Thu07242014

Sports

Jennings faces challenges as Owls’ new coach


Short on players and time, Richard T.J. Jennings has a tall task ahead of him coaching the Foothill College women’s basketball team.

When he began his one-year temporary assignment Sept. 27, Jennings had only six players and eight weeks to prepare the Owls for their season opener.

If that wasn’t daunting enough, Jennings has some supersized shoes to fill. He’s taking over for the most successful coach in the program’s history, Jody Craig, who was granted a one-year leave of absence in June and is now an assistant coach at Concordia University in Irvine.

“Replacing someone as successful as Jody is going to be very difficult, especially without the ability to practice as a team over the summer and play in a couple of summer showcases,” said Jennings, head coach of the Porterville College men’s basketball team the past four seasons. “We will implement a new system in a short amount of time that will allow us to focus on the strengths of the players that we have.”

The 31-year-old expects to have more players by the start of the season – his goal is to increase the roster to 10 – and he made progress last week.

“I was able to get some commitments from some girls playing other sports, so I would say we are up to eight,” Jennings said.

Forward Margaret Sun is the lone returnee from a squad that last season went undefeated in the Coast Conference North Division and 25-5 overall but was banned from the playoffs due to an enrollment violation.

With so much turnover, the Owls surely won’t be favored to win the division, though Jennings holds out hope that they can repeat the feat.

“It will not be easy, but I believe it is possible,” the Oakland native said. “Every time we step on the court, the goal is to win each play, each half and each game. If we play team basketball, limit our turnovers and rebound the basketball, we will have a chance to compete for a title.”

Jennings was voted Central Valley Conference Coach of the Year in 2012 after leading Porterville to its first winning season in more than a decade. Prior to coaching the Pirates, Jennings was the lead assistant for the Reedley College women’s basketball team for two seasons. He began his coaching career in 2004 at Fresno Pacific University, where he was the lead assistant for the women’s team.

“I would like to think that I am a players’ coach,” said Jennings, who played basketball at Fresno Pacific and earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees there. “I want the players to be able to learn the game so that they are able to make smart decisions and adjustments when necessary.”

In a press release announcing Jennings’ hiring, Foothill athletic director Susan Gutkind said the coach “has hit the ground running and already impressed us with his immediate contributions to the women’s program. Our team is building its momentum in anticipation of its first game at the Merced Tournament Nov. 21-23. I’m excited that this season our players will experience Jennings’ strong commitment and ability to help them stay motivated in their classes and on the court.”

Although Jennings was hired for only one year, he could remain at Foothill longer than that if Craig chooses not to return; she told the Town Crier in July that she would “never again set foot on the Foothill campus” with Gutkind as athletic director. But Jennings would have to reapply for the full-time job – which includes teaching physical education and kinesiology courses – next year.

“I would like to return as head coach beyond this season and build on the legacy Jody has built here at Foothill College,” said Jennings, who is relocating his family from Hanford. “Foothill College has welcomed me with open arms and I love the area, the people and the support for women’s basketball.”

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