By Christian Hince | February 28, 2023
Colleen Mullen encourages her team during a first round game against Louisville in the 2022 NCAA women's college basketball tournament.
Photo credit: Timothy D. Easley, Associated Press
Fifth-year head coach Colleen Mullen has women’s basketball at the University at Albany firing on all cylinders. Coming off an America East conference title and March Madness appearance in 2022, the Great Danes are repeat regular season conference champs in a poised quest to return to March Madness. Mullen is proud of the foundation she’s created at UAlbany, whether it’s in regards to recruiting, scheduling, scheming, or acting as a role model and leader for her players.
On Feb. 1, the coach and I talked about this foundation and a little bit more.
CH: You haven’t played on campus at UAlbany all season. Last year you went 16-1 at home. You’re currently undefeated at HVCC. What does home court advantage mean to you?
CM: I mean, being able to play in front of our own crowd, and have the players – I mean granted it’s not SEFCU, it’s not here, it’s not exactly what their usual routine is – but being able to not get on a bus, not have to travel, sleep in their own beds, and have that comfortability, it’s a nice way to feel like “OK, you can be home in front of your own crowd,” and we like to protect our home court.
CH: Last year: you’re the 16 seed. Louisville’s the one seed. March Madness. How do you keep your team locked in?
CM: Yeah I mean, I think they were really excited to, No. 1, go up to Maine, win the championship, earn the automatic bid. [We] didn’t know who we were gonna face, we knew it was probably gonna be maybe UConn, Louisville, could’ve been possibly Baylor. Then we found out it was Louisville, and we just focused on trying to win the game. We knew that player-per-player they were really talented, they had some WNBA prospects.
But we played to win the game, and we believed that if we executed the game plan and we played very well, we would’ve had a chance to win. It was a really great game, it was one of those things where it was a team that presses the whole time, and we didn’t actually have a pure point guard, so that was kind of a tough matchup for us. But it was a great environment, we chartered the flight down there, we played in front of a huge crowd, and they really rolled out the red carpet for us. So it was really special being part of March Madness.
CH: The last America East team to win a game in March Madness: UAlbany in 2016. How does that happen again? What’s the formula?
CM: Well I was actually there for that game, Christian, because I was coaching at Army and I watched UAlbany beat Florida. And that was really cool and really special, and really put UAlbany on the national map in terms of a mid-major. The recipe for that is No. 1, having a really competitive schedule so you have a good seed. And that year, I believe they got a 13 seed in facing Florida? Or maybe they were the 12th seed facing Florida as the fifth seed. Check my facts. [UAlbany was seeded 12th in the 2015-16 NCAA Tournament.]
But they were able to get a pretty good matchup in terms of a Power Five that wasn’t a number one seed. Going against a number one seed is always difficult, but it took years and years to get to that point. They won many championships in a row, that was their sixth championship in a row that Abe had won, Coach Abe, and they had gotten to that point where they were very veteran, very experienced and won a lot of games in the non-conference.
Unfortunately, this year for us, we had many injuries. Four of our starters out in the non-conference, we had a very tough schedule trying to increase our net ranking which helps for the seeding, but all that doesn’t really matter because you gotta get there. So the recipe is to do as best you can to be playing your best basketball in March, and to hopefully keep everybody healthy. And then whatever the opponent is, you come up with a great game plan and you trust your preparation.
CH: As this team gets more and more successful, how does the importance of scheduling, or specifically non-conference scheduling change?
CM: Yeah it’s very hard because when you’re a good mid-major program, people don’t wanna play you. So the higher level schools don’t wanna risk losing to you, so they don’t really wanna play you, and then the lower level schools, the lower mid-major schools don’t wanna play you because they’re trying to schedule wins, and coaches are often trying to keep their jobs and want winning records. So scheduling becomes really difficult and really strategic, and we really try to have a plan where we try to challenge our team the best that we can based on who we have coming back.
