With an impeccable resume and a thirst to someday become a head coach again, Beth Cunningham likely could have had her pick of opportunities, either this spring or next.
But when Missouri State came to her with a recruiting pitch, seeking a replacement for Amaka Agugua-Hamilton, Cunningham was immediately intrigued.
It took Cunningham all the way back to 1993 when then-Southwest Missouri State coach Cheryl Burnett pursued her to come and play for the Lady Bears. She turned the school down then, choosing to play at Notre Dame where she became an All-American and won a national championship.
But the seed was planted. This time when Missouri State came with a recruiting pitch, she didn’t turn it down. All because of the history of the program and its commitment to success.
“I was very aware of the success and tradition of the program,” Cunningham said of the initial contact with Burnett nearly 30 years ago. “I look forward to reconnecting with her.
“It’s an honor and a privilege to lead one of the premier women’s basketball programs in the country.”
Cunningham signed a five-year contract with a base salary of $320,000 increasing $10,000 each year.
The tradition of excellence was a big reason Cunningham, after two years as an assistant at Duke and 20 years overall in the profession, is the ninth head coach in Lady Bears history. She was introduced at a news conference on Thursday and afterward talked about why the move was right for her.
The talk of tradition isn’t just window dressing or coach speak. One of America’s authorities on women’s college basketball validated Cunningham’s words.
Debbie Antonelli has been a men’s and women’s basketball television and radio analyst for ESPN, CBS and Westwood One among other outlets for 30 years. She had many of Cunningham’s games, going back to her playing days at Notre Dame.
“I covered Beth as a player and have watched her as an assistant and head coach,” Antonelli said from Minneapolis, where she has the national radio call for the NCAA Women’s Final Four on Westwood One. “She has all the qualities of building a program. She has all the skills with Xs and Os and will recruit good people with good character.”
Antonelli said the foundation of women’s basketball success at Missouri State is the reason the school landed someone of Cunninghagm’s qualifications.
“You can go back to (athletic director) Bill Rowe, (senior women’s administrator) Mary Jo Wynn and Cheryl Burnett,” Antonelli said. “There is a history there of success and a culture that cares and is interested. And it’s a good product.
“When you put people in a position to have success and you put the resources around them, they’re going to have success. I know (athletic director) Kyle Moats wants to win and he wants somebody in place that can carry on that strong legacy of the program.”
Cunningham had a successful nine seasons as head coach at VCU, where her teams went 167-115 and had back-to-back 26-win seasons in 2008 and ‘09 and the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance.
She left on her own terms to become associate head coach at Notre Dame for Hall of Famer Muffet McGraw. The program had a 244-19 record with five NCAA Final Four appearances and a national championship during her time there.
“It made a huge impact in my life,” Cunningham said of working alongside McGraw. “Not just from a basketball standpoint, but she’s a great friend and has been a mentor to me.”
Cunningham also made mention of her father, Bob Morgan, longtime head baseball coach at Indiana University.
“Growing up a coach’s daughter and getting into the profession myself, it’s just who I am,” Cunningham said. “A lot of people ask about leadership these days and I saw great leadership from the day I was born.”
Missouri State President Clif Smart said that the school was prepared for a coaching search as Agugua-Hamilton had a third straight outstanding season. He noted that Moats had a list compiled and ready to roll after Virginia reached out to talk with Agugua-Hamilton late in the regular season.
Moats and Smart flew to Charlotte last weekend to interview Cunningham and offered her the job before leaving on Sunday. Cunningham wanted to reach out to Agugua-Hamilton and Tennessee coach Kellie Harper, another former Lady Bears head coach, plus others before making her decision.
“She accepted the job (Wednesday afternoon) and met with the players,” Smart said.
Added Moats: “This hire is one that you can all be proud of.”