SOUTH KINGSTOWN — To fix a losing program, the University of Rhode Island is turning to someone who has done a lot of winning.
Tammi Reiss was introduced Thursday at the Ryan Center as the new head coach of the school’s women’s basketball team. She is a former WNBA player and an All-American at Virginia, where she played in three straight Final Fours. She also coached in the national championship game as an assistant at Syracuse.
“It’s hard to imagine a head coach who has walked the walk more thoroughly than she has when it comes to going to the NCAAs and being competitive and successful at the highest levels of college basketball in the United States and the world,” URI President David Dooley said. “She’s done that. She knows what it takes.”
Director of Athletics Thorr Bjorn said that pedigree paired with Reiss’ personality made her the perfect fit. Reiss will be the ninth head coach in program history, taking over after the dismissal of Daynia La-Force, who spent five years the helm.
“She’s done it at the highest levels and been incredibly successful at the highest levels. I think that brings credibility,” Bjorn said. “The other thing she brings to the table is that personality. What she was talking about, her message to the players, is who she is. She wants to build relationships with these players. We need that. That’s really important. I think that full package of experience as a player and a coach, but she also has the personality to motivate young people today.”
This will be the first head-coaching job for Reiss, and it will come with significant challenges. The Rams have had one winning season in the last 15 years and haven’t made an NCAA Tournament appearance since the program’s lone trip in 1996. Reiss will go in with her eyes wide open.
“I think there’s a lot of challenges,” she said. “It always starts first with off the court, fixing the culture in the locker room, finding out what the problems were and how to correct them. That’s first and foremost, getitng to know the kids and relationship building. You’ve got to fix them before you can fix anything on the court. And then it’s recruit, recruit and then recruit some more.”
While aware of the road ahead, Reiss also believes in where it could lead.
“I think the University of Rhode Island is a sleeping giant,” she said. “I’ve studied the Atlantic 10 for a long time now. The location here is unbelievable. I could sell this to anybody. I love the conference. I can’t pinpoint why it hasn’t been successful, but in my mind, there’s no reason why it can’t be successful. It was a job I absolutely went after because I know what the possibilities are here. With quality of education, location and conference, there’s no reason why recruits wouldn’t want to come play here for the right person.”
Reiss certainly has the credentials to be that person. She starred at the University of Virginia, forming the best backcourt duo in the country alongside Dawn Staley. A three-time All-American, Reiss helped the Cavaliers to three consecutive Final Four berths. A first-round pick of the WNBA’s Utah Starzz, Reiss played two seasons in the league. After an acting career that included roles in Juwanna Mann and Love and Basketball, Reiss worked her way into the coaching ranks, with stops in the WNBA and in college at San Diego State, Cal State Fullerton and Syracuse, where she spent the last four years.
“She has experienced success at every level, from a college player to a college coach,” Bjorn said. “She’s done it all. That level of success of determination is just really, really appealing, but it’s the way she’s going to go about doing that here that’s going to make it very special.”
Reiss will get to work immediately on building a staff, meeting with returning players and recruiting. She said she may look at international players to find an immediate boost. Bjorn said he’ll also work with Reiss to identify the program’s infrastructure needs.
“It’s a matter of sitting down with her,” Bjorn said. “Whether it’s Jim Fleming or Dave Cox, I say, ‘Come in, get your feet wet and tell me what you need help with.’ We were very transparent with all our candidates. We shared with them our salaries, our budgets and said, ‘Here’s who we are. Are there any concerns? Does this fit with what you’re looking for or not?’ I feel very proud of those things, but it’s not for everybody. Once she realizes some other things we need to put together, we just need to sit down and talk, brainstorm and figure out how to get there.”
Through it all, the focus will be on building a foundation.
“I’m a process coach. I’m not a results-driven coach,” Reiss said. “You won’t see me stand up here and talk about wins or talk about championships. I’m the complete opposite. I’m going to stand up here and I’m going to talk about culture.”
At least one Ram has seen it first-hand. Davida Dale played at Syracuse before transferring to URI.
“She definitely pushed me every day,” Dale said. “There were multiple times I went up to her office and just talked to her about anything. Everything she said about relationships is true. She’s great.”
Reiss signed a five-year contract that will pay her $185,000 in the first year, escalating by $5,000 each year, up to $200,000 for the fourth and fifth years. The contract also includes performance-based bonuses. The salary pool for assistant coaches is $230,000.
La-Force’s contract started her at $170,000 with similar escalations.