SYRACUSE, N.Y. — As Felisha Legette-Jack strides down the Wall of Fame hallway of the Carmelo K. Anthony Basketball Center, her wide smile can be seen from miles away. She’s dressed in a navy blue jumpsuit and bright Syracuse-orange sneakers. It’s exactly the kind of fit you wear when you’re lounging around in the comfort of your own home, sporting your team colors with pride.
For Legette-Jack, Syracuse is and always will be home. She was a key pillar of the women’s basketball program in the late 1980s and her picture hangs in the school’s Wall of Fame. In her office, she points to the orange-painted walls, where pictures of the current women’s basketball team hang. Some photos show players enjoying a meal together and sitting on the front steps of a building after a run. The mood in the photos is light and carefree as Orange teammates, old and new, huddle near each other and smile brightly into the camera.
“I want them to see, this is us,” says Legette-Jack, who took over as head coach in late March 2022. “This is what we’re becoming through these pictures and the things we were doing together.”
The Syracuse women’s basketball program was in desperate need of a fresh start. Former head coach Quentin Hillsman fostered a toxic environment that led to numerous players transferring, and an external investigation into Hillsman’s conduct found a pattern of inappropriate behavior. He eventually resigned in August 2021, and Syracuse began the arduous process of moving forward.
It seemed only natural that Syracuse should turn to one of its own to help repair the damage.
“When it came to a point where it was so broken, and that my heart — it’s in my heart to fix things. Every team I’ve ever went to I’ve had to fix it,” says Legette-Jack, 56. “For it to be my alma mater, it became a dream again. Like, I think they need me. And I think I’m ready to come back home.”
After graduating from Syracuse in 1989, Legette-Jack finished her playing career as the all-time leading scorer (1,526) and rebounder (927). With an eye on returning one day as the head coach, she became an assistant coach at Boston College, then had head coaching stints at Hofstra (2002-2006), Indiana (2006-2012) and Buffalo (2012-2022). As time passed, Legette-Jack began to accept that coaching at Syracuse might never happen. But then everything fell apart for the Orange, and Syracuse athletic director John Wildhack called.
“Coach Jack has a special connection and passion for our community, Syracuse University and the young women she develops beyond the game of basketball,” he says via email through a school spokesperson. “In 10 years at Buffalo, she established the Bulls into a perennial NCAA Tournament team. Those attributes made her the right person to lead our program at this time.”
When Legette-Jack first took over at Buffalo in 2012, she had just been fired from Indiana where she had compiled a dismal 87-100 record overall. Women’s college basketball in Buffalo had been an afterthought. The Bulls had never been to the NCAA Tournament and hadn’t experienced a winning season the previous nine years. Fans rarely attended games, let alone knew the Buffalo players by name.
Despite getting let go by the Hoosiers, Buffalo gave Legette-Jack a chance to improve their program. And that willingness to let her have another crack at a head-coaching gig humbled her. She reevaluated her coaching approach, realizing that everyone deserves a chance to get back out there and get it right.
“When I coached prior to me being fired (from Indiana), I demanded that moment, I demanded that excellence. There was no wavering,” she says. “Then you get fired and then you’re like, oh crap, you know? What happens now?”
Legette-Jack took that mindset and applied it to her staff, her players and her approach to the game. It helped her create a bond with her team that was so infectious, it seeped into the Buffalo community and fanbase as well. The basketball program began to thrive. The bleachers in the Bulls Alumni Arena hold a capacity of 6,783, but they averaged around 500 spectators in 2011-2012. Under Legette-Jack, that number rose to almost 2,000 in 2018-2019, before the pandemic hit.
“Coach Jack — she’s so genuine. She’s not afraid to be who she is in front of everybody,” says Syracuse assistant coach Kristen Sharkey, who was also on Legette-Jack’s staff and played for her in Buffalo. “That’s really how we were able to build that program in Buffalo. … I tell people this all the time, because of the way Coach Jack and (our team) built Buffalo women’s basketball, I think people just got excited about the sport.”
As a mid-major with limited resources, the Bulls made the NCAA Tournament four times and reached its first Sweet Sixteen appearance in school history in 2019. Buffalo’s only losing season under Legette-Jack was her first.
She had even higher aspirations for the program, saying she envisioned Buffalo becoming the “Gonzaga of the East Coast.” But she says the Buffalo administration wasn’t ready to share her vision and take that next step.
“It was time for me to leave Buffalo. Not the friends I made there, not the community. It was time for me to venture on to something different. And I think we’ve taken it as far as it can go, with me,” Legette-Jack says. “And I saw it moving in a different direction. No matter what, (2022) was going to be the year that I left.”
Now that she’s back at Syracuse, Legette-Jack is tasked with bringing the Orange back to prominence and good stature both on and off the court. Her overall goal, she says, is to create a culture of humility, fun and passion for basketball by taking the same approach she used in Buffalo.
“Coach Jack is a very passionate coach, she brings 100 percent passion every day,” junior Teisha Heyman says. “She believes in my abilities as a player which allows me to believe in her as my coach.”
