Rick George has a vision for the University of Colorado women’s basketball program.
The year is 2018. The Buffaloes, just two years removed from a seven-win season and a school-record 23 losses, have returned to one postseason tournament or another. The program is on a clear upswing, with second-year coach JR Payne overseeing the resurrection with an enthusiasm that has paid dividends on the recruiting trail as well as with better attendance figures at the Coors Events Center.
George, CU’s athletic director, delivered this possible future as neither a promise nor an ultimatum/deadline for Payne, who was introduced as CU’s eighth head women’s basketball coach on Monday after agreeing to terms on a five-year contract. Think of it as a best-case scenario for what so far is the most high-profile coach hiring of George’s tenure.
“Two years from now, when people come talk to me about JR Payne, they’re going to talk about all the great things she’s done,” George said. “Not where she’s been or how she got here. Because she’s a dynamic coach and she’s going to be great for CU.”
George has made an impression during his two-plus years on the job, making tremendous strides in fundraising endeavors while helping to oversee the completion of long-awaited facilities projects, most notably the new Champions Center and indoor practice facility.
Until the past four months, however, George had not yet been challenged with making a coaching change in Boulder. That changed in December, when George replaced seven-year volleyball coach Liz Kritza with former University of Denver coach Jesse Mahoney. It continued this week, as George replaced CU alum Linda Lappe with Payne, who led Santa Clara to its best record in 18 years this winter.
While George generally has received positive reviews since taking over, he, like his coaches, ultimately will be judged by wins and losses and the amount of hardware his hires can add to the university’s collection.
A veteran administrator, George is no stranger to coaching changes. Yet George dismissed the notion of having any extra pressure involved in making his first such personnel decisions at CU, saying the quick and seemingly natural personal connection he made with Payne set her apart from the field.
“It comes down to relationships with people,” George said. “When you look at a pool of coaches, they all have that great skill. It’s really the other intangibles they bring to the table. In (Payne’s) case, she’s got such a great personality and energy and enthusiasm. She’s turned around a number of programs as an assistant and a head coach.
“It comes down to that connection and that relationship, and we created that fairly quickly.”
Typically I’m not a fan on labeling new coaches as a “good” or “bad” hire at such early junctures. Almost by definition introductory press conferences are ripe with enthusiasm, and only time will allow a fair assessment of Payne’s impact.
At first glance on Monday, though, Payne displayed all the characteristics necessary for a CU program in dire need of a facelift. She has built winners from losers at each of her two previous stops as a head coach — enduring two seasons of seven wins or less during her first three years at Southern Utah before putting together a 23-10 campaign together in 2013-14, then jumping from an 11-18 mark in her first year at Santa Clara to a 23-9 record this past season.
Moreover, her playing and coaching career along the West Coast should help bolster CU’s success rate at recruiting in the playground of the Pac-12 Conference. And she is not ignorant of the need to reconnect with a frustrated fan base that has led to a 36 percent dip in attendance since the Buffs’ most recent NCAA Tournament season in 2012-13.
“I think our athletes can be some of our greatest ambassadors at our university and in our community,” Payne said. “We want to be active. Our practices are open. Anyone can come if they want to. We want people to be engaged in what we’re doing — not just when we get good, but in the process while we’re growing.”