Tasked to forge an identity, Suzie McConnell-Serio forged a career.
In 1991, her first season as girls' basketball coach at the recently created Oakland Catholic High School, a player told McConnell-Serio, "We have no identity."
"Saying that, she really kind of hit me in the chest," the coach said. "My response was, 'We will create our own identity.' "
McConnell-Serio did, and she has done so in her coaching career. Her coaching identity includes success at Oakland Catholic, in the WNBA and now as the women's coach at Duquesne University. It soon will include the 2010 Dapper Dan Sportswoman of the Year award. She will be honored at the Dapper Dan Dinner and Sports Auction Feb. 9 at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.
McConnell-Serio, a member of the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame, led Duquesne to its first two 20-win seasons in school history. This season, her 17-3 Dukes beat then-No. 12 Ohio State on the road and have a chance to make the NCAA tournament for the first time. The Brookline native has coached for almost 21 seasons at three levels, won three high school state titles and taken the WNBA's Minnesota Lynx to the playoffs, but no matter where she has coached, the same aspects of the job excite her.
"To me, coaching is very rewarding when it all starts to come together and you see the growth of your team over the course of the season," she said.
McConnell-Serio graduated from Penn State in 1988 with an elementary education degree and won a gold medal with the U.S. national team at the '88 Olympics. When offered the chance to coach at Oakland Catholic in '91, she took it, knowing she enjoyed teaching the game and working at basketball camps.
"I love working with players, seeing them grow as people, seeing them grow as players," she said. "[I love] seeing your team come together."
She played in the WNBA for three seasons (1998-2000) while coaching at Oakland Catholic. She then moved on to coach the Lynx in 2003, staying 3 1/2 seasons. She took them to the playoffs for the first time in '03 and was named the '04 WNBA coach of the year.
"It's an unbelievable opportunity to be able to coach that level of talent," she said.
She moved back to Pittsburgh after leaving the Lynx in 2006 and worked on TV broadcasts of Penn State and Big Ten games while coaching her daughter's fifth-grade basketball team. With some prodding from her sister, Kathy, formerly the women's coach at Colorado, she called athletic director Greg Amodio to tell him she was interested in the Duquesne job.
"It was probably, in my mind, the best phone call that I made," McConnell-Serio said.
She had thought about coaching in college when scouting college players before the WNBA draft.
"In the back of my mind, I always thought if I wasn't coaching in the WNBA, this is where I would want to be," she said. "The atmosphere, the fan base, just the excitement of college basketball."
She said she's still learning. Duquesne senior Kelly Britcher said her coach studies film tirelessly. "It never ends," McConnell-Serio said as she paused a game tape in her office. She combines tactics she sees on tape with those she learned at Penn State, as a WNBA player and with the U.S. national team.
"She expects a lot from her players and she knows that we can meet her expectations," Britcher said.
No specific moment defines her coaching career, McConnell-Serio said. Seeing her teams succeed at every level has pleased her.
"Just having the opportunity to have your players do something that hasn't been done before as far as winning championships, as far as being in the postseason," she said. "Just watching them over the course of the season, their confidence grow in themselves and each other.
Now she wants to take Duquesne to the NCAA tournament. Their 3-1 conference record places them fourth in the Atlantic 10.
"Even when we started in October, I don't really think that I truly had the expectations of being where we are right now," McConnell-Serio said.
Bill Brink: email@example.com .