This interview was edited for length and clarity.
After an 11-12 season for USC women’s basketball, Athletic Director Mike Bohn went back to the drawing board and pulled out a masterpiece — the hiring of Cleveland Cavaliers assistant coach Lindsay Gottlieb, a basketball lifer with experience at the collegiate and professional level and a huge get for the Trojans.
In her first coaching job, Gottlieb led UC Santa Barbara to NCAA and WNIT tournaments before heading to UC Berkeley. She spent eight years at Cal, leading a not well-known women’s basketball program to the Final Four in 2013 and that advanced to the NCAA tournament seven out of eight times. Gottlieb became the first female head coach from a Power 5 conference to make the jump to the NBA following her hire as the Cleveland Cavaliers’ assistant coach in 2019.
Now, she’s ready for the challenge of making USC return to relevancy in the college basketball world. With her hiring made official early last month, the Daily Trojan sat down with Gottlieb to get an idea of her plans for the team.
Daily Trojan: I know you’ve talked about it a little bit during your [introductory] press conference, but what was ultimately the reason that you decided to take this job?
Lindsay Gottlieb: I think the best way to describe it is that I felt it was an opportunity that was so special and wasn’t gonna be replicated in the next several years. I was really happy doing what I was doing — I had no intention of leaving the NBA this quickly. But when the USC job opened, and, more specifically, when [Athletic Director] Mike Bohn and his staff elaborated on how they wanted to commit to the program and where they saw [it] going, it was the combination of the University, the potential for women’s basketball and the way that this administration is committing to it. I was just like, ‘This is the opportunity of a lifetime.’
DT: Now, this team, you got a lot of young talent, a lot of potential available. How are you feeling about the team at hand — any players that stand out so far?
LG: Everyone’s home … after finals. So I’ve been Zooming with them and texting with them, but they’ll come back on campus for summer access in June. So, I’m really looking forward to getting with the team. Obviously, I’m very aware of the incoming freshmen with two All-Americans with Rayah [Marshall] and Clarice [Uche Akunwafo], and those are players that are young enough that I saw them in the recruiting cycle before I left for the NBA. I’ve watched the team from afar, just being a basketball fan. And, I mean, Alissa [Pili] is a special, special talent. But I just think there’s a lot of depth in there, there are a lot of pieces. And I think it’s good for them, it’s kind of a blank slate as well to have the opportunity to come in and, as a group, reinvent ourselves a little bit, because I think this group knows they haven’t gotten yet where they want to go. And, so, I’m looking forward to working with all of them individually and collectively to set our goals and then try and reach them.
DT: I’m sure you’re aware, like you said, you’ve been following the team, you obviously coached in the Pac-12 before. The conference is really one of the best, if not the best, in women’s basketball. What do you think it’s going to take for this squad to excel now that the conference is stacked as it is?
LG: It’s a fantastic conference. And, so, I think what it will take for us to be great, is number one: to continue to recruit the best players, not only on the west coast but nationally. And then I think two: here’s the real thing, is to develop players. You have to create a culture, that culture of winning, and you also have to run good stuff and execute because you can’t take a night off. It’s not like any team has so much more talent than anyone else that you can just roll out the balls and expect to win. You have to be performing at a high level. And that’s a great challenge for me as a coach, and I think it’s a really great challenge for our players. Because if they want to be pros, which a lot of them do, to kind of challenge yourself at that level every night, where you have to execute and you have to be locked in it, it bodes well for them. Just in the whole experience that they’re going to get because the league is loaded. And we have to separate ourselves with it, with how we do things, not just by showing up with USC on our jersey.
DT: Just from your perspective … we talked about building a program, what do you think it’s been lacking in recent years?
LG: It’s hard to answer that. I don’t want to knock anything that’s been done without having been there. I think, at the end of the day, the biggest thing, without having had the success — the postseason success, the winning that we would want — I think it’s really kind of digging in on getting a group of talented players to figure out what impacts winning, and then getting all of us to commit to doing that on a consistent basis in a very difficult league. That’s what I would say, that’s the magic touch. It’s not me coming in saying ‘Oh, they didn’t do this, or they didn’t do that.’ It’s just, say we have to figure out as a group what impacts winning and just be willing to commit to that.
DT: You kind of touched upon this, but I was gonna ask about it — recruiting. That’s something that this year’s class is outstanding. [The] 2020 class was a little out of the top 20 and it’s been kind of inconsistent. How do you plan on tackling that recruiting strategy?
LG: I think what we have to offer at USC will allow us to bring in some of the best players in the country and, more importantly, people who are the right fit for where we want to go … It’s an unbelievable campus, in the city that, right now, is the Mecca of basketball, and the Mecca of media, which is what I think players are drawn to. The academic pedigree is second to none … We have it all. And, so, why wouldn’t we try to talk to and recruit the best players and people in the countries? That’s what we intend to do. And then you also have to be intentional about fitting together classes, that make sense, right? So the best teams aren’t just piling on all the best players you can get. It’s about the right fit from a positional standpoint or from the way you build a team. That’s what I’m excited for too. You have to construct it a little bit like a [general manager] and make sure you have everything that you need on the roster to be successful.
DT: Being that you were an assistant with the Cavs … what do you think you can bring from that NBA level to this Trojan team?
LG: The first thing is, I think the people who have successfully navigated going from the pros to college or college to the pros, I think it takes a nuanced understanding of what fits where. You can have had both experiences, and some things don’t work at the other level. And I think that’s been really a huge part of my education in this, but I definitely think that the NBA is just a think tank of basketball. You spent a lot of time on X’s and O’s, so I think I’m going to bring some things relative to pace of play and offensive efficiency and how we want to generate points, what makes for a high-powered offense that I’ve just been studying for two years. That’s the first thing, then I would say also when you’re involved in a pro organization, it’s the highest level of training, it’s the highest level player development and nutrition and strength and conditioning. And, so, I’m going to try again with the resources at USC, try to say, “OK, what are things that hadn’t been done before at the college level that do translate?” Can we really utilize film and analytics and nutrition in our player development program in addition to the on-court skill work? There’s just ideas and things that I’m going to think a little bit outside the box from what I’ve learned with the Cavs, and I’m excited to integrate some things from the pros that really worked and also to utilize the fact that I understand where college is different and it is about relationships and building with people and it’s not as transactional. So I think that’s going to be a fun challenge for me to figure out what works and what doesn’t and kind of have the synergy I think in our program that kind of utilizes the best of both worlds.