Try to build confidence in terms of getting games where we think they are good 50-50 games, meaning they’re strong opponents like us, and then also stretching it past to some power fives. This year we played Boston College, Syracuse, Ohio State, UNLV, all really, really tough opponents that challenged us. Had we had our whole roster, they maybe would’ve had a different outcome. But again, more of the same for next year because we have many of those players returning.
CH: How does winning or being competitive in those games early on in the season in big environments shape the trajectory of a mid-major program’s season going forward?
CM: It’s huge, because that builds so much confidence. Like last year for instance, us playing at Boston College and being in a position to win the game. I mean, we did very well playing Vanderbilt, keeping it within under 10 points the majority of the game, and you're going and playing on that stage, you've done it before. So you can call on those experiences, and you know that they're just another athlete, a similar athlete that you may have faced when you played AAU or when you were younger. You know that at any given point, even though they may be taller and faster, at any given point, if they're not working as hard as we are, hard work’s gonna beat talent nine times out of 10.
So I think calling on those experiences, having those successes gives you confidence as you head into your conference season. But then also saying like, “OK, for instance this year, we played Ohio State, and we played them the closest that any opponent had played them, we were down by three at half.” Played Syracuse, leading at the half. If we can compete that way against Syracuse and Ohio State, we can compete and, and defeat the teams in our league.
CH: What are the challenges of recruiting at a small mid major school?
CM: There's a lot of challenges. Luckily, UAlbany has a couple really key selling points. One, it's a state institution; so it has many different majors to draw from. It's a diverse campus, so there's people of many different identities, cultural backgrounds, nations represented. Its proximity to New York City, to Boston, to Canada, it's a great location, easy to get in and out with airports and stuff. And it's been a history of success, so we've been a really good program.
I think at any point when you're going against other teams, I think, facility wise, we're getting a new renovated facility, we don't have a facility right now, that's going to be a huge drawing point. So that's been tough, not having that type of facility. And just being able to constantly compete against other schools, where there's so many Division I schools in this region, really trying to differentiate yourself, because everybody has something to offer. And that's where you really try to sell yourself as a coach, and as a program, and as a culture.
CH: What would you say is the No. 1 strategy for flipping a player from let’s say, Syracuse, Boston College, UConn is?
CM: If I was competing against those teams, or if they were competing?
CH: If you were competing against them.
CM: OK. Well, UConn [it] would be very hard to flip them. I think that they would want definitely a little bit more of a balanced experience. You know, if you're gonna go to UConn, a player that maybe we would be recruiting that would go to UConn, maybe they're gonna to be the best player, and could be a potential Player of the Year, Four-Time Time Player of the Year.
You know, we have many players that have played professionally. So, you know, trying to draw that, like, you can come here and have a huge career or you could go to UConn and maybe be a reserve and not play. Similar to maybe Syracuse. What was the other school you mentioned?
CH: Boston College.
CM: You know, Syracuse, I think is another kind of similar “[you] come here have a bigger role.” Similar education, we have football, Boston College is a little bit more of that academic piece. So they're a little bit more focused on the academics, so trying to really sell how UAlbany has multiple majors, if you're trying to do the sciences, we have multiple segments or sections that you can take. At Boston College, it's a smaller school, it's a smaller student body, less classes, more likely to impede your ability to do both basketball and your major.
So completely different cells there. But it just all really depends on positioning it for what the desires and the needs of that individual. So that's why it's so important in the recruiting process to get to know the recruit, what motivates them, what's important to them, what they're looking for, to school, and then you kind of tailor the message of your school to what they want.
CH: So the transfer portal, I know that this is something that's personal for you, being a transfer to New Hampshire back in your playing career. How has this sort of recent revolution in the transfer portal in college sports transformed that aspect of team building and recruiting?
CM: It changes the whole face of it, back when I transferred, no one transferred. There was something wrong with you, and now it's just kind of what everybody does. I think that the one issue is that there's an instant gratification that if players aren't playing, they immediately go in the transfer portal and wanna play somewhere else.
