Niya Butts never thought about being a coach.
The former SEC Defensive Player of the Year at Tennessee always considered a different career path while earning her bachelor's degree in social work with a minor in psychology.
"I wanted to be a family therapist," Butts said. "I love being involved with people and working with them, and helping them get from Point A to Point B.
"I'm doing that a little bit now," Butts continued with a smile, "so it actually worked out pretty well."
It sure has.
The 33-year-old Americus, Ga., native began her coaching career as an assistant in 2000 at Tennessee Tech where she was attending graduate school. The gig started as something to simply keep her busy while she continued her education.
"I said to myself, 'OK, I'll do it when I go to graduate school and it will pay for my education,' " Butts said. "Needless to say, it turned out I loved it and just kept doing it."
Butts is now in her fourth season as head coach of the Wildcats and has compiled a 47-48 record. The team's win total has improved in each of her first three seasons, and last year's 21-12 squad made an appearance in the Women's NIT for the first time since the 2000-2001 season. The next step would be the NCAA tournament, which Arizona hasn't been to since the 2004-05 season.
Butts recently talked to the Star about higher expectations for the program, this year's team, her Tennessee coach and eight-time national champion Pat Summitt and a range of other topics.
What was your first reaction when you heard coach Summitt was diagnosed with early-onset dementia?
A: "Obviously, it was something that saddens you. It's not something you're expecting, especially because it's someone who has been a mentor to you and has had such an influence in your life and has been so sharp since you've known her. It was a sad deal and certainly shocking. It's a very tough pill to swallow."
Will UA ever play Tennessee?
A: "Maybe one day, who knows. Not this year, though."
Which newcomers are you excited about this season?
A: "Aley Rohde, mainly because she gives us so much size on the inside. All of them have been doing good things. (Freshman) Layana White plays very, very hard. Even when she makes mistakes, which is going to happen being new, she's able to make up for a lot of those because she's just playing so hard. I really like to see that. (Junior college transfer) Cheylene Harper is going to do a good job for us. Lindsey Fearing, Erin Butler, we look for all of them to play a role of some sort on this team and push us forward."
What's been the most challenging part about being the coach at Arizona?
A: "Changing the culture. It's a difficult process. You want all incoming players to follow who is ahead of them in terms of the way they act, approach academics and approach life off the court. But, you have to establish that mindset. Changing the culture is probably the most difficult part and still a work in progress."
How do you change the culture?
A: "I think you just continue to implement your system. You establish your values and beliefs - and you continue to do that - and hopefully the freshmen you recruit, by the time they are a junior or sophomore, have no questions on how to approach things. By that time, they are leading by example and you hope that filters down your entire team."
Does your team talk about the NCAA tournament?
A: "Absolutely. It's not a secret that's where we want to go. That's our goal. There are certain things that we have to do along the way to make that happen. Not talking about it won't make it go away."
Is it easier to recruit to Arizona than it was when you got here?
A: "It's not easier, but I certainly think the success we've had the last three years has certainly helped. It's recruiting, and everybody is looking for a lot of the same things. It's always going to be a competitive type of deal. But, certainly, the more we win, the more it will help us in that area."
Where does the on-court leadership come from this season?
A: "I may have to tell you to check back in with me in a month or so. You want consistent leadership. Anyone can do it for a day or two, or an hour or two. Who is that going to be on an everyday basis? We certainly have ideas, but it won't kick in until that person or those people really show me they are ready for that role."
What are the qualities you look for in a leader?
A: "I want them to be able to talk the talk and walk the walk. It's very simple. If you're going to lead, you also have to follow. One thing that I do know about leadership is you can't say one thing and then let your actions show another. It has to be that person willing to make sacrifices or being able to speak up and stop something they know shouldn't be going on. It's going to be interesting deal."
UA WOMEN'S SCHEDULE
11 at Georgia Southern 2 p.m.
13 at Georgia State 1 p.m.
17 Wichita State 7 p.m.
21 at New Mexico State 7 p.m.
28 North Texas 11 a.m.
1 vs. BYU* 7 p.m.
2 vs. Syracuse* 7 p.m.
3 vs. BYU-Hawaii * 7 p.m.
11 Long Beach State 1 p.m.
18 at Ark.-Pine Bluff noon
21 New Mexico 5 p.m.
28 UNLV 7 p.m.
31 at ASU (FSAZ) noon
5 UCLA 7 p.m.
7 USC 2 p.m.
12 at Oregon 8 p.m.
14 at Oregon State 3 p.m.
19 Utah 7 p.m.
22 Colorado (FSAZ) 2:30 p.m.
26 at Washington 8 p.m.
28 at Washington State 3 p.m.
2 California 7 p.m.
4 Stanford 2 p.m.
9 at Colorado 7 p.m.
11 at Utah 9 p.m.
16 Washington St. 7 p.m.
19 Wash. (FSAZ) 3 p.m.
23 at USC 7 p.m.
25 at UCLA 3 p.m.
3 Arizona State 2 p.m.
7 Pac-12 Tournament** TBA
* Hukilau Invitational in Laie, Hawaii
** in Los Angeles
Home games in ALL CAPS