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What Shea Ralph’s departure means for UConn women’s basketball

The Huskies find themselves in need of a new assistant coach after Ralph’s move to Vanderbilt.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

UConn assistant Shea Ralph is officially the head coach at Vanderbilt. After spending most of her coaching career with the Huskies, Ralph will finally get the chance to build her own program.

So what does this mean for UConn?

UConn loses an experienced assistant

Ralph spent 13 years as an assistant at UConn — the second-longest tenure of any assistant under Auriemma behind only Tonya Cardoza (14 years) and not including Chris Dailey — in addition to the five years she spent as a player from 1996-2001.

Her experience playing under Auriemma gave Ralph a unique perspective and helped her connect with current players. Few people know the program as well as her. While the Huskies’ new assistant will take over her duties and responsibilities, there’s no replacing the experience and intangibles that Ralph brought on a daily basis.

Ralph will get head coaching experience

Ralph has long been viewed as a potential heir to Auriemma. However, the head coach said back in 2019 that he doesn’t plan on naming his replacement.

“I get asked all the time who would the next coach at Connecticut be and I said ‘I really have no opinion on that.’ Maybe a bunch of my assistants would want that job or former assistants,” Auriemma said at the time. “I think it’s hard for a person in my situation to say ‘Well I’m going to hand-pick the next coach.’ I think anybody who’s tried to do that has not done a good job of it.”

If that choice is left up to David Benedict (or whoever UConn’s athletic director may be when Auriemma retires), they could be hesitant to elevate an assistant with no coaching experience over someone like Carla Berube, for example — especially with what happened at Tennessee with Holly Warlick succeeding Pat Summitt or even at UConn with Kevin Ollie following Jim Calhoun.

Now, Ralph will gain valuable experience as a head coach — in the SEC, no less — where she can build her own program without all the pressure and expectations that would come with replacing a legendary head coach.

Potential candidates

UConn will likely cast a wide net in the search for its next assistant coach.

If the Huskies decide to hire someone with ties to the program — after all, three of the team’s last four assistants (Jamelle Elliot, Jasmine Lister, Ralph) all had some connection — Jen Rizzotti should be a leading candidate.

She was recently fired after five years as the head coach at George Washington and spent 17 years prior as head coach at Hartford. Like Ralph, Rizzotti is also a former UConn guard. The big question would be if Rizzotti would be willing to be an assistant after spending her entire coaching career as a head coach, though she is on Dawn Staley’s staff with USA Basketball, so it wouldn’t be a complete unknown for her.

Other assistant coaches around the country with ties to UConn include Tamika (Williams) Jeter at Ohio State, Nykesha Sales at UCF, Wilnett Crockett at Temple and Kevin DeMille, most recently at George Washington with Rizzotti. Kelly Schumacher-Raimon and Asjha Jones are also both assistants in the WNBA with the Dallas Wings and Washington Mystics, respectively.

In terms of an in-house option, video coordinator Ben Kantor filled in for Ralph during the NCAA Tournament and has a strong rapport with both the staff and players. He did spend two years as an assistant earlier in his career but eventually became a video coordinator, so he may not want to return to the sideline — assuming he’d even be a potential candidate.

UConn could also go “outside the family” — as it did with Marisa Moseley, who came from Minnesota. If the program takes that route, it’s anybody’s guess as to who could be chosen.