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Orange Coach With Green Roots PDF Print E-mail
Written by cgcatsfan   
Tuesday, 27 June 2006

Note: This interview was conducted shortly before Coach Cieplicki resigned as head coach at Syracuse.

Keith Cieplicki began his collegiate coaching career as an assistant with the Vermont men’s program in 1986. After one season, he moved on to coach the boys’ varsity basketball program at Rice Memorial High School, his alma mater, in Burlington, Vt. He had an overall record of 69-21 with the Little Indians, guiding the squad to the state finals twice.

Cieplicki returned to college coaching in 1991 as an assistant on the women’s basketball staff at Vermont under Inglese. He was a part of the staff that led the Catamounts to back-to-back undefeated regular seasons in 1991-92 and 1992-93. Vermont was the only NCAA Division I school to accomplish that feat, setting a then-NCAA record with 53 straight regular-season victories. Vermont also won consecutive America East Tournament titles, advancing to the NCAA Tournament in 1992 and 1993. During his two-year stint as an assistant with the Catamounts, Cieplicki earned a master’s degree in counseling from Vermont.

Cieplicki followed Inglese to Boston College in 1993. His 1995 recruiting class was ranked in the nation’s top 20 by the Blue Star Scouting Service.

Following his two seasons in Chestnut Hill, Cieplicki once again returned to Burlington, taking over the girls program at Rice Memorial. The team had gone 2-18 in the season prior to his arrival, but two seasons later the program recorded a 12-9 mark. He remained at Rice until taking the reins of the Catamounts’ women’s team prior to the 1997-98 season.

Cieplicki had a standout playing career at both Rice Memorial and the College of William & Mary. He was the Burlington Free Press Player of the Year during his scholastic career and was recently named to the Barre Times Argus "Dream Dozen," which honored the 12 greatest Vermont boys and girls basketball players since 1960.

Cieplicki was a three-time all-conference and three-time Academic All-American performer at William & Mary where he earned a bachelor’s degree in religion in 1985. He is a member of the William & Mary Athletic Hall of Fame and had his #14 jersey retired. He was a seventh-round draft pick by the Los Angeles Lakers in 1985. Sports Illustrated ranked Cieplicki as the 48th-best athlete in the history of the State of Vermont in their December 27, 1999 issue listing the "Top 50 Athletes" in each state.

Cieplicki was hired as head coach of the Syracuse Orange women's basketball team for the 2004-2005 season.  Recently Catamount Country got a chance to catch up with the Orange Coach for an interview.

CC:  What was it like growing up as a Cieplicki? Was basketball always on the radar?
KC:  Yes it was with dad coaching and very involved.  It was a way of life. It was something that was pretty much the center of our lives for as long as I can remember.

CC:  Was it tough with your dad as a coach?
KC:  Sometimes it was tough, but we were lucky because we grew up in the gym, but you do bring it (basketball) home.  It was tough at the dinner table some days.   In terms of basketball years I always tell people I’m about 80 years old.  I remember my dad’s team from the time I was 4, 5 and 6 years old.

CC:  We know the Lakers drafted you in 1985.  Did you go to camp and try out? What were your experiences with the NBA?
KC:  I did try out. I went to L.A. and spent a month working out with other rookies.  I played against Karl Malone. That was a neat experience.  It’s something that I’m thankful for opportunity to do out there. I got to know Jerry West and to really be exposed to the best basketball in the world.

CC:  Let's go back a year, where were you the night Vermont defeated Syracuse?
Describe your emotions?
KC:  It was such a tenuous position in the sense of whom my loyalties were to. The bottom line is that Vermont means a lot to me and so does Syracuse.  I went, enjoyed the game and empathized with everyone, winner and loser. I was mostly happy for my nephew (Kyle).  He’s such a good kid.

I was happy for Tom, Jesse Agel, and the rest of the coaches from Vermont. It’s touchy because I’m friends with Coach Boeheim and the other coaches here.  For the most part I was happy for my nephew because it meant so much to him.

