Fall 2016

Keep the scissors handy

Cimino transforms women's basketball team

Feature Image
Jonathan Cohen
Linda Cimino coaches her team to victory against Stony Brook last season.

There were two reflections of Linda Cimino in the West Gym as the Binghamton University women’s basketball team went through midsummer drills.

The first was on the waxed hardwood under her black Nikes and pink socks.

The second was in the women running between the baselines, shooting jump shots.

These were the first workouts since last winter, which was arguably the best losing season in program history.

After just four wins in Cimino’s first season in 2014–15, the Bearcats were 14-17 in 2015–16. Binghamton was tied for third in the America East Conference regular season despite predictions of a last-place finish.
The Bearcats were 11-4 at home and reached the conference semifinal.

“How did we do it? I think we are the hardest-working team in the country, and you won’t find that on any kind of box score,” says Cimino, who was named the America East Coach of the Year. “Hard work is a mindset that negates any talent gap. That goes far beyond a basketball court.”

That season, and the program’s future, are reflections of the woman in the first seat on the bench — reflections of Linda Cimino.

Learning to love basketball

When Cimino was a little girl in Massachusetts, her father, Raymond, died during a training exercise as a sergeant in the Chelsea Police Department.

“It was a month before my sixth birthday. My mother had five kids under 9 at the time,” Cimino says. “She took a second job as a waitress and was the first real example I had of hard work overcoming obstacles. We are all dealt a different hand, and it is how you deal with that hand that makes all the difference. If you work hard, persevere and don’t make excuses, things will turn out well.”

Cimino started playing youth sports in middle school after the family moved to Lincoln, R.I.

Softball came to her naturally, but the languid pace didn’t hold her attention like basketball’s faster clip. She wasn’t naturally gifted on the court, but spent hours working on her skills at a neighborhood hoop.

“I wore out all kinds of shoes,” Cimino says. “Basketball wasn’t a natural fit for me, but, as crazy as it sounds, that is why I really loved it. It was difficult. I worked on left-handed layups for hours because I wasn’t good at them. I liked having a goal and working over and over until I achieved it.”

All-state in basketball and softball at North Smithfield High School, she played basketball at Adelphi University on Long Island and is still one of the top free-throw shooters in school history. After graduation in 2001, she taught health to high schoolers and took her first coaching job at Queensborough Community College, where, at 22 years old, she was barely older than the players. Cimino led the Tigers to the 2002 City University of New York Athletic Conference championship game. 

She spent three years as a high school varsity head coach and another year as an assistant at Adelphi, but it wasn’t enough. It didn’t reflect what she learned from her mother and the hours working on skills at that neighborhood hoop.

“It all felt like a word that I don’t use — I was ‘content,’ but there was something inside of me that wouldn’t let me settle,” Cimino says.

Caldwell University, a Division II program just outside of New York City, was looking for a head coach in 2005. Caldwell was 29-54 over three seasons, and Cimino saw an opportunity.

In her first season, Caldwell was 8-20. Next season it was 10-17 (sound familiar?), then 18-12.

Cimino started the turnaround by finding and developing overlooked players who reflected her belief in hard work. From 2007–14, the Cougars were 90-52, won a conference title, had two Division II All-Americans and a team GPA of 3.2.

“The athletics director at Caldwell (Mark Corino) said to me, ‘If a Division I program calls, it is a great opportunity. You have to spread your wings; you are prepared to take that call,’” Cimino says.

Binghamton University Director of Athletics Pat Elliott picked up the phone.

“When we started our search for a head coach [in 2014] we were looking for a person who would reflect everything that Binghamton athletics stands for — academic excellence, giving back to the community and athletic achievement,” Elliott says. “We aren’t willing to take shortcuts here, either, so when we found Linda Cimino, we found all of those aspects in one person.”

Inside a turnaround

Since moving to Division I in 2001, Binghamton women’s basketball has had four winning seasons. The last was 2010–11. Binghamton was in a 15-75 slump coming into last season. That didn’t reflect a program that had four NCAA tournament appearances from 1995–99 in Divisions II and III.

“We needed to come in and make it ours,” Cimino says of her first season. “We wanted the culture to be about work, hustle, commitment, perseverance and discipline because those are things that I believe in. Then we want to be great students in the classroom and citizens in the community, beyond great players on the court.”

There was turnover in the roster when the new coach came in, but as before, the best place for Cimino to start was to recruit players who reflected her values. Players needed to be talented, of course, but Cimino says she looks for players who have “drive, grit, humility and awareness” on the court and off.

“A lot of people can see talented players. Not a lot of people can see the smartest or the most conscious player. There is something special about finding a woman with the highest character,” Cimino says. “Finding young women who can cooperate and be flexible is appealing to me.”

Junior forward Alyssa James — who transferred from Caldwell — was instrumental in starting the cooperation between Binghamton veteran players and the new coach.

“Coach Cim is very disciplined and makes sure we are everywhere on time,” James says. “She works harder than anyone I know and helps us learn to be that way. She makes it known that we are a reflection of her, and if we act like we need to, it is a good day.”

James was the 2015–16 America East Defensive Player of the Year after she led the league in blocked shots and was fourth in rebounding, both of which are about determination as much as skill. Her uncle is NBA Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing.

Guard Jasmine Sina, who signed her letter of intent to play at Binghamton just days after Cimino became head coach, was the first outside recruit to embody and embrace the values.

“She is very big on discipline, attitude, dedication and effort,” Sina says. “Those things really translate to us as players. We really believe in ourselves off the court because of those values.”

Sina will be back in the starting lineup this season after grinding through months of physical therapy due to a blown anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee. She was the 2014–15 America East Rookie of the Year but missed all of last season.
With the players in place, the next step of the turnaround was to reflect the ideas of hard work and discipline through action:

—A player with low grades was suspended for a game last season.

—The team tracks loose balls won — a “hustle” statistic not in official box scores.

—There is a strict no-cellphone policy on road trips.

—The team mentors students at Johnson City Middle School, helps with youth clinics and volunteers at soup kitchens. Players have worked with the Special Olympics and the Magic Paintbrush Project, which provides creative experiences for children with special needs.
That all led to the team winning the Binghamton Bearcats’ Athletic Association Team Community Service Award for the second year in a row in the spring.

“After four years, I want women to come out of this program confident, independent and able to take on any challenge,” Cimino says. “If we develop hardworking women, we will have a great basketball team like we did last year and will this year. All of this is about developing great women.”

Women, and a program’s future, that are reflections of the head coach.