As the buzzer rang out last Friday night, the red lights on the wall of the John J. Lee Amphitheater — Yale 86, Cornell 73 — wrote the latest chapter in a 32-year story: Head coach Chris Gobrecht had won the 500th game of her career.
Yale players rushed off the bench and doused their coach with water, in earnest imitation of the ice baths that football players honor their coaches with after big wins. One of these players, guard Megan Vasquez ’13, shared in this historic night, as she became the 17th player in Yale women’s basketball history to score 1,000 points in her career, but Vasquez did not have the pleasure of partaking in the ice bath.
“It was an unforgettable moment, and I’m glad I was there to share her career milestone with her,” Vasquez said of her coach. “My teammates kept predicting that we would reach both milestones on the same night and it’s crazy that it actually happened. I think it makes it that much more meaningful for both of us.”
Gobrecht became the 22nd active women’s basketball coach to reach the milestone, but the coach seemed less impressed with her accomplishment than her players were. In 2009, she told the News she thought that coaches’ win-loss records were the most overrated statistic in sports and she reiterated that sentiment after Friday’s game.
“It’s not really that big a deal, just because I’ve been coaching for so long,” Gobrecht, who is in her 32nd season as a Division I head coach, said of her milestone victory. “What means a lot is that there have been a lot of challenges along the way and that so many of these wins have been hard-fought battles.”
College basketball coaches decide whom they play against for the entire first half of the season, so they are free to fill their schedules with mid-major pushovers that will pad their win totals, or they can choose to take on national powers that will push their players to the limits of their abilities. Gobrecht said she counts herself in the latter camp. She has always been proud of her tough scheduling and refusal to back down from a challenge, she added.
Gobrecht’s journey began at California State University, Fullerton in 1979, long before any of her players were born. At age 24 the university hired her after she finished a distinguished playing career at the University of Southern California and two years of coaching at the high school and community college level. She turned the struggling program around and led the Titans to an 18–12 record in only her third year on the job. In the 1984-’85 season, Gobrecht’s last with Cal State Fullerton, the Titans went 19-11 and claimed their first ever bid to the Women’s National Invitational Tournament. The bid earned Gobrecht recognition as a finalist for national Coach of the Year.
From Cal State Fullerton Gobrecht moved on to the University of Washington, where she remained for 11 years. It was with the Huskies that she enjoyed her greatest success as a coach and where she caught the eye of Yale athletic director Tom Beckett, who was associate director of athletics for Stanford at the time.
“I got to know Chris watching her teams play back when I was at Stanford,” Beckett said. “She had outstanding teams at Washington, and she took them all the way to the NCAA tournament many times. We always had tremendous games whenever Stanford played Washington, and I’ve been impressed with her coaching for a long time.”
Gobrecht’s finest season at Washington came in 1989-’90 when the Huskies won 28 games and finished with a No. 3 national ranking. They split the Pac-10 conference title with No. 2 Stanford and advanced to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament before falling to Auburn University. Gobrecht’s was also the only team to beat Beckett’s NCAA Champion Cardinal that season.
Yale’s coach finished her tenure at Washington with 243 wins overall, eight NCAA Tournament bids, three conference championships and two Pac-10 Coach of the Year Awards. But after 11 years, she was ready to move on. In the 2009 interview Gobrecht told the News that although she could have stayed at Washington and built its program into a perennial national power, she wanted to explore other schools and continue to build up programs.
“It would’ve been fun,” Gobrecht said of the opportunity to stay at Washington, “but that’s just not me; I love the challenge of building a program.”
Gobrecht was finally lured away from Washington by the opportunity for a fresh start with a new program at Florida State University. The wealth of talent available for recruiting in the south, she said, was also a draw. But after only one season with the Seminoles, she was back in the Pac-10 at the helm of her alma mater, USC. Winning was more difficult for Gobrecht with the Trojans, and she was hurt by her penchant for scheduling the toughest opponents she could find for her team. In the 2002-’03 season, for example, the Trojans lost to three of the previous four national champions: Connecticut, Tennessee and Notre Dame, all during non-conference play. The program was developing, and Gobrecht’s teams did make two WNITs during her time there, but there were no NCAA Tournament berths and the wins simply were not coming fast enough for the school’s administration and Gobrecht was fired after seven seasons at USC.
In 2005, after a season away from coaching, Gobrecht made her fourth move, from Southern California all the way across the country to New Haven and Yale. Her former colleague Tom Beckett offered her the position after Amy Backus retired. Baited by a curiousity for the Ivy League, Gobrecht took the offer.
Beckett said he has noticed substantial differences in Yale’s style of play since Gobrecht arrived.
“She brought with her an up-tempo style of basketball,” he said. “It’s fun for the student-athletes, and it’s exciting for the fans. It was a thrill to see her get her 500th win Friday night.”
In 2008 Gobrecht led the team to its first ever victory against an ACC opponent in a 65–61 upset over North Carolina State and topped that achievement last year as Yale stunned No. 14 Florida State, 91–85 last year at the John J. Lee Amphitheater. Last year’s team was also the first in Yale’s history to reach the WNIT. Vasquez said Coach Gobrecht played a large role in the team’s and her personal success, and the coach’s trust in her decisions on the court have helped her develop.
“Coach G has always been tough on me, but I know that it’s because she always wants me to perform at my best,” Vasquez said. “I thank her for that because it has made me a better player over the last three years. She has always counted on me to lead her team on the floor, and she calls me her floor general.”
This year’s team is 14–8 and currently sits in second place in the Ivy League, but has its sights set on a conference title and the automatic qualifying bid to the NCAA Tournament.
“It was very special that it happened here,” Gobrecht said of her historic victory. “Yale is in so many ways what I want right now, and this is where I feel that I’m meant to be.”
Gobrecht and her Bulldogs return to the court this Friday against Dartmouth in search of win 502. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m.