And that's not always the case because when you're part of a winning program, and there's veteran players, you have to learn and have a role. Everybody has a role. You know, only one person can be the leading scorer, only one person could be the leading rebounder, only one person, only five people can start. So everybody has a role, but there's 15 people on a team.
So understanding that the grass isn't always greener, you could transfer to another school and play more, but you might have a coach that's not respectful, or teammates that don't care as much or don't have your major. So I think for us the way we utilize it in our recruitment is… as we do have a couple players that have transferred, and they sort of fell in our laps.
Grace Heeps wanted to come home. We got lucky with her. She really wanted to come back to the Albany area, we first tried to recruit her when I first took the job. And she went to UMass and came. Then Providence, we had a player on our team that was her high school teammate. So she decided to come here for that.
And then Ellen Hahne, who was at Wake Forest was good friends with Helene Haegerstrand, they [are] both from Sweden, she wanted to play with the Swedish player, and she wanted to leave that level and go to more of a mid-major, and so they kind of fell in our laps. And I think what we want to utilize it as is not our main recruiting strategy, but something that enhances or adds pieces to the puzzle, ‘cause we're always looking for the bigger picture when we recruit players.
CH: So you're in your fourth year as head coach. How does it feel having seniors on your team who you recruited just coming into the university?
CM: Yeah, I mean, it's really exciting. This is my fifth season actually, but to be able to watch the growth, like for instance, Lucia Decortes, she's in our fifth year, and I recruited her, she was one of my first recruits. I recruited her off film, because I didn't have any players when I took the job here. And she came in barely having confidence to speak English. Just Italian, skinny, olive oil, like just, you know, eyes wide open, completely out of her comfort zone.
And now watching how she's developed and grown into a really confident, strong, speaking English all the time individual. It just, it's really amazing to watch that happen full circle, and to see the growth and the maturation of your players. And I hope that they always feel like they're a part of the university, they feel a connection to our program. And that's the most important thing, is that they feel like they left a more well-prepared person for the professional world and a life of future success.
CH: You started your tenure at UAlbany with multiple losing seasons. Now you're poised for your second straight tournament appearance. What does that teach you about confidence, and growth and patience for a program and for a coach?
CM: Patience is never easy, but it's critical. And when I first took the job here, I really didn't know what I was getting into because I had never been a head coach before. We were down players, here was kind of a… it was very disjointed because I was the third head coach in three seasons. Players had played for multiple head coaches, different programs, different styles. And, tough times don't last, tough people do. And I think that's the most important lesson I learned, is that I just chipped away, I had the long game in mind. And I tried everyday to do the right thing by my players, by my staff.
There's no replacement for hard work and doing things the right way. You can't take shortcuts to success. So I focused on building up the players I had, developing them, building them up, building confidence, building trust, recruiting more players, more talented players, learning about myself as a coach of who are the types of players that I'm successful at coaching, what kind of characteristics do they have? And I know that those are the types of players that are hardworking, and have a work ethic and are unselfish.
But yeah, I mean, it was when I was 1-9, I was hitting my head on the wall being like, “what did I get myself into? Can I do this?” And I think that's normal to question yourself and push your abilities. But I just said, “you know what, I'm just going to chip away every day, I'm going to try my best, and we're going to build a program the right way.”
And that's really exciting to sit here and see all of my staff who's been with me, committed, loyal, that we've done this kind of growth together, this climb to the top together. And to see the view from the top is really beautiful, but knowing that it doesn't matter what you've done in the past, you continue to make new memories, so we gotta be eager and hungry to keep growing and getting better.
CH: Speaking of the past, and the present and the future, New Hampshire was your home of sorts as a college player. Now you’re at a rival, UAlbany, and that’s your home of sorts as a college coach. How does that make you feel?
CM: It’s really fun to play against them twice a year. A great experience for me to especially go back to that gym and relive my memories, have my friends, and my family, my old teammates there. And it's just really nice because to be able to recruit to a school, like UAlbany, that's a state school like I went to, in the league that I played in, with similar teams, not all the same teams, but similar teams when I played. It’s just a good fit for me.
