May 23, 2015     Login   
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Bobbie Kelsey

With her inaugural season as the Badger women’s basketball head coach around the corner, Bobbie Kelsey is planning for success both on and off the court.

By Nicole Sandler Resnick

When you’re Bobbie Kelsey, there isn’t a lot of time to take it easy. In the six months since University of Wisconsin-Madison Athletic Director Barry Alvarez announced Kelsey would succeed Lisa Stone as head coach of the women’s basketball team, life has moved at a whirlwind pace. After accepting the position with an emphatic yes, the 38-year-old Kelsey was off traveling the country, recruiting players and handpicking her assistant coaching staff. If that wasn’t enough, she was also planning a wedding, her move to Madison and trying to squeeze in a quick honeymoon as well.

The season is just a month away, but the demands on her are already plentiful. Despite the flurry of activity and a solidly booked calendar, the down-to-earth coach took a moment to sit down in her Kohl Center office to discuss the path that brought her here and where she hopes it will take her in the future.

And once you get past the updates on her team, it’s clear there’s much more to Kelsey than life on the court. Sure, she could talk basketball as long you’d like, but she seems just as excited to chat about anything else. Somehow in the space of an hour she excitedly discusses everything from her happy-go-lucky childhood to her new husband and dear girlfriends—her boisterous laugh and easy sense of humor ever present. It must have something to do with the fact that despite Kelsey’s impressive successes as both a player and coach, basketball hasn’t defined her entire life.

Kelsey did not grow up in a family of elite athletes. The way she describes her formative years in Georgia, she just as well could have been a star softball player, a piano virtuoso, or a leader in community work and volunteerism.

Her own family represents an eclectic mix of talents ranging from cooking (“my sister is a culinary queen!”), to film (“I’m so proud of my baby brother who earned a scholarship to the film school at USC”), to painting (“I’d give anything to be able to paint like my uncle!”). Yet it became clear at a young age that Kelsey was a gifted athlete. Inspired to follow in her older sister’s footsteps and try basketball, it wasn’t until sixth grade that she played regularly—making her debut as the only girl on an all-boys team.

“I didn’t care that I was the only girl. I knew I was going to take those boys to the hoop and I was going to mess them up!” she recalls with a hearty laugh. “I was already tall as a kid and very competitive, too. I would get mad if I lost and wanted to get right back at it. But mostly I remember taking [on] those boys.”

By ninth grade, Kelsey was a member of the varsity team at her high school, and by the end of her high school career she was a sought-after college recruit, ultimately choosing Stanford University. It proved to be the right fit athletically, academically and personally. While studying and developing a tight group of friends, Kelsey and her Cardinal team made three NCAA Final Four appearances, and took home the 1992 NCAA National Championship along the way.

During her five years on campus she not only made her mark as a player, but a leader as well—twice named the team’s co-captain as well as the team’s most inspirational player. Post-college, the camaraderie she enjoyed on the court and a passion for athletics brought Kelsey into the coaching world.

Turning to where she is today, Kelsey speaks about the expectations and the pressure she faces as she begins her first season as head coach. As Stone’s successor, and the sixth head coach to lead the Badger women’s basketball team, there’s no getting around the fact that fans, not to mention the UW Athletic Department, will be paying close attention.

Intelligent and ambitious, Kelsey is calm and confident when she says she knows what she needs to do with the team. And she has every intention of delivering on the court. But off the court, she has a plan as well. 

Much has been written about the challenges Kelsey will face as she transitions into her first head coaching position. After a prolific run as an assistant coach at a number of universities including Florida, Virginia Tech, and most recently her alma mater, Stanford, she’s finally the head honcho.

Beyond having to learn a new group of players at a new institution in a new city, the big step up requires a change in mindset as well. Sportswriters like to point out that as head coach Kelsey can no longer be a friend to her players.

Kelsey doesn’t anticipate having a problem. 

“My door is always open to these girls, but I don’t need to hang out and be their buddy,” she says. “I don’t really get why people think coaches need to be friends with their players anyway.” 

That statement is a bit ironic given that over the course of our hour-long interview, one theme we kept returning to, whether chatting about basketball, community work, or Kelsey’s recent wedding, was friendships.

