OGDEN — Velaida Harris clicked through her laptop, her fingernails painted purple, completing paperwork related to the hire that made her a college basketball head coach for the first time.
Her office was nearly empty, aside from provided furniture, with a TV tuned to a replay of a 1993 NBA Finals game between Phoenix and Chicago — “Charles Barkley is my favorite player,” she says. “Tough and undersized.”
The life of a college basketball coach can be unsettled, especially for a newly hired one such as Harris.
After a year in Rhode Island, she arrived in Ogden on Thursday as the new head coach for Weber State women’s basketball.
She only made it to Ogden that soon because a previously scheduled club tournament in the state was canceled, and she’ll soon have been recruiting in five cities in a seven-day stretch.
Harris described the week since her hire was announced July 17 as a whirlwind, her phone buzzing constantly with people reaching out in congratulations or with advice.
She’ll be leaving town again for a week; more recruiting and a return to Rhode Island to finish her move are both on the horizon before returning to campus for good.
“I’ll bring an infusion of energy, an infusion of passion within this program because I’m excited to get on the floor with these kids and see what they can do,” Harris said. “That alone, with the experience I’ve had over the last 10 years ... I think I’ve prepared for this.”
BACK TO UTAH
Harris was a 10-year high school head coach and led an AAU program through Nike in her time in the Portland, Oregon, area where she also grew up. Her AAU success, she said, got her on the college radar and she spent three seasons at the University of Oregon from 2007-09.
Utah legend Elaine Elliott then hired Harris to help coach the Utes. Elliott retired the next year, and Harris assisted Anthony Levrets for five seasons before he was dismissed in 2015.
Instead of jumping into another job, Harris spent the next year on a basketball tour. She visited eight universities, wanting to see from the outside how other programs operated. Some coaches gave her an all-access look and used her as a consultant.
“I knew I wanted to be a head coach, but I wanted to see how others did it and see if I was ready,” she said.
Then, after one year on the bench at the University of Rhode Island, she got her break and her family of five is returning to the Beehive State.
“We love Utah,” Harris said. “My kids lived half their lives here, so it was an opportunity to come back to this state ... and gave me the opportunity to lead my own program. Utah is a hidden gem.”
WHY WEBER STATE
Her ties to the state led to a positive view of Weber State.
“I heard great things about this athletic administration from people I used to work with,” Harris said. “I heard great things about (Jerry) Bovee and just how people moved within this program ... It’s important to me that I enjoy the people I work with and I’ve felt that throughout this process.”
Harris spent a full day on campus during the interview period — “This campus is beautiful, but oh, there’s a lot of stairs!” — meeting with interim president Norm Tarbox, athletic director Bovee and the campus search committee, selling her vision of creating a healthy, positive culture.
“We just felt like there was something about the process in getting to know her and meeting her, it was a good time for her and it was a good time for us,” Bovee said. “I want to work with people that you’re motivated to get behind and work hard for. She’s affable, she’s a team player, she got along with the people she met. She has the personality and mindset that fits what we’re trying to build here.”
She briefly spoke with head football coach Jay Hill before picking the brain of Randy Rahe, who is preparing to enter his 13th season as head men’s basketball coach but was also once a first-time head coach at Weber State.
What was important to him as a first-time head coach? “Culture,” Harris related.
“He just gave me some sage advice and told me to be my best self. Be you, do it the way you would do it, not the way you think people want you to do it,” she said. “You do it your way and that will be the best way.”
Harris is the first black woman to lead any Division-I college program in state history. She hopes people take notice as she works to win games.
“I take pride in that. It’s history, I’ve got to feel good about that,” she said. “I don’t see it as anything other than that, that it’s great for the state of Utah, it’s great for me, it’s great for young women who look like me to see that or hear about it. Hopefully, it’s some inspiration.
“But other than that, I’m a basketball coach just trying to get it done ... I’m going to work on being a good coach and serving the young women I coach.”
Part of the culture she wishes to build is preaching the concept of being “game-changers.”
“We’re going to make a difference, whether that be on the floor, in the community, wherever we are, we are going to be game-changers. We are going to leave an impression, an indelible mark on everything,” Harris said.
She’ll focus on individual development, she says, in all parts of life. “Collectively, if everybody has that passion and that want, when we get together as a group, we’re going to get better.”
Bovee said that was part of what helped Harris rise to the top of their list.
“You want to bring in someone who can push the players but also can build them in other ways that help them prepare to succeed,” he said. “She’s been good at that, that’s one of the things that, as we did our research on her, she scored really high on. She has a high basketball IQ. I think she’s a winner.”
RECRUITING, COACHING PHILOSOPHIES
Harris said she wants to know who’s playing high school basketball in her backyard.
“We’re going to get out into the community, we’re going to get out into the state and build relationships so when there is a player — or two, or three, or four or five — we’re going to know who you are and we’ll build a relationship with you,” she said.
“Like everyone else, we’ll recruit the region, the country and internationally if we think that’s something that will benefit us. But we’re going to pay attention to the state, for sure.”
On the court, she wants to push boundaries, getting after the ball defensively enough that “a ref is going to have to say, ‘back off a little bit.’ I want, when teams scout us, that they talk about that.”
Offensively, she wants her team to find scoring opportunities early in the shot clock, running the floor with senior spark-plug point guard Jaiamoni Welch-Coleman.
“We’ll get up and down the floor, but when we cannot ... shooters will be able to spot up, ball-handlers can come off picks and the bigs won’t be neglected,” Harris said. “We’ll try to use everything to our advantage. And we’ll be in good condition.”
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Come mid-August, she hopes to have her coaching staff assembled. Perhaps then, she’ll be settled enough to have a few office decorations before she hits the hardwood with her team.
Weber State’s 2018-19 season begins in November.