After helping lead the United States women’s basketball team to a gold medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics, first-year women’s basketball head coach Jennifer Rizzotti has some extra experience that could lead the Colonials to a third consecutive Atlantic 10 conference title.
Rizzotti’s extensive experience with USA women’s basketball includes coaching the U.S. Under-18 National Team to a gold medal at the 2010 FIBA Americas U18 Championship and the U19 National Team to a gold medal at the 2011 FIBA U19 World Championship.
After joining Geno Auriemma’s staff in Rio in August, Rizzotti helped the team knock off Spain for a 101–72 victory in the gold medal game for their sixth consecutive Olympic gold medal.
Despite her gold-medal summer, she remains hungry to succeed in her first season in Foggy Bottom. For Rizzotti, coaching student athletes is a unique challenge and one that she approaches differently from coaching Olympic athletes.
“It’s completely two different worlds,” she said. “Coaching college kids is a lot different. They’re not quite adults yet. This isn’t their job. They’re holding themselves to a high level of accountability as a student. In some ways it can be rewarding to be coaching women at the peak of their career, but you’re not as connected. Whereas these guys, you’re helping them become young professional women, and that’s a different investment.”
Rizzotti was the starting point guard on the UConn Huskies’ first national championship team in 1995, which finished 35–0 under Auriemma. This past summer, Auriemma – who is also the coach of the United States women’s basketball team – asked Rizzotti to join his staff along with Doug Bruno, Cheryl Reeve and Dawn Staley.
Rizzotti said her main lesson from playing and coaching under Coach Auriemma is to always expect the highest level of play from each and every player.
“At UConn…the standard is so high… kids go there because they want to be great – they want to be pushed to their limit – and he [Geno] doesn’t let them perform below their best, and that’s what I’m trying to instill in these guys,” Rizzotti said. “I’m going to really push [the players] this year to help them be able to compete all the time with that standard because that’s what’s really going to make them great – what you do individually every day and how you make the people around you better.”
During her 17-year tenure as women’s basketball head coach at the University of Hartford, Rizzotti had the opportunity to learn, experiment and mature as a coach. Inheriting a GW roster with plenty of turnover, she is well-positioned to hit the ground running with her new team. She has coached 36 players who have won all-conference awards, as well as ten different 1,000-point scorers.
“I was able to grow up [at Hartford] as a coach, and I had plenty of time to make mistakes and plenty of time to figure out how to do things right,” Rizzotti said. “What I did learn was that not every team can be coached the same way, and not every system is going to work for every team that I coach. Not every motivational technique is going to work the same for every player that I coach.”
As for her goals for the year, Rizzotti isn’t just concerned with awards or trophies. She is focused on helping her seniors leave a legacy, maturing as leaders and upholding the standard of success that the back-to-back conference championships have created around the women’s basketball program.
“I think people have expectations of our program. I put a lot of pressure on making sure that Caira and Hannah and Shannon leave here the same way the seniors have left here the last few years,” Rizzotti said. “That’s my mentality: What are we going to do over the course of the next five months to let them finish on top? I have to motivate them to be their best.”