And that's why when you're a coach, picking the right school to work at, that's a good fit for you that you feel like you can be successful at. That's why I'm able to sell the school so well, because I believe in the balance of being a student and an athlete and a college student. So the social, the athletic and the academic experience was similar to what I experienced in New Hampshire. And it's special to be able to work at a place so similar to where I went.
CH: No bitterness, no feeling of treachery or anything?
CM: [Laughs] Only when we go head to head, but any other time I have so much… I think back to my experience with such respect and appreciation, especially having gone to Rhode Island and not having a great experience, and having that second chance at my career in New Hampshire. I am always gonna root for New Hampshire, and I loved my experience. I loved being a student there. I loved my teammates. But when we go head to head, I'm not a Wildcat fan.
CH: So you were a guard in college, you coached primarily guards at Army, is there a different language or a different approach when you’re working with forwards or centers?
CM: Well, I always wanted to be a center or a forward, but I wasn't blessed with being taller than five-foot-two. So unfortunately, I was kind of pigeonholed to one position. But I think basketball is basketball. And luckily, I have Yvonne Hawkins who works with our posts, and she's worked with posts for over 25 years, 30 years almost. She really has a good understanding of post play, and also how I like to play post play. And that's been learning for many different coaches.
I worked for David Magarity, who was a men's player and a post player, and the way he teaches post really helped me learn a little bit more of the post game. Even though he's giant, he really likes focusing on footwork, facing up in the post, rather than people mostly thinking that you have to play with your back to the basket. More on the face-up game and how to attack off a reverse pivot from the elbow from the short corners, where you can really exploit the defense. I love post play, and I love to recruit post players, and I have a certain type that I like, and you can certainly see that in Helene Haegerstrand, and Kayla Cooper and Freja Werth.
CH: So, upon being a head coach, do you feel like you had to teach yourself to sort of ask for help or rely on assistance?
CM: Yeah, I mean, I think the most important thing that you do when you get hired as a head coach is filling your staff, and is hiring really great people and hiring people that you feel like No. 1, balance you off. No. 2, have more skills in certain areas than you do, so like where you have weaknesses, they have strengths. You want to be surrounded around smarter people than you that are bringing diverse ideas. You don't want people that are yessing you to death that are agreeable.
You want people that are bringing ideas to the table and having different thoughts and perspectives and being innovative and thinking outside the box, because that's what helps you learn and grow. And I think as a head coach, it's a humbling experience because you learn quickly that you don't have all the answers. And you're counting on trusting your staff watched the film and knows this play and knows that play because you can't do it all.
There's too many things that head coaches have to do in terms of interviews, meetings, being in the community, having speaking engagements, working with the media, so you're pulled in different directions, and you count on those people to help you be successful. So I think having a great staff, having amazing people around you, understanding that, like you have so much to learn and learning and being a life learner is the most valuable thing as a coach.
I'm constantly stealing plays from our opponents, taking a great play here and there. I think that's something that I'm confident in, is that I know I don't know everything and I want to learn more. So when you empty your cup, and you're vulnerable, and you're willing to show that you don't know everything, I think that makes a strong leader because that's authentically who I am. And I just tried to be a genuine, authentic leader for my players and for the staff.
CH: How closely are coaching and parenting intertwined?
CM: That’s a great question. Very close. I mean, it's crazy, because, you know, when I became a mom, I became a much different coach. I didn't become a better coach, I just became a different coach, because I truly looked at my players, and I'm like, “wow, like, you are somebody's baby girl.”
Like, I have a baby girl, and she's my most prized possession. And I adore her, and I think about if my daughter was on my team playing, or on any team with a coach, how would I want her to be led and mentored and developed in critical formative years of her life? And I take that really personally, and it's a huge responsibility, but it's a great opportunity.
