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Grace’s Whits: For coach Cori Close, the first step toward a dynasty is the conference title

University of Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, UCLA coach Cori Close, Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer and South Carolina coach Dawn Staley are pictured. (Photo by Brandon Morquecho/Photo editor, Jeremy Chen/Photo editor, courtesy of UConn athletics. Photo illustration by Julia Chen/Daily Bruin)

By Grace Whitaker

March 6, 2024 12:26 a.m.

Every coach’s dream is to build a dynasty program.

A one-and-done national championship win is worthy of hype, but most times, it’s the dynasty programs – the ones with the iconic coaches, top recruiting classes and a brand that lives beyond the ones that wear it – that cut down the nets.

Tara VanDerveer – Stanford’s coach of 38 years and the winningest coach in both men’s and women’s NCAA Division I basketball – has three titles to her name. South Carolina coach Dawn Staley boasts two. And most notably, Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma has dominated the women’s basketball scene for decades with 11 national championships throughout his tenure.

With the growth of women’s basketball and its audience within recent years, there is an expanded room for an increase in the number of fan favorites and generational programs for fans to flock to.

So who’s going to be the next coach to join this list of household names in women’s college basketball?

It could be Kim Mulkey, who recently led LSU to its first national championship in program history. Or maybe Lisa Bluder, who, alongside the nation’s leading scorer in Caitlin Clark, has turned Iowa into one of the largest basketball spectacles.

Or maybe it’ll be a coach who’s never won a championship, who’s instead focused on building a championship caliber team before centering in on hoisting a trophy.

Perhaps it’ll be UCLA women’s basketball coach Cori Close with a net in her hands.

Close’s road to her now-championship-contending team began in 2021, during a season in which UCLA’s conference record was .500. The Bruins’ on-court presence left much to be desired, but behind the scenes, Close orchestrated the commitment of the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation, one that has since taken in the transfer of the top recruit of that same year, sophomore center Lauren Betts.

Alongside star graduate student guard Charisma Osborne – the Bruins’ glimmer of hope amid the 2021-2022 injury-riddled season – this group began to turn the program around.

(Jeremy Chen/Photo editor)
Sophomore guard Londynn Jones and sophomore forward Christeen Iwuala yell in celebration. (Jeremy Chen/Photo editor)

It may be easy to assume that this season could be UCLA’s only shot at an NCAA title, with Osborne exhausting her last moments of eligibility. But in addition to the stacked set of sophomores, Close recently reigned in the No. 2 ranked recruiting class of 2024 that will join the Bruins next season.

With the addition of yet another group of stars, UCLA has proven it’s elite. But what separates an elite crew from a dynasty program?

Taking a case study look at long-time powerhouses UConn and South Carolina, the process is trifold. An invested coach that believes in their players, a team that not only has all-around talent but invests in the winning and culture of sharing the scoring wealth and a fanbase that buys into the whole process.

With one of the best recruiting resumes in the league and a mindset to procure tough schedules to challenge her program, Close has primed herself as a potential candidate to be well on her way to establishing a dynasty.

But there is one caveat.

Close has never won a championship, conference or otherwise.

It’s been over 45 years since UCLA has won its only national championship – long before the conception of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament. It’s also been 25 years since the Bruins won the Pac-12 regular season title, and they’ve never claimed the conference crown.

In this time, the program has seen a turnover of four coaches, with Close’s 13 years at the helm approaching former coach Kathy Olivier’s record of 15. And Close has garnered success during her tenure, drawing in a slew of excellent recruits all with the same championship-winning goal engrained in their minds. But that mindset and ensuing excitement around the team hasn’t yet translated to a full trophy shelf.

In order for Close to separate herself from the pack and take the next step towards building a dynasty program, a trophy needs to appear, and soon. The Pac-12 tournament is just around the corner and is the best place to start.

Just feet from greatness, this March is for all the marbles. And if somehow this Bruin squad can manage to make history, it won’t be a stroke of luck. It’ll be the foundation that Close has been building for far longer than anyone realizes.

A conference title will be just the beginning.

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Grace Whitaker | Sports senior staff
Whitaker is currently a senior staff writer on the football, men's basketball and women's basketball beats. She was previously an assistant Sports editor on the women's basketball, women's soccer, beach volleyball and cross country beats and a contributor on the women's basketball and beach volleyball beats.
Whitaker is currently a senior staff writer on the football, men's basketball and women's basketball beats. She was previously an assistant Sports editor on the women's basketball, women's soccer, beach volleyball and cross country beats and a contributor on the women's basketball and beach volleyball beats.
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