Caroline McCombs is the head coach of the Stony Brook Women’s Basketball team. Her team won 17 games in the 2014-2015 season, her first as a college basketball head coach and her first on Long Island. She led her team in ending Albany’s 30-game road conference winning streak and helped four Seawolves earn America East honors at the end of last season.
But none of that is McCombs’ top priority.
“I care about them first,” McCombs said of her student athletes. “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care. That’s just for me what it’s all about.”
McCombs would love for her 13 players on the roster this year to excel on the court, and she does have expectations for them to perform at a certain level. However to her, that is not what the college athletics experience is all about.
“I’ve come across a lot of adults in my lifetime and she genuinely is a genuinely caring person,” redshirt senior guard Miranda Jenkins said. “[It’s] not just on the court but off the court and that means a lot because you don’t just want to be some player.”
McCombs worked at Auburn, Northwestern and Pittsburgh, among other stops, as an assistant coach before coming to Stony Brook. In one year, she not only inherited a program that had gone from four wins to 24 wins in the span of three seasons, but a group of people who she is responsible for on and off the court.
“I can see her as family after I’m done with this,” Jenkins said.
McCombs has not only helped continue moving her program forward, despite a disappointing first-round loss in the America East Tournament, but has cultivated a team culture for the Seawolves.
“I mean, you have to be transparent, so the players know exactly who you are and what you stand for and they’ll run through a wall for you,” McCombs said. “It’s not so much what we do here on the basketball court but what we do for them as people and that’s just who we are.”
Jenkins sometimes has a tough day, but she said she does not have to wonder if McCombs cares about her in those moments.
“[She is] always checking up on me, days when I least expect it,” Jenkins said. “It might be a day I had a bad day. You’re not expecting those types of text messages, not all the time. Even when I’m having a good day she’ll just be saying, ‘I’m thinking about you, hope all is well.’”
Coaching any team is hard work, especially moving to a new state, a new town and a new school.
“She’s relentless. I think she’s a great worker,” Stony Brook Men’s Basketball head coach Steve Pikiell said. “She’s here all the time, the hours she puts in are ridiculous. She’s really building a nice program. She does a great, great job, and her staff too, of getting the girls to overachieve.”
Her effort is nothing new, though. She spent two seasons at Northwestern as an assistant coach from 2010-2012. Her head coach there agreed with Pikiell’s praise.
“Caroline has a great work ethic and would take on any challenge,” Wildcats head coach Joe McKeown said. “She also cares about her players off the court and that will go a long way.”
That is what sets McCombs apart as a basketball coach.
“There’s not a head coach that I know in the country that works as hard as she does and cares as much,” Stony Brook assistant coach and former colleague at Northwestern, Adam Call, said. “Now that they realize how much she cares and cares about them, I think that they’ve really latched onto that.”
That is what will help the Seawolves continue moving forward. On paper, the Seawolves won seven fewer games last season than they did the year before, and they were the No. 3 seed in the America East Tournament compared to the No. 2 seed in 2014. They reached that position without 2013 First-Team All-America East member Chikilra Goodman, who graduated in 2014.
McCombs was on two NCAA Tournament teams in her playing days at Youngstown State from 1994 to 1998, and she was inducted into the school’s athletics Hall of Fame in 2008.
If McCombs leads Stony Brook to the NCAA Tournament like she did Youngstown State as a student-athlete, there will be one reason that sticks out in the coaching department. She consistently cares.
“That’s a lot to think about every day, being that example that you want to have, people that want to follow you,” McCombs said. “There’s a lot of different ways I think that you can lead but I think the best leaders have people that follow them in the right way.”