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April 7, 2011

Wolff takes over the helm of the Tech women's basketball program

By: Jimmy Robertson

Dennis Wolff became the sixth women�s basketball coach in Virginia Tech history when Tech AD Jim Weaver named him the head coach on March 22.

Normally, when making personnel decisions, Tech AD Jim Weaver and his staff take the traditional and conservative approach.

Yet in making his new hire for the vacant women’s basketball head coaching position, Weaver stepped well beyond the norm.

In an example of out-of-the-box thinking, Weaver reached over into the men’s basketball staff and tabbed Dennis Wolff as the new women’s head coach. Wolff replaces Beth Dunkenberger, who resigned after a season in which Tech went 11-19, 1-13 in the ACC and missed the postseason for the fourth straight year. She served for seven seasons at the helm.

Wolff, who agreed to a six-year contract that pays a base salary of $233,486 and pays a retention incentive of $132,000 per year, spent this past season serving as the director of basketball operations for the men’s program piloted by Seth Greenberg. He had never been a women’s basketball coach – head or assistant – but Weaver looked beyond that, asking Wolff before the women’s season ended to entertain the idea of being the head coach of the Tech women’s program. After thinking about it for several weeks, Wolff agreed to take the job.

“Because I think he’s the best person for the job at this moment in time,” Weaver said when asked why he hired Wolff over someone within the women’s game. “I think he has a great knowledge of the game. I think the fact that he coached his son at BU [Matt] and that he coached up his daughter [Nicole] to the point that she was the best player in the land eight years ago [2002 McDonald’s Player of the Year] lends itself very favorably to his role as our head coach. And people who know him know he’s a tireless worker.”

It certainly would be hard to argue against Wolff’s impressive credentials as a basketball coach. He served in assistant roles at Virginia, Wake Forest, SMU and St. Bonaventure. After four years as an assistant at UVa, he spent 15 years as the head coach at Boston University, compiling a 247-187 record, and is the school’s all-time winningest coach. He was named America East’s Coach of the Year on three separate occasions and guided the Terriers to two NCAA Tournaments. Despite that, the school surprisingly let him go in 2009.

The Queens, N.Y., native took a year off from basketball, attending games and practices and visiting Iraq and Afghanistan on USO tours. Greenberg approached Wolff about a director of basketball operations position on his staff early last summer and ultimately hired him. He allowed Wolff to have a lot of input both in game planning and in-game strategy.

But then Weaver came in with another offer – and Wolff accepted it.

“When he asked me, I thought about it and went, ‘Okay,’” Wolff said. “And then I did ask him, ‘What makes you think I can do this?’ We spoke about the coaching. We spoke about the experiences I’ve had with my daughter. We spoke about my feelings for the Virginia Tech community. From that point, once I was able to get with my family, I decided this is something that would be a very good thing for us.

“I know that everybody has a lot of questions about this. Let me say this, and before we get into the fact that I haven’t coached women in college and I’m absolutely 100 percent aware that there will be some learning curve on some part of it, one of the main reasons that Coach Weaver and I started talking about this is how I began to feel about Virginia Tech. Across the board, my interaction, it really made me feel that this was a special place.”

The biggest concerns among those questioning this hire are Wolff’s lack of experience coaching the women’s game. He was around it a lot while his daughter, Nicole, was being recruited and later playing at UConn under legendary coach Geno Auriemma. But that differs starkly from being around 15 young women every single day.

Wolff admitted as much and addressed the differences in his typical forthright manner.

“I think they want to be coached and they want to be coached in a way that’s going to make them be successful,” he said. “I think there’s probably a little bit of an emotional end of it, and it’s something that I had talked to Nicole about before she went to UConn.

“In my opinion, for whatever it’s worth, a lot of times the high-level players on the women’s side, they are so dominant all the way through that very rarely do they have anyone say anything to them critical because they’ve been killing everybody. And when my daughter was making her decision for college, one of the things I made clear was that the minute she went to UConn, that all changed. He [Auriemma] coaches them [his players] like Jim Calhoun [the UConn men’s coach] coaches them. You have to have some thick skin. Those are things that at least I’ve thought about.

“I think that these kids want to have a good team, and I think that they’ll be responsive to instruction. I think I’m going to lean on some people and I’m going to hire two ladies that have experience in college basketball to point out things that I might not have thought of.”

Wolff certainly inherits a challenge in rebuilding this Tech women’s program. The Hokies are 9-47 in ACC play the past four seasons. The roster lacks the talent and athleticism needed to compete in the ACC, and a lot of the in-state talent of late has been heading to other schools.

“I think this is probably as significant a challenge as I’ve undertaken as a college coach,” Wolff admitted.

Wolff met with all the players individually and hopes all of them will stay in Blacksburg. He also met with all the assistants, though he plans on taking his time before putting together his staff.

Perhaps of more importance, he already has called prominent AAU coaches, including Boo Williams – who is not just plugged into the men’s recruiting scene, but also the women’s. Wolff also visited Oak Hill Academy, which has a dominant women’s program, just like the men’s program there.

Despite the drawbacks of the job, Wolff welcomes the challenge. He inherited a similar situation at Boston University, and in his third year, the Terriers went 25-5, 17-1 in the league, and advanced to the NCAA Tournament.

“The record isn’t what anyone here would like it to be,” Wolff said “And I’m sure that the girls, they would like it to be different.

“But the difference is Virginia Tech, the practice facility, the commitment of the people that follow the program and the support of all the people that are in this room [Schott Media Center for the press conference]. I don’t think Coach Weaver would go out of the box a little bit on this if everybody here wasn’t committed to trying to have a successful women’s program that’s on par with everything else here.”