Two Thursdays ago, UMass announced that it had signed a new head coach to its staff. On the same day, the Cornell athletic department announced the resignation of one of its head coaches. Unfortunately for Cornell, the timing of these events was not coincidental.
“We finished our season, and I really wasn’t looking at any jobs. I knew people at both UMass and St. Johns, and both those positions were open,” former women’s basketball head coach Marnie Dacko recounted. “I got a phone call asking me if I was interested, listened to what they had to say, and I said ‘sure’. I gathered my resume, put it together, interviewed at both places and really had two job offers.”
After considering both locations, “I thought it was a good opportunity for me, career-wise, to go into the Atlantic 10 [with U. Mass] and take a shot at what that level brings,” Dacko concluded. “When I met with the people [at U. Mass], they were very optimistic and wanted to go in the direction I wanted to go with them. I just thought that professionally, it was a great move.”
“In the basketball world, I just look at UMass as an opportunity that right now, I couldn’t pass up,” she continued.
After spending 11 seasons at Northwestern as an assistant coach, Dacko accepted her first head coaching position at Cornell seven seasons ago. Coming into a program that had not registered a winning season since 1973 was a daunting task but was made more so considering that administrative elements necessary to maintain successful seasons were not up and running.
“The files are in place, everything will be in place for the person coming in, so it’s certainly not the situation I inherited,” Dacko explained. “I inherited the place with files bare, no computers, no video equipment, no nothing, so we’re leaving the place in good stead for someone to come in and just take off from where we left off.”
Dacko is reluctant to brag about herself and her accomplishments. However, this hesitation radically underestimates the impact she has had on the Cornell basketball program.
In the first season she spent on the East Hill, Dacko lead the team to a 12-14 record and was named Ivy League Coach of the Year, an award that was discontinued after she won it. In the 2000-2001 season, Dacko piloted the team to a 15-12 record, going 8-6 in the league and capturing third place. The overall and Ivy records were the best in the Red’s history, and its third place finish was the team’s best up to that point.
Continuing the run of excellence this year, the team finished 14-13 overall, 8-6 in the league and tied for second, its highest finish ever.
“We had a tough year last season in the trenches. We didn’t win some games, and we had some internal problems on the team, but we turned all those into positives,” Dacko recalled. “Every negative a year ago — collectively the team and the coaching staff made it into a positive [this season]. We were on a roll, and I just cut their knees out from under them.”
While the decision to go to UMass was essentially clear-cut from a professional standpoint, Dacko found herself grappling with other issues that have made the change tough.
“Mentally and emotionally, [going to UMass] is not a good move because I’m leaving a group of young women behind who have been with me through thick and thin, and we have grown to really be a family,” Dacko sighed. “This team, we have had highs, and we have had lows. We have really been through a lot.”
After deciding to take the position in UMass, Dacko met with the team to tell them about her move before she announced it publicly. She had not met with either of the prospective teams prior to the season, so Dacko felt that the suddenness warranted a meeting with her squad.
“When I made the decision, I told my boss that before I make any announcement, I want to talk to my players and recruits because they come first. No one is going to be blindsided by this,” Dacko recalled. “I called them and told them it was an important meeting and gathered them up. Of course they thought of 101 things it was going to be, but not me leaving. So we gathered in the locker room, it was a quiet place, I came in and just really broke down. Where I thought I could go in composed and together, I completely broke down. It was the toughest thing I have had to do in my life because the kids are my life, and the team was my life, and to say goodbye was just heart wrenching.”
For Dacko, her team always comes first, and her concern for them has continued on into the school’s search for a new head coach.
“My concern is that the administration bring in somebody quality in who not only knows Xs and Os but who will take care of my players,” she explained. “It has to be someone really passionate who wants to come in and roll up their sleeves and get to work.”
The former head coach further explained her wishes in the hunt for a new leader.
“Right now the players are in limbo. As much as [the coaching staff and I] would like to help them, they know we are not the ones who are going to be taking them into next season,” Dacko lamented. “
The Minutewomen complied a 12-18 record last season and in the previous coach’s 11-year tenure, went to the NCAAs twice and NITs once.
“It is a different league, it is a different player, but the game is the same basically,” Dacko said of the Atlantic 10. “Some players may be taller, some may be quicker, but it is how well I can get them to work as a team. They really believe in me, so I think I am going to have an opportunity to grow a little more.”
In spite of her outlook on her future in Amherst, Dacko lingered on the team she will soon leave, and its collective aspiration of bringing home the Ivy League championship.
“The kids who remain certainly have that goal [of an Ivy crown] in mind, and they have enough motivation and energy and belief that they know what they have to do. That has been the mission, and I am leaving a year or two early, but I think they can follow through with their dream,” she enthused.
Marnie Dacko is leaving a legacy in the women’s basketball program that will be tough to match. She gained the respect and admiration of her team, the Cornell community and Ithaca as a whole while at the same time, making continual progress on the court.
Perhaps most indicative of her efforts both during game time and after was the turnout for the Harvard game this season that pitted the second-place Red against the league-leading Crimson.
An announced attendance of 1,675, a conservative estimate at critical times, witnessed a double-overtime match that will not soon be forgotten by those who frequent Newman Arena. That turnout should be attributed to not only the Red’s success up to that point, but also Dacko’s dedication to the community.
Archived article by Katherine Granish