Phil Stern was thrilled simply to have a Division I coaching job when taking over the women’s basketball program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County before the 2002-2003 season.
Stern joined the Retrievers with a four-year plan he hoped would bring victories to Baltimore.
He wound up needing a bit of a longer plan.
Stern is about to start his 15th season at UMBC. In addition, Stern recently received a contract extension through the 2020-2021 season, which would keep him at the school for nearly two decades, something that does not happen often at the Division I level.
But Stern is happy it did. He’ll have a team this season that returns a number of players from last year’s 18-14 group that went to the second round of the Women’s Basketball Invitational, where the women Retrievers won a postseason game for the first time in the program’s history (a 61-49 victory over Fairfield).
Under Stern’s guidance, the Retrievers now have made it to the NCAA tournament, the WNIT and WBI — three different postseason tournaments that demonstrate the success they’ve had under his hand.
Stern is a big believer in how much postseason play can help a program.
“The experience of playing in the postseason is going to help us moving forward, and just the excitement it generated on campus — it was a really cool experience,” Stern said of the team actually hosting a WNIT game last winter. “Making a postseason [tournament] helps. It always helps recruiting and always gets your team a little more exposure. It’s something that just adds on to how attractive UMBC actually is.”
Stern doesn’t just look at wins, though, as his teams constantly fare well in the classroom. He’s not just thinking about X’s and O’s on the basketball court. He wants the women to get good grades and prepare for more than the sport.
The UMBC teams coached by Stern have always posted at least a 3.0 GPA. In fact, his 2009-2010 team finished with the third-highest GPA in the country among NCAA Division I women’s teams (3.578).
All 11 members of that team made the America East (the conference UMBC plays in) Honor Roll for finishing with a GPA of 3.0 or higher during the spring semester.
Seven players also got Commissioner’s Honor Roll honors as they earned at least a 3.5.
“I am so pleased that Phil will be continuing to lead our women’s basketball program well into the future,” UMBC Director of Athletics Tim Hall said when the new contract was announced this summer. “His recruiting contacts are vast, and his basketball acumen is as strong as there is in the game.
“What really sets him apart, though, is his comprehensive commitment to the academic success and welfare of his student-athletes. I am confident that we are in a really good position to build on his program’s recent success.”
Stern hails from Oceanside, N.Y., on Long Island. That’s where he grew up and had his bar mitzvah, at the Oceanside Jewish Center. He’s proud of his heritage, while saying it came up a bit — but not in a bad way — when he worked in the South.
“There weren’t many Jewish people down there,” Stern said. “It doesn’t really come up anymore. I think there’s more and more Jewish people in coaching. It hasn’t been a big deal.”
Stern graduated from Concordia College in 1994 and lives in Baltimore. He’s married to Ashley Cieplicki, who is the women’s basketball coach at Rutgers Newark, so basketball remains a big part of his family.
Stern came to UMBC after coaching in high school and then at Dowling College (N.Y.) for two years before moving to South Carolina and taking over the USC Aiken program (1998-2002). Stern twice won Peach Belt Conference Coach of the Year honors (2000, 2002) before taking the UMBC job.
Stern now is looking forward to the opening of the new arena at UMBC, which should come in late 2017. He sees that as something that will help his program grow even more – kind of part of his new plan that’s stretched out a little longer.
“I think that you always have to evolve and change with the times,” Stern said. “I’m very fortunate. [Coaching in one spot for a long time] doesn’t happen to a lot of coaches nowadays.”
Jeff Seidel is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.
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