CC:  You mention your nephew Kyle, who is on the UVM basketball team. How often do you get to see him play?
KC:  Albany was the only time this year I saw him in person.  My time is really limited between games, recruiting and everything.  

CC:  Tell us a little about Kyle.
KC:  He’s got a level head and he understands what it takes to be successful.  He is happy for the opportunity to play college basketball.  It’s wonderful for him and he works really hard at it.  

CC:  In 1986, you were an assistant for the Vermont men's team. Describe the
Program back then? How was support for the team?
KC:  It was the first or second Tom Brennan year. We weren’t very good. We had a great group of guys. They worked really hard.  We were just a little bit behind everyone. There’s always been a wonderful core of fans at UVM and in the community.  That’s the nature of college basketball, I’ve been to a lot of colleges and seen a lot of things and it’s nice to have a team that wins. I always felt there was a great core of support in Vermont.  It’s amazing to me, because when I started as an assistant to Kathy Inglese we had more support than the men’s team. The women’s program was very strong.  Now the men’s team is successful and selling out every game.  I think the success of (college basketball) programs cycles like this in most places.  The Dukes and Carolinas are rare.  

CC:  Albany gave UCONN quite a scare. There’s been a lot of debate about the Mid Majors and a lot of talk about parity. What do you think about that?
KC:  I think George Mason answered it for everybody. You don’t argue with results. If you look at the quality of all the tournament games, there were a lot of terrific games.

I think that there is one difference in that between men and women. A lot of the high school and college men leave early for the NBA. That takes the top tier of players. Any great sophomore female will still be with the team as a junior or senior. Parity will be harder for women because of this.  UCONN’s women’s team gets to keep their great players for all 4 years. That’s the difference.  I see the parity growing in women’s basketball in ten to fifteen years.

CC:  You must have some Vermont memories to share or at least one great Tom Brennan story to share?
KC:  I have lots of favorite memories from Vermont but if I had to pick one it is probably when we came back from the NCAA tournament after losing to George Washington and being met at the airport by a very enthusiastic group of fans cheering for the team.  That really meant a lot to all of us.  Also, when we went to the elite eight of the WNIT and beat Holy Cross and St. Joe's.  That was very, very special.  That and working for Rick Farnham, one of the very finest men I've ever known.

I wish I kept in better touch with former players, but I follow what they are doing and from time to time I have been in touch with Jen Niebling, Christie Lauzon, Libby Smith, Lani Boardman, Jen Chapman Fitzgerald, Missy Kelsen and of course, my sister in law, Betsy Brothers Cieplicki.

My favorite Tom Brennan story is when I worked for him I took him to see a recruit in Albany and the player was awful.  I heard about it all the way home!

My favorite Cathy Inglese story is all that I learned from her.  We used to watch endless hours of tape together and she always would say when our players did something wrong that "we need to teach it better.  Obviously we are not teaching it well enough,” instead of complaining about the player or getting frustrated.  It's a learning experience I have kept with me forever and that's what makes her great!

CC:  You mention some of the former women’s players. We noticed that Morgan Hall was on your staff. What is she up to now?
KC:  Morgan was with us for a couple seasons. She decided to step away from basketball.  It had been so much of her life but she left a little over a year ago.
The demands are very great here.  

CC:  You coach Bill Laimbeer's daughter. What is Keri Laimbeer like, on
and off the court?
KC:  It’s been nice  coaching her.  We understand each other.  Her dad was on a such a big scale visibly. It’s nice for her and me to have an understanding of where we come from to try to keep a little balance.  For her it’s challenging at times and everyone wants to talk about her father and I try to help her be herself and try to shield her from that and just let her be a college kid.   Keri has a great Mom who has been a real help to her.

CC:  What's the major difference between playing in the America East and the Big East?
KC:  Really athleticism. It’s size and speed and strength and quickness. What you’d a find in a 6’1” player in the AE you’d fine a 6’4” or 6’5” player doing in the Big East.  We had some very skilled players in Vermont.  Recruiting is becoming more keyed on athleticism. I hate to say it, but it’s sometimes worth sacrificing some level of fundamental skills for athleticism. For instance some women are dunking now.  That’s where it’s evolving more into an athletic game and almost less skill. But if you’re really skilled and you can’t get to the basket, it doesn’t matter.

