Jose Fernandez Celebrates 300 Wins As USF Women's Basketball Coach
In the 20 seasons before he was named coach, the Bulls finished with a winning record only seven times with no postseason appearances.
Since then, they’ve become one of the sport's most consistently successful teams, winning more than 20 games five years in a row, receiving post-season tournament invitations twelve times in thirteen seasons, and winning an NIT Championship in 2009.
And when USF (20-4 as of Feb. 14, 9-2 in the AAC, currently ranked #22 in the Associated Press Top 25) knocked off Memphis 79-49 on Jan. 17 of this year, it was another career highlight for a coach with a growing list of them: career win number 300.
All of Fernandez’s now three hundred plus wins as a head coach have come since he was hired as USF’s coach in 2000.
"It was great to, after the game, reminisce with (USF System) President (Judy) Genshaft, because that was her first year as well," Fernandez said.
No other coach in USF women's basketball history has more than 86 wins.
But like a good point guard, the 45-year-old Miami native is quick to pass the credit for his success to others.
"You don’t win that many games if you’re not surrounded by just great people, not only on your staff, but also coming in to work with quality student athletes," he said.
That "student" part of student-athlete is just as important to Fernandez.
"They’re in majors that they’re going to be successful for life after basketball," he said. "We also have a big portion of our kids move forward and play professionally, but they have the strand that they choose to go to and the degree path that they do, it’s a degree that they’re going to be able to use."
We dropped by a Bulls’ practice shortly after win #302.
Fernandez, a slightly balding man shorter than most of his players, was clad in shorts, gym shoes and a zip up sweatshirt. He casually monitored players while they warmed up, joking with assistant coaches and trainers. When practice began, he brought the team into a huddle and talked quietly to them before running them through a series of plays.
But senior center Katelyn Weber said Fernandez teaches them more than just the X’s and O’s.
"Coach is really keen on teaching us life lessons, so like the stuff we learn on the court will also help us in life, like being able to take criticism, being able to communicate with people, especially our professors – that could be our boss in future years," she said.
This year’s team, one of the most successful of Fernandez’s tenure, is also one of his most internationally diverse - eight of the 15 players hail from other countries, including Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Latvia, Hungary and Kenya.
"I love being around so many different cultures and so many different living styles," Weber, an Arkansas native, said. "All three of my roommates are European, so we have like an international household and it’s a lot of fun."
Senior Ariadna Pujol Lluch is one of two players from Spain.
Fernandez caught the attention of both her and her parents because he spoke Spanish during the recruitment process. It’s something she said she and her coach still do today.
"Sometimes, but more when he get mad at me, he yell at me in Spanish or when he’s relaxed, he say, ‘Calma, calma,’ and he speak Spanish when we are on the court mostly," Pujol Lluch said.
Do the two ever talk like that during a game to keep their plans secret from opponents? She replied with a smile.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, of course, sometimes he tries me to say something for the other team to not understand, yeah, it’s funny," Pujol Lluch said, laughing.
"We really talk about the city and we show them a lot of pictures of campus and how diverse the campus is and how diverse the university is," Fernandez said when quizzed about how the program recruits so many foreign players. "And of course, we sell the weather. When you live in a city that doesn’t snow, it’s pretty good, it’s very attractive to international student-athletes."
The day after we attended practice, the worldwide roster showed off their balance when the Bulls faced off against Cincinnati. While leading scorer Kitija Laksa of Latvia struggled through an off night, Pujol Lluch and Danish junior Maria Jespersen picked up the slack, combining for 40 points.
Throughout the game, Fernandez stalked the sidelines, yelling instructions to his players, who responded with a 72-52 victory. It was a good response from a team that had its toughness questioned in the press by the coach barely a week earlier after a loss to conference rival Louisville.
And while some fans only know Fernandez for that intense sideline demeanor, his players say there’s a side of the coach that people don’t see.
"Outside of the court, he’s so sweet. He wants to help you in everything and be like a father to you," Pujol Lluch said, while Weber added, "He’s a family man, he takes care of a lot of girls in his life: five daughters, a wife, all 15 of us, plus the staff. He’s really caring, he really looks out for his family."
I ask Fernandez if he'd ever consider moving on to a school in a more prestigious conference like former USF coaches Willie Taggert (football) and George Kiefer (men's soccer) recently did. Fernandez quickly points to the contract extension he signed two years ago that will keep him with USF until at least 2021.
"I have a great facility, I have a great arena, the city of Tampa," he said. "I truly think I have one of the best job in the countries here, so the need of chasing a big name or a big school, that’s just not me."
USF wraps up the regular season at the Sun Dome on Feb. 27 against four-time defending national champion Connecticut, which is riding an NCAA record 100 game winning streak.
UConn routed USF 102-37 in Hartford earlier this year, but USF could have as many as two more chances to avenge that loss over the next few weeks, with possible match-ups in the American Athletic Conference tournament and the NCAA tournament.
And when questioned if he’d rather beat UConn or win a national championship, Fernandez replied as quickly as one of his players heading for the basket.
"If you win an NCAA Championship, that means you’ve gone through Connecticut."
USF has two games coming up at the Sun Dome, facing UCF Tuesday and Temple on Sunday, Feb. 19. You can find a schedule here.