And it's an opportunity to help impact young people for their future, teaching them life lessons to help them understand that basketball is like the perfect life's classroom to learn how to handle adversity, cooperation, fight, grit, toughness, overcoming mistakes, have growth happen when things aren't going your way. Work together, have a goal, I mean, so many different things. But as a parent, it's hard because you want to protect your kids, you want to make sure they're OK, and sometimes you can not allow them to fail and learn on their own, and knowing when to support and help, and also let them fail to learn. And sometimes you got to give them tough love.
And as a kid, and as your child and as your athlete, sometimes, they don't understand the process, because you have more life experience. And it's hard to explain, like, “I'm telling you this because I have more life experience.” But sometimes things are better learned on their own. So it's the balance of knowing how to help support them and encourage them, and also help let them spread their wings and discover and have that self-discovery that's so important at this age.
CH: Your daughter is 18 and she commits to Siena. What do you do?
CM: Cry. No, I mean, I'd be thrilled for her. If that was her dream, and Siena was the school for her, and if it fit her mission of academics and athletics if she decided, or dance, she’s more into dance and art. I just want my kids to be happy and I want them to have a passion, whatever it is, I'll be thrilled. I just want them to feel happy and loved and supported in whoever they are, and whatever they want to do.
CH: I know you’ve only been a head coach for five years, but if you had to say, what would be the ultimate point where you feel like, “I’m done, I’m satisfied, I can hang it up now?”
CM: Oh, that’s a good question, you’re asking a lot of good questions. I don't know, I think, when I feel like I wake up every day, and I don't love my job. You know, because this is a lifestyle. I work a lot. I work nights, I work weekends, I miss holidays, I'm away from my kids. But I'm passionate about mentoring and helping young people. And when I feel like I don't have the energy to give it 100% of my heart and my time, then it's time to walk away.
And I don't think I'm close to that right now because I feel rewarded. I feel passionate. It's very challenging. It's hard, it's stressful. There's wins, there's losses, it's … mental health, it's the livelihood of young people. But it's a huge opportunity to be able to have this type of impact on someone's life. And that's what I focus on trying to help them, understand that I care about them and I'll be there for them for their whole life.
CH: It’s OK. This one might be tough: the job for UConn comes open, they ask you for an interview. What do you do?
CM: Well, I think that that's pretty far-fetched, but thank you for your confidence. Yeah, I mean, I think I say “wow, thank you. That's awesome. I really appreciate you reaching out to me and having me be even considered for a position like that with an amazing basketball school and terrific academic institution.”
And I think I'd have to think about “OK, is this a type of school I think I can be successful at and follow somebody like Geno Auriemma or whoever the coach would be after I wouldn't be offered the job? Is this a place that I love the academics and feel like I can recruit quality students to? Is it a place for my family where my kids will have great schools, my wife will feel supported? Is it an environment that my family will be accepted? And is this the next step of my career?”
And I think I'd have to think long and hard about that and have conversations with my administration here about what my long term goals are. But right now, my goal is to take UAlbany back to that 2016 game that you talked about, and to win games in the NCAA Tournament. That's my goal. I love being here. I'm close to my parents.
It's a great school system for my kids, both of my sons are on the autism spectrum. So I want them to be in an environment where they feel included, and they feel welcomed, and they can live a fulfilled life, and that they can do that here. So that's the bigger picture for me is why I do this, and it has to be all of those things put together, not just the basketball.
CH: If I could get a rapid fire answer to one question, how has being a parent of kids on the autism spectrum taught you to approach daily situations?
CM: It's amazing. It's hard. Because I don't want to see my kids suffer, I don't want my kids to have people look at them, say things about them, I don't want things to be difficult. But I love them, they're amazing, they're a joy. And they also give you perspective, that what's important in life is that everybody feels included.
Everybody's different. Not even just people on the autism spectrum, but everybody has a different perspective. Everybody has a different story. Everybody comes from diverse backgrounds, and when we can relate to people from diverse backgrounds, with diverse thinking with diverse experiences, we're stronger for it, and it's a better world to live in.
Seeded #1 at 14-2 in the America East and 24-10 overall, Mullen’s team begins tournament play on Wednesday at home.