint.

Lindsay Woolley, Utah State: It isn't often you see an assistant coach from a 5-25 team earn an interview for a potential promotion, but Woolley isn't a traditional assistant coach. He came to Logan from Montana Western, where he worked for 11 years as a head coach, claiming a 215-129 record and major accolades – winning the 2019 NAIA national championship and earning NAIA National Coach of the Year honors in the process. All told, he took the Bulldogs to six NAIA tournament berths.

Woolley isn't considered one of the favorites to land the job, but he certainly deserves a look. He's extremely well-liked and respected within the program, and he's proven himself as a head coach at both the NAIA and JUCO levels.

Jonas Chatterton, Oregon State: Chatterton's resume is fascinating. He checks pretty much every box the Aggies would be looking for locationally, graduating from Utah as a native of Salt Lake City and spending time at Westminster, BYU and Colorado before joining Scott Rueck's staff in 2014-15.

In the decade since, the Beavers have emerged as one of the best programs in the Pac-12, making seven NCAA tournament appearances (with an eighth on the way) and advancing to the Final Four, Sweet 16, Elite 8 and Sweet 16 again during a four-year stretch from 2015-19. Chatterton is an excellent recruiter and one of the brightest defensive minds in the sport.

But, does he want to be a head coach? More specifically, does he want to be a head coach for a program that needs a lot of work? He's been at Oregon State for nearly a decade now, he's compensated well ($198,072) and he hasn't jumped for an opportunity yet despite ample chances to do so. Oregon State's conference uncertainty may bump up the likelihood that he looks elsewhere, but he has a young family in Corvallis, and it would take quite an offer from Utah State to draw his interest, even with it being in his home state.

Anthony Turner, Arizona: A 2008 graduate of Colorado, Turner has worked for damn near every school but Utah State in the Mountain West, in addition to three seasons as an assistant at Utah Valley and four at Weber State immediately before joining Arizona's staff this past offseason. He was an ace recruiter at New Mexico for six years, spent one year at Boise State, two at Oregon State, two at San Diego State and six at UNLV. Turner was even slated to take on a role at San Jose State before Adia Barnes gave him a call.

He deserves a shot at leading his own program, but like Chatterton, it's not entirely clear if he wants that right now. Barnes said shortly after hiring him that she "wanted someone who isn't looking for the next job" when she was conducting her search for assistants.