CRAWFORD | Dugan enjoying life back at home, on verge of Top 25 at Bellarmine
Chancellor Dugan left the sunshine of a Division I job at Boca Raton, Fla., to rebuild at Bellarmine, and in her fourth season back, the Knights are on the cusp of the NCAA Division II Top 25 with a 6-0 start.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — Not a lot of people would trade an NCAA Division I basketball head-coaching job for a chance to lead a Division II program, nor would they trade the sunny climate of Boca Raton, Fla., for the (sometimes) frigid winters of Louisville.
But Chancellor Dugan wanted to come home. And more than that, she wanted another shot at an NCAA title. A standout athlete at Sacred Heart, she played four seasons at Eastern Kentucky, and was the team’s leading rebounder and No. 2 scorer her last two seasons.
As a coach, she led the University of Southern Indiana to eight straight NCAA Tournaments and the NCAA Division II national title game in 1997, with a team that won 29 straight games and finished 30-2.
It wasn't long before she took an NCAA Division I offer, and she won one Atlantic Sun championship at Florida Atlantic, but in the end she wanted more. And she jumped at the opportunity to come home.
“You know, 13 years in D-1, kind of banging my head up against a ceiling,” Dugan said. “You're never going to win a national championship. And you know, better than anybody, that’s what I want to do.”
Stop the tape here for an explanation. In my first full-time newspaper job, after leaving my post of answering phones in The Courier-Journal sports department, I arrived in Evansville, Ind., to write for the afternoon paper (do a Google search if you don't remember what those are) and on one of my first days in town, got an invitation to lunch from two young coaches at USI.
They sat down across from me and served up about an hour of pure adrenaline. The men’s coach was Bruce Pearl. The women’s coach was Dugan. Nobody had heard of either of them, nor, really, of the little school tucked away in the southwest corner of Indiana.
Before I came back to Louisville, I’d wind up covering both in the NCAA Division II championship game.
All right, press “resume.”
“I want to have that program that is year-in and year-out vying for a national championship,” Dugan said. “When I interviewed here, that was their vision also. Obviously they’ve done it on the men’s side. They want to have mirror programs. That’s the reason we came back home. I had always admired Bellarmine. When I was at USI, Bellarmine was one of the programs I tried to emulate, with Charlie (Just) here and Nancy (Winstel) at Northern Kentucky.”
Dugan made a difference in her first season in Louisville, beginning 10-1, and finishing 19-11 to end a skid of back-to-back losing seasons. But it has been a rebuilding job. She brought longtime assistant Shannon Litton along for the ride, and hired Crystal Kelly, one of the top women’s players ever to come out of the city of Louisville, fresh out of school before her first season.
This season, the Knights have jumped out to a 6-0 start for the first time since the 2003-04 season. They’re led by junior Sarah Galvin, a 6-foot guard from Henderson, Tenn., who is averaging 18.8 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. Destony Curry, a 5-7 junior guard out of Manual, is adding 13 points and three assists per game.
Dugan coaches a high-pressure attack, picking up full-court, looking to turn defense to offense. It took the addition of some height this season, however, to fill in a missing piece.
“I really think that with our core group, who are now juniors, and the seniors we’ve got, those two classes really understand what it takes and have worked really hard,” Dugan said. “Then our sophomores are good and we’ve added some height, which is what’s been missing. We’ve added piece by piece and done our homework on these kids and know what they can do and know what they want.”
The Knights are on the fringe of the NCAA Division II Top 25 as voted by the media, at No. 28.
With a pair of stand-alone games at Knights Hall on Saturday and Sunday, both 3 p.m. games, they could leap back into the rankings with victories. They’ll face Ferris State on Saturday and Northern Michigan on Sunday.
Attendance is up, but with the program looking to take another step, Dugan is hoping to start adding to the fan base.
“Knights Hall is such a special venue because of our fans here,” She said. “That was the thing that we just had to get fans coming earlier (Bellarmine women usually play right before the men.) And year by year we’ve gotten that.”
She’s also finding some open arms on the recruiting trail. Bellarmine’s growing popularity around the state and region hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“The school sells itself,” she said. “There’s a lot of kids in Kentucky that know about Bellarmine. I’m not really sure if that’s always been the case, I don’t think it has, but right now, it’s kind of cool. You say Bellarmine and kids around the state say, ‘Yeah.’ All the high school coaches around the area have been great to work with. They really want their kids to stay close to home if they want to. We still fight the D-1/D-2 thing, but when they get here and see the level of talent we have, they’re impressed. Every kid here either has played Division I and come back, or they were recruited by Division I schools. So we’re a definite alternative for kids to look at.”
Whether this group is ready to become the one that lands Bellarmine back in the Top 25 on a regular basis, Dugan said, will be up to how hard this group of players wants to work. But she says she has a good feeling it can be that group.
“I think so,” she said. “This bunch is pretty special. They’ve got a lot of chemistry. They hang out a lot. They look at doing a lot of things together on and off the court, which just helps on the court so much. I really think, as the freshmen get into it more and understanding more what we want to do, we’ve got some kids that the light bulb is just coming on. By January and February we should be really clicking.”
As for being back in her hometown, Dugan said she couldn’t be happier. The weather isn’t as warm, but the interest in basketball is.
“I love it,” she said. “It’s been great. Louisville is a great city. The people that I work with and the fans that are here are just really passionate about basketball. That makes it really special. There’s no place like it.”
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