By JOEL CARLSON
As a member of the Lady Griz, Katie Baker knew well the highs and lows that come with being a player, from missing the back half of her freshman season with an injured knee to making two NCAA tournaments and being named the Big Sky Conference MVP as a senior.
In just two seasons as a college coach, she’s gone through the same type of ups and downs, from being part of the most successful season in UC Colorado Springs women’s basketball history to being a graduate assistant on a staff at Wisconsin that was let go at the end of last year.
Baker will take all those experiences into her new role. She is returning to Montana as the program’s director of basketball administration, a new position on first-year coach Shannon Schweyen‘s staff, which has Sonya Stokken and Mike Petrino as assistant coaches.
The staff’s third assistant position is expected be finalized and filled within the next week.
Per NCAA rules, Baker won’t be allowed to coach at practice or go out on the road to recruit. Instead her day-to-day duties will focus more on arranging team travel, summer camp organization, fundraising, keeping alumni connected to the program and upping its social media presence.
“When I learned this position was going to be available, I wasn’t sure Katie would be interested, because it’s not a coaching position,” said Schweyen, who saw Marlon Stewart of the men’s program get promoted from director of operations to assistant coach on Travis DeCuire‘s staff this offseason.
“There are so many times that that’s how people get their foot in the door and get their start. Marlon is a great example. Sometimes you have to start there before you get a chance to get on a staff. I think she’s going to be really good. She loves this place and is excited to get back.”
Baker had been in Madison just seven months when Wisconsin coach Bobbie Kelsey was let go in March, following the Badgers’ 7-21 season and 3-15 finish in the Big Ten. Kelsey had a five-year record of 47-100. In a department full of highly successful programs, that wasn’t good enough.
Jonathan Tsipis was brought in from George Washington before March was over. It took him just two weeks of being around Baker, who had no guarantee that she would be retained, for Tsipis to figure out what Kelsey had left behind.
“He said he valued the strength of my relationships with the players and my work ethic,” said Baker. “That solidified a lot for me. He’s a man of character.”
Her future, at least the next 10 months of it, seemed set. She would be working under a new coach and finishing her master’s degree. Then Schweyen reached out.
“Coach Tsipis is an all-star. It’s been really cool to see the culture change in just the last three months. It would have been incredible to coach with him, but timing is everything in this business,” said Baker.
“Montana has always been the dream. I’ve always had a sense that maybe I would make it back there one day. When Shannon called me last week and offered me the job, it was a no-brainer.”
Baker was a three-time, first-team All-Big Sky Conference selection while playing for the Lady Griz, capping her career by earning Big Sky MVP honors in 2012-13, when she led Montana to the Big Sky regular-season championship and the program’s 20th NCAA tournament appearance.
She ranks fifth in program history with 1,427 points, despite missing the final 14 games of the 2009-10 season, and sixth in blocks and 10th in rebounds. She graduated in 2013 with a degree in exercise science and as a four-time Academic All-Big Sky Conference selection.
Baker extended her playing career by a season when she signed with a team in Luxembourg for 2013-14, then found herself back home on the shore of Lake Coeur d’Alene, two summers ago, wondering what to do next.
For years she had traveled around the world working NBC Camps, which combine the teaching of basketball with Christian values. She turned that experience and her uncertainty into a coaching position at UC Colorado Springs, a Division II program that was coming off a 13-14 season.
“Once I got back from Europe, I was at home not knowing what I wanted to do,” said Baker. “I’ve always had a passion for coaching, so I decided to give it a try.”
Having fun in a camp setting is one thing. Coaching as a profession at the collegiate level is quite another. Like all coaches, Baker first had to come to grips with what she didn’t know.
“Just because you’ve played doesn’t mean you can coach or that you’re cut out to be a coach,” she said. “The biggest learning point for me that first year is that everyone learns differently.
“You have to learn to get on each girl’s level and learn how to get everything you can out of them, because it’s all about what they can do and how receptive they are to you. It didn’t come overnight, but it came. The payoff was seeing those girls come together. It was a great feeling.”
The Mountain Lions went from 13 wins the season before she arrived to a record of 26-7 in Baker’s one year on staff. UCCS not only advanced to its first NCAA tournament, it won a pair of games to reach the round of 16.
A few months later Baker was brought on by Kelsey as the Badgers’ graduate assistant coach. Baker joined a program that had won just 40 games through Kelsey’s first four seasons. Though it wasn’t talked about, everyone on staff knew what was at stake in year five.
“There were elements of pressure and some uncertainty, but as a coaching staff, you can never focus on that. It’s a matter of being better each day and trying to come up with solutions,” said Baker.
When Wisconsin finished 7-22 and 13th out of 14 teams in the Big Ten, the program’s lowest finish since the early 90s, Kelsey was let go.
“It was hard to see the coaching changeover, since it was Bobbie who brought me in. At the end of the day, they’re good people,” said Baker. “It really taught me about the profession and the business of basketball.”
Baker, Tsipis and the Badgers were in British Columbia for a three-game Canadian tour earlier this month when Schweyen contacted her former player.
Baker had a good situation in Madison. There was the promise of a new coach, and she was just nine credits shy of earning a graduate degree in educational leadership and policy analysis, with an emphasis on intercollegiate athletic administration.
Some roots had been put down, but not like the ones pulling her back to Montana, closer to family and to the program to which she dreamed about returning.
“The last three years I’ve expanded my skillset and my knowledge of the game. Coaching has always been in my heart. This past year it’s exploded into something I really want to make a career out of,” said Baker.
“Shannon is awesome. She’s the best. She’s going to take the program and build on an already rich tradition. As for me, I’m still young. I just want to bring a new energy into the program.”