No matter how it starts, a conversation with Penn State women’s basketball coach Carolyn Kieger will almost always end up being about competition.
The obvious is wanting to compete for Big Ten and national championships, but we’ll get to that in a bit. She also competes with anyone willing to challenge her at Catch Phrase, one of her favorite games that she brings on road trips.
When offered an invitation to play a version of Penn State trivia, the Lady Lions’ new skipper responded with “Alright, let’s go.” The Roseville, Minnesota, native is also a fan of card games, including a central Pennsylvania staple that she has never played before — Dutch Blitz.
“Carolyn’s off day is gonna include a workout. She’s gonna have some type of competition,” Miami Hurricanes women’s basketball coach Katie Meier said. “If it’s a Saturday night and she’s like, ‘Hey, come over.’ I’m like, ‘Do we have to play a board game? Do we have to compete? Can we just drink a glass of wine and not have a winner and a loser by the end of the night?’ ”
Meier was introduced to Kieger — a standout, record-setting player at Marquette — when she was the Charlotte 49ers coach. She loved the way Kieger played and, after one Marquette-Charlotte game, told former Marquette coach Terri Mitchell, “If that kid ever wants to coach, call me.”
When Meier got to the 305, she gave Kieger her professional start when she named her coordinator of basketball operations. On one of her first days, Kieger approached Meier with a binder full of plays she transcribed during former Marquette men’s basketball coach Tom Crean’s practices.
“She came and (said), ‘ Hey, these are my thoughts on what kind of stuff we did at Marquette.’ She had old scouting reports and stuff. And then she’s like, ‘I thought you might be interested in this.’ ” Meier recalled Kieger saying. “I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ There are people who have been in this business for 30 years that don’t have a binder already and she was fresh out of college. ... She’s either crazy or gonna be really good in this profession.”
Through the first five years of Kieger’s head coaching career, it has been the latter.
She led the Golden Eagles to two Big East regular season championships, one Big East tournament championship, its first top-10 ranking, three consecutive 20-win seasons, a program-record 27 wins last season and three NCAA tournament appearances. She was also named 2018 co-Big East Coach of the Year and was named a semifinalist for the 2019 Naismith Women’s Coach of the Year.
Athletic Director Sandy Barbour plucked Kieger from Marquette in April after conversations with Meier, whom she worked with while they were both at Tulane.
“Carolyn Kieger is 100% fully committed to her vision for Penn State and to be the best,” Meier said. “And I’m not talking about one of the best. She will be the best women’s basketball coach in the country. She has it in her and she will not waver from that goal.”
Penn State finished no better than .500 in four of the past five seasons. Turning that around, Kieger said, starts with competition, preparation and the MVP process — the team’s mission, vision and principles.
“If you’re not living up to the best of your ability or you’re not being the best version of yourself, you’re gonna hear it from me,” Kieger said. “I’m gonna motivate you and I’m gonna make sure that I’m holding you accountable because, at the end of the day, that’s what I believe my job is. My job is to make you better than you could be without me in your life.”
She envisions an up-tempo style of play, but conceded there will be “a lot of mistakes made in the beginning.” The goal is to be one of the fastest, if not the fastest, teams in the country, she said.
Her practices are generally shorter than most others, she said, because everything is done “at your max.” That includes shooting drills, five-on-five drills, one-on-one drills, weight lifting and running.
And for those who are not giving their all? It would be best if a teammate corrects the problem, rather than Kieger or one of her assistants because, at that point, she said, “it’s going to be a lot worse.”
“When you know your culture’s really healthy, it’s the team holding each other accountable. We want it to be coach-fed, player-led,” Kieger said. “Obviously, you can’t play a perfect basketball game. The best shooters in America still miss 60% of the shots that they shoot, so perfection is unattainable when it comes to the game of basketball. However, perfect effort? You can get to. That’s what we’re trying to get to. I’m not asking for mistake-free basketball, but I am asking for perfect effort.”
Phase two is to get more “butts in seats.” The Lady Lions averaged 2,376 fans per home game last season, ranking them 56th in the country for home attendance. When the Bryce Jordan Center is a packed house, Kieger said she will “have chills.”
And no matter what the team does with recruiting or at practice, Kieger said she needs the fans to transform the team into a top-10 program because, after all, it’s about competition.
“(My) endgame is to be the best you possibly can be. For me, I don’t ever approach anything to be second best. I never have,” Kieger said. “I always say, ‘If you’re gonna do it, why not be the best?’ ... I want to win. I want to win national championships and I want our student-athletes to compete at the highest level — and that’s why I came to Penn State. I believe we can do it here. We’re gonna chase the best of the best and we’re not gonna stop ‘till we get there.”