“Her girls,” as she affectionately refers to them, are not only the friends Kelsey has made and stayed close with since her childhood days in Georgia, they are a group of women from various stages of her life—several who joined Kelsey as members of her wedding party in August.

“These are my oldest and dearest friends, my best friends, and I just love them all to death,” laughs Kelsey. “I was one of the last to get married and they couldn’t wait until it was my turn! To see all my girls there, I was just like…yes! My girls are here!”

Add to the list of “her girls” is another group of women who attended the wedding: her all-female roster of assistant coaches. Handpicked by Kelsey after being appointed the Badger head coach last April, all have known Kelsey through basketball for many years, and all count her as a close friend.

Kelsey’s trust in tight-knit relationships is evident in her picks—not only women known for their talent, but also assistants she has confidence in. Having known or worked with each coach at some point in her career, she is proud to call Kyle Black-Rechlicz, Stacy Cantley and Alysiah Bond her right-hand women; Jill Jameson fills the critical position of director of basketball operations. It wasn’t intentional, Kelsey claims, that all are women.

As for the rapport between them all, Kelsey has this to say: “We have fun in here. It’s a good thing we have our own suite here at the Kohl Center and don’t have to be quiet because we can get loud!”

You have to believe that Kelsey’s new husband, Kwame, is prepared to welcome “the girls” into his life as well.

According to Kelsey he is transitioning from his current job based in California to a new position here in Madison. The move represents a big change for both of them, not only in terms of culture, climate and lifestyle, but also as a couple. Both are looking forward to taking advantage of what Madison has to offer.

“I got a great guy. One of the last good ones out there!” she says with a big smile.

When asked how she and Kwame met, Kelsey replies with her signature laugh.

“We met in Cyberspace, actually,” she says. “I didn’t have time to hang out and meet guys. I’m too busy!”

Obviously Cyberspace was good to them. Following their wedding (which took place just two weeks before this interview) they squeezed in a Hawaiian honeymoon before Kelsey rushed back to Madison to resume coaching duties.

With her team of coaches firmly established, Kelsey will rely on them not only on the court, but also for instilling in her players a sense of community through volunteer work. Habitat for Humanity is one organization she’s partial to. After experiencing the adrenaline rush of working on an all-women’s Habitat construction team during her time as an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator at the University of Evansville in Indiana, she’s committed to pursuing opportunities with the organization in the Madison area.

“I just pulled my hard hat out the other day,” she recounts with a laugh. “When I first [worked with] Habitat I remember looking around and thinking, ‘there’s women throwing hammers and cutting and measuring—they’re building a house! Talk about girl power!’”

Since arriving in Madison last spring Kelsey has had ample opportunities to get involved in volunteer and charity organizations and only wishes there were more hours in the day to fulfill those goals. From a golf outing with Easter Seals to checking out the programs for young kids and aspiring athletes at the Goodman Community Center, she’s excited about the community she’s now calling home. With the start of the Badger women’s basketball season fast approaching, Kelsey intends to help coordinate programs that emphasize elementary school education and pair them with home games.

Her desire to develop her players off the basketball court as well as on encapsulates what truly makes her tick.

“I want them all to leave here better people than how they first came in. I’m talking academically, socially and athletically—all the areas in which you grow and develop in college,” she says. 

“You want to tell yourself when you’re done [with school] that if you could go back and do it all over again, you absolutely would because you loved it that much,” she continues. “Everyone should feel that way about their university. I tell that to kids all the time when I recruit—you go there because you want to be at that institution. Not because it’s popular or because a certain coach is there.”

That’s exactly how Kelsey found herself here. While attaining a head coaching position was a career dream for her, UW-Madison was a place she wanted to be. And she plans to make the most of being at an institution like this.

The first home football game found her out in the stands along with her assistant coaches hooting and hollering with the crowd of crazed Badger fans.

“You bet we [wanted to see] ‘Jump Around,’” she says. “I’ve never seen such crowd interaction during a game and such amazing choreography with the cheers. It just blew me away!”

It’s no surprise that in only a few months Kelsey has embraced not only the full UW-Madison experience but also a life beyond the intense world on the Kohl Center basketball court.

“You always have to do different things to stay fresh, to stay passionate,” Kelsey says.

Both on the court and off, Kelsey is ready to show what it means to live by those words every step of the way.


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