When Ryan McCarthy was hired to coach the UAA women’s basketball team in the summer of 2012, he was 29 years old. The job almost literally returned him to his roots — he was born at Providence Alaska Medical Center, across the street from where the Seawolves play.
Late last month McCarthy became the winningest women’s basketball coach in school history. With Tuesday’s throttling of the Nanooks in Fairbanks, he is 180-32 more than halfway through his seventh season. This season’s team is 20-1 and is the 10th-ranked team in NCAA Division II.
McCarthy was 9 in 1991 when the coach whose record he broke left UAA. By then McCarthy was already a Seawolves fan — he grew up going to men’s and women’s games with his dad — but he didn’t know who Linda Bruns was until after UAA hired him.
McCarthy was settling into his new job when one day he decided to check out the plaques that honor members of the Seawolf Hall of Fame. One of them is for Bruns.
“I was reading over hers, and she was quite the figure in our program,” McCarthy said. “She was the first one to get it going, and honestly she left it in a good place.
“To be quite frank, my thought was I didn’t want to mess it up.”
No worries there.
It took two scant years for McCarthy to establish a program known throughout the country for pressure defense, fast-paced play and winning ways.
He was 36-19 his first two seasons. He has gone 144-13 since.
“I remember talking to (men’s assistant coach) Ryan Orton when I first got here and he said, ‘If you work hard you won’t fail,’ ’’ McCarthy said. “That’s something that’s stuck with me.
“I would have never imagined myself at that win number. And I do take a lot of pride in it. … There’s the sense this is the place I’d want to do that at.”
Bruns — who punctuated pivotal baskets with a pumped fist and the words “Count it!” — compiled a 176-142 record from 1979-91, bringing a fledgling program to national prominence.
That she needed four more seasons than McCarthy to reach 176 wins and absorbed more than 100 more losses along the way says more about the state of women’s athletics at UAA over the years than it says about Bruns or McCarthy.
When Bruns took over in 1979, the women’s program was three years old. Hardly any of the players had scholarships. Milo Griffin, the coach before Bruns, worked part-time and at one point had to run a raffle sale to keep the Seawolves going.
Three players on the 1978-79 team didn’t think that was fair, and they sued the school. They charged UAA with sex discrimination under Title IX, the 1972 law that brought landmark changes to girls and women’s sports.
The players won the lawsuit.
A 1981 out-of-court settlement required UAA to provide opportunities for its women’s teams that are equal to those given to the men’s teams — equal scholarships, equal travel funding, equal equipment.
And so Bruns was there to shepherd the Seawolves from the dark ages into post-Title IX enlightenment.
She started a booster club for the team. She helped UAA earn acceptance into a conference, a huge step in the program’s development. She and some friends came up with the name for the Northern Lights Invitational, the eight-team version of the men’s Great Alaska Shootout.
"She was a great ambassador for women's sports in general, " Tim McDiffett, a longtime UAA administrator who retired last year, said when Bruns died from cancer in 2008 at age 66.
“It was a turbulent time for women’s athletics when she came here, and she had a way of advocating for women’s athletics without being confrontational. That was a real art, and because of that she had a lot of success in making changes.”
Bruns went 27-69 in her first three seasons but never had a losing season after that. She recruited one of the greatest players in school history — Robin Graul — and together they put the Seawolves on the map. In 1988, Bruns guided Graul and her teammates to the Sweet 16 of the Division II tournament.
When Bruns left after the 1990-91 season, it was to become the coach at Division I Northern Arizona.
Today, there are Division I schools interested in McCarthy.
So far he has resisted the urge to move up in the college basketball world — in large part because of the legacy of the Title IX lawsuit that helped Bruns build the foundation of a program McCarthy has taken to new heights.
“I’ve done a number of interviews and been offered different jobs at the DI level,” McCarthy said, “but I haven’t seen a place where they care about the women’s team like they do here from an administration standpoint.
“... A lot of (schools) out there have the women’s team to fulfill Title IX requirements, and at UAA that’s not the case. I’m passionate about that. And I’m passionate about our team.
"Being able to coach where you grew up is pretty special. I don’t want to be the guy who leaves because the grass is greener.”