Cool coach hopes to fire up Elis

The Yale women’s basketball team began its Ivy League season with a stumble, to say the least.

In the first half of the Bulldogs’ game against Brown Jan. 15, the Elis shot 19.2 percent from the floor, connecting on only five shots. Erica Davis ’07, the team’s leading scorer this year, was held to five points and a solitary field goal. And the Bulldogs, somewhat infamous for their penchant for giveaways, committed 22 turnovers.

The 38 points the Bulldogs would eventually amass in the 65-38 loss is the lowest point total a Yale team has put up since 1997.

Meanwhile, as she watched her team go into the half down 18 points at home in its first league game of the season, head coach Amy Backus sat unruffled with her chin resting on her hand.

“I’m a pretty calm coach; I don’t want to add to any nervousness or problems with performance,” Backus said. “I’m not a screamer on the sidelines. I give them the face they need to see in turmoil. They look to the coach for right answers, right decisions. You have to be pretty calm on your feet.”

Right answers have not always been forthcoming from the sixth-year Eli coach. Her Bulldogs are 3-11, and the thumping the team received from the Bears was most likely not the Ivy home-opener the team was hoping for.

But make no mistake — despite her tame sideline demeanor, Backus wants to win, and she is always looking to better both her basketball team and herself.

“She is composed on the sidelines, but she is far from calm,” captain Morgan Richards ’05 said. “She’s very invested emotionally, and she puts a lot of energy into what she does, both on the court and in her office. She brings a lot of passion and energy to her speeches at halftime and before the game, and it helps inspire the team.”

Backus started out as a basketball player at Central Michigan as a member of the class of 1979. While she played, she held the single-game scoring record, and she still holds the record for second-most rebounds in a single game with 19. She was also one of the first women to be granted an athletic scholarship for basketball in Michigan.

She stayed at Central Michigan for another year as the graduate assistant coach and the head coach of the junior varsity team. From 1980-85, Backus was the head coach for the varsity basketball and softball teams at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio.

Backus has also been a competitive sailor for 38 years, and when she left Otterbein in 1985 she began an Olympic campaign to go to the Seoul games in 1988. When her Olympic dreams were derailed by a lack of funding, Backus got back into coaching with a one-year tenure as assistant coach at the University of Vermont.

Next were seven years as head coach at Middlebury College, during which time her teams went an impressive 106-41. In 1993, the Panthers won the ECAC New England Division III Championship and Backus was named NEWBA Coach of the Year.

Her final job before coming to New Haven was the assistant coach spot at Northwestern from 1995-1999, a period during which the Wildcats qualified for one NCAA tournament and twice made it to the women’s NIT.

All told, Backus has posted a 200-165 record as a head coach and an impressive .548 win percentage. But the Elm City chapter of her career has not been all smiles.

At Yale, Backus has amassed an overall record of 48-87, and has put together only one winning season — a 14-13 campaign in 2001-2002. The Elis have never finished better than fourth in the Ivy League under Backus, and have finished in the bottom two twice.

But despite Backus’ troubles at Yale, team members defend her, saying that the flak their coach sometimes endures is just part of people’s needs to single out a cause for a team failing to execute.

“She’s not responsible for our play and she doesn’t have any control over our talent,” Davis said. “She has no effect on our performance except to inspire us to achieve our max, which she does. She can’t play for us — we’re ultimately the ones on the court playing.”

Backus’ style, as she demonstrates on the sideline, is a no-frills, straightforward approach. Her Elis play man-to-man defense and are supposed to work for rebounds. Offense is about no turnovers and pushing the ball up the court.

Even practice is entirely organized. Backus plans what her team does down to the minute, sticking to a tight schedule that she prints out and brings to practice.

For example, in the shoot-around before the Brown game, the team started a five-minute shooting drill at exactly 9:40. At 9:45, the team began inside-out shooting, moving to free shooting at 9:55. At 10:00, the team moved on to three-point shooting.

“I would be lost without this, without the clock,” Backus said, holding up her plan for the shoot-around.

Backus’ formula, while not always producing wins, has provided measurable success. Her teams have excelled from beyond the three-point line, consistently finishing near the top of the Ivy League in both accuracy and number of baskets made. And despite recent hiccups against Brown and George Washington — against whom the Bulldogs lost 90-50 loss Jan. 7 — this year’s team heads into the Ivy League season with definite potential.

“This year, the Ivy League is wide open,” Backus said. “If our kids buckle down, decide to take care of the ball and play defense, we have just as good a shot as anyone in the league, despite our record.

But perhaps more important to Backus than how her team plays is who her team becomes. Backus’ teams have a history of academic excellence and a strong track record of community service.

And above all, Backus just wants her players to do as well as she knows they can, a desire masked by her stoic sideline behavior.

“I don’t know if [I am] any more unique than any coach who wants her team to execute, to play like you see them in practice,” Backus said. “For me, it’s all I can ever ask for. I know how much work they put in, and I know that any less than that on gameday is disappointing for them. I want to see it on their faces when they walk into a locker room after winning a game. It’s the best feeling in the world.”

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