Legette-Jack says she didn’t say anything different to the players who eventually transferred to other schools over the summer, or the players who decided to stay — like Heyman. She simply told them what she was willing to do to try to help them become better.
“Day by day, I present who I am,” Legette-Jack says. “Day by day, I try to infuse the character that I was blessed with. Day by day, I try to make the culture what it has been for me successfully at Buffalo. Day by day, ask for forgiveness for my university, for all the people that were hurt by what had happened. And day by day, we’ll get better.”
Before the 2021-2022 season tipped off for Buffalo, Legette-Jack noticed something different about her star player, Dyaisha Fair. It was something Legette-Jack had been expecting ever since she recruited Fair out of Rochester, NY, four years ago.
“Something just changed in her,” Legette-Jack says. “She was at a whole other level. I said, this kid, she can’t stay. She can’t stay.”
Later, after attending a service together at Fair’s church in her hometown, Legette-Jack took Fair aside and expressed her wishes. “I told her, there’s more of the world out there that needs to see your gift,” she says.
Last season was yet another successful one for Buffalo and for Fair, who was the fourth-leading scorer in the nation with 24.4 points per game. The Bulls finished 25-8 and second overall in the MAC. They won the MAC tournament and butted up against a taller and stronger Tennessee in the first round. After losing 80-67 to the Lady Vols, the reality of the situation set in. Syracuse came calling for Legette-Jack, and Fair entered the transfer portal soon after.
Fair began to receive offers from other top-tier programs around the country, including South Carolina, Arizona and Baylor. Legette-Jack supported her, but also presented Syracuse as a possible option.
“I’m offering her what we experienced when she first came to Buffalo. To begin again, at a different level,” Legette Jack says. “I’m offering Syracuse University and a great education, but on the basketball court, I don’t know what we have. I said, give me a chance to see. You do you and I’ll do me, and if it comes back together, we’ll do our thing.”
Fair has always trusted her gut. It’s what led her to Buffalo and Legette-Jack in the first place. She took visits to other schools after entering the transfer portal. But in the end, she says, none of them felt quite right.
“I narrowed it down to three to five schools and I said, OK, if I do decide to go somewhere else and not stay with (Legette-Jack), what would feel more like home? And nothing felt like that. That was the deciding factor,” Fair says. “Now that I’m here, it just so happens I’m here with the person who came and got me the first time.”
.@DyaishaFair = one of the most electric scorers in the country pic.twitter.com/yVgzNHSPRy
— ‘Cuse Hoops (@CuseWBB) November 19, 2022
Having Fair back on her team in a new setting made Legette-Jack’s homecoming with the Orange all the sweeter. But Fair isn’t the Buffalo only player who came along for the ride. MAC Freshman of the Year, Georgia Woolley, came as well. So did junior guard Cheyenne McEvans and sophomore forward Saniaa Wilson. Assistant coaches Khyreed Carter and Sharkey also followed Legette-Jack.
From 2006 to 2021, with Hillsman at the helm, Syracuse women’s basketball had 12 winning seasons and made the NCAA Tournament nine times. The Orange reached their first Final Four in 2016 and lost to UConn in the championship game. It was the best season in the history of the program. Since moving to the ACC in 2013, Syracuse has held its own, but most often finished in the middle of the standings behind powerhouse teams like Notre Dame, Louisville and North Carolina State. Last season, the Orange finished 11th with an 11-18 overall record, going 4-14 against ACC competition under Vonn Read, who served as acting head coach. Syracuse was picked to finish 10th in the ACC preseason poll last month.
Still, jumping from coaching in the MAC to the ACC doesn’t faze Legette-Jack.
“I never make it bigger than what it is,” says Legette-Jack. “We don’t know what that looks like (on the court yet), but we’re not gonna miss a step. And we’re gonna enjoy every single second of this full-circle moment.”
She’s now coaching where her player jersey is retired for her achievements at Syracuse in the 1980s: Big East Freshman of the Year, three-time All-Big East selection, a member of Syracuse’s first conference championship and NCAA Tournament appearances, and a top-10 leader on Syracuse’s all-time career scoring and rebounding lists.
But with the season underway, Legette-Jack is keenly focused on fundamentals of basketball, particularly defense and rebounding — two key staples that have come to define her previous programs. And the Orange have since bought in. Syracuse is 4-1, and according to HerHoopStats, rank seventh overall in rebounds per game (48.4), 17th in blocks per game (6.2), and 42nd in steals per game (11.4).
While it’s still early in the schedule and ACC play doesn’t begin until late December, there’s cause for optimism. The clouds of the previous coaching scandal and player unrest have dissipated, replaced by a lingering feeling of familiarity, nostalgia, and the sense that Legette-Jack — and Orange women’s basketball — is back where they belong.
“Every day I get to come here and I pinch myself,” she says. “This is where I’m at, man. And I’m not taking it any faster than what it is.
“I didn’t need a major school or program. I needed home.”
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(Illustration: Sean Reilly / The Athletic; Photos: Bryan Bennett / Getty Images; Andy Mead / Getty Images)