Joan Bonvicini didn’t see this coming.
She should have. Bonvicini is the winningest coach in Arizona women’s basketball history with 287 victories. She rebuilt a struggling program into one that was expected to finish in the top half of the Pac-12. She took her teams to the postseason nine times, and won a WNIT Championship. Her 2003-04 team won a share of the Pac-10 Conference title. She coached one Pac-10 player of the year and three freshmen of the year; 54 of her players earned Pac-10 accolades, and 21 earned conference academic honors.
And that’s just what she did at Arizona.
In her 36 years, Bonvicini won 701 games, contributed to multiple Team USAs, and changed the way basketball was played on the West Coast.
Yet when Bonvicini got the news that she would be a member of the 2019 UA Sports Hall of Fame class, it was totally unexpected. Bonvicini was at the hairdresser when she got the news.
“Normally, I don’t answer my phone when I’m getting my hair done,” she said. “I saw it was Rocky (LaRose, chair of the committee), so I took the call. I was very, very surprised, humbled and honored. I had no idea. I am very appreciative that Arizona has welcomed me back in every way — and it helps having Adia (Barnes) there, too.”
The first time Bonvicini answered a phone call from Arizona administrators, she was one of the hottest young coaches in the country. She had taken Long Beach State to back-to-back Final Fours while establishing the 49ers as one of the West’s best teams. LaRose, then the UA’s deputy director of athletics and women’s basketball point person, pitched Bonvicini on coming to Tucson. Cedric Dempsey, the UA’s legendary athletic director, wanted her, too.
“It took me a year to adjust, but I liked it,” Bonvicini said. “Cedric Dempsey was great — the best way to describe him is integrity. I have a great deal of respect for him and Rocky. He believed in me and gave me the tools to be successful.”
The true measure of Bonvicini’s success has been the ongoing relationships she’s built with her players. When she looks into the crowd Thursday night, she’ll see five of her former Arizona players: Barnes, who’s now the UA’s coach, along with Felecity Willis, Dee-Dee Wheeler, Joy Hollingsworth and Danielle Adefeso.
Barnes said the players in attendance “says a lot about you as a coach.”
“Because if your players are still contacting you, still calling you and you still have a relationship, that means they know you cared about them,” she said. “She’s someone who impacted my life. When you have people in your life like that, it just helps. I am hoping I can do that for my kids — these players. I hope I can impact, influence, stay around their lives like that. …
“That’s why you coach. You are going to win and lose and you are going to get fired one day — every coach gets fired, probably. You are never going to win enough games, you are never going to win enough championships, and you are never going to be good enough. … I think it’s the way you make people feel, impact, change people’s lives — I think that’s more important. And I bet you that’s more important than any of her 700 wins. Having relationships like this and seeing her former players come to her Hall of Fame. I think those things are more important in the scheme of things.”
Bonvicini was considered a players’ coach during her time at Long Beach State, the UA and Seattle University — known for being intense and demanding on the court yet letting her players play. If they were hot, she wasn’t taking them out. Her teams ran an uptempo offense that was fed by an aggressive defense.
“We were one of the best in the country at transition offense,” Barnes said.
Bonvicini was influenced by her college coach, Hall of Famer Louise O’Neal. Bonvicini was an elite guard for Southern Connecticut State University, playing in three Final Fours alongside two Olympians. She was a finalist for the 1976 Olympic team. Bovnicini was 25 when Long Beach State named her its head coach.
“East Coast (basketball) was ahead of West Coast, and it helped me move things forward quickly,” Bonvicini said.
So quickly that she won 325 games at Long Beach, 287 at Arizona and 103 at Seattle.
Bonvicini’s top memories coaching at Arizona include winning the WNIT; taking overseas trips to Italy, France and Australia; going to the NCAA Tournament for the first time; and beating Stanford.
“It was the first time here (at McKale Center) and no one in the conference had beat them in like 60-plus games. This gave our team a lot of confidence,” she said.
Bonvicini retired from coaching in 2016, and is now both a broadcaster and a Tucson-based agent for New York Life Insurance. Whenever possible, she can be found in her seats at McKale Center watching Barnes’ Wildcats.
“It is great being back in Tucson and this honor is really overwhelming. It’s humbling and I’m very, very honored,” she said. “To me, it’s about thanking Arizona, and there are so many people who helped the program be successful. A head coach gets all the credit and the blame, and at times you don’t deserve it. ... I’m proud to have been a coach there for a long time.”