CC:  Your recruiting history is very strong.   Obviously stats and films are important. What else do you look for?
KC:  I think there’s a huge people element to it. The thing we try to look for are players that love the game like us.  At Vermont I had Jen Niebling with me and I brought Matt Luneau here from Vermont.  I think having  people around me that have the same feel for the game and players we’re looking for helps.  Also let’s be honest you have to be a little lucky and we’ve been lucky in our recruiting.  You look at who you can get and go after them. I try not to waste a lot of time with players I know I can’t get.   At UVM We had a great niche with the Canadian recruits. Here at Syracuse, we’ve had to go to Eastern Europe. It’s been is very good for us and Detroit is really good for us. Recruiting is the thing we spend the most time with.

CC: You seem to recruit players that have an immediate impact.
KC:  We’ve needed to, because the program struggled for so long. But you’ve got to have a little luck, especially when you’re trying to rebuild.

CC:  You have a sophomore player that just recorded her second 60-block season, right?
KC:  She’s a Lithuanian. She was the second recruit I’ve had from Lithuania.
She’s a really gifted player and she’s a really key for next couple seasons.

CC:  Jenny Eckert did well for you this year.  
KC:  There is little Vermont Connection there.   Steve Pratt, who played up in Johnson and is in Chicago now.  He was Jenny’s AAU coach and that Vermont connection helped.  She’s a terrific PG for us.

CC:  Cintia Johnson is a local player.  Tell is a little about her
KC:  Cintia is tremendous.  She plays harder than anyone we’ve ever seen. We knew she was good, but she surprised us with her intensity. We did have lots of injuries this year. If we were healthy, we would have won more games, that's the other side of the luck.  You’ve got to have luck especially when you’re trying to build.

For instance, Sara (Antolick) was ranked 69th in the country coming out of high school.  She’s 6’3” and runs and jumps as good as anybody.  Here’s where we talk about luck. She broke her foot her first year, then her knee this fall.  Here’s somebody that I think if she was healthy she would  average 15/10.  She still has not been through one whole season healthy.

CC:  Tell us a little about your latest recruit Fantasia Goodwin.
KC:  I’m very happy about her. She’s a good athlete and she can really put the ball in the basket. We need that above all in Syracuse. We’re at the stage that we need that elite skilled player, not just the player who is an athlete.  

CC:  You mentioned in your recruiting announcement that she’s been on her own since she was young.  
KC:  Yes, as far as her upbringing--her mom passed away at a young age.  She’s had to do a lot on her own.  In recruiting, I usually either feel real good about a recruit in the first minute or get red flags.  She was very genuine and very honest and this is such a tough time with a ton of changes in a student athlete’s life.  She impressed me as a very stable individual.  She understands herself.  She’s a pretty special person to survive and succeed when the demands are very intense.

CC:  When did you start thinking about coaching?
KC:  Growing up in the gym, it’s always been where I felt most comfortable. I’m not sure I chose to be a coach.  It’s just always been there. (Laughs) Look, I know the pain of a real job. I don’t look at this as work. I love doing this and it’s something I always knew I wanted to do. It was either this or the full time ministry. I always felt like coaching is a ministry and I still try to live that out through basketball. Which isn’t always easy.

CC:  Well that is all we have.  Do you have any parting words of wisdom?
KC:  I always think about my time in Vermont.  I’m very fond of everyone back there.  Everyone was incredibly supportive.  As we sit and look back at what we have done up to this point I really have great memories of what I see as some of the best days of our life.  I’m thrilled for the team and I hope the women can have that kind of success again.  I think if people can be patient with Sharon (Dawley) she is doing her best and hopes to make the program successful.  The (Vermont) men’s team has had a good run so people want them to win 20 games a season for the rest of their lives and sometimes it just doesn’t work like that.

CC:  Thanks for speaking with Catamount Country!  Best of luck next season!

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