Special Jennings – Interview

Special Jennings is a basketball coach in the US. She is currently the Girls Head Coach at Montverde Academy High School, Florida.

Special’s previous position was Associate Head Coach at The University of Illinois at Chicago, spending two years there from 2018- 2020. While the program was in a rebuilding stage during that time, they are poised for a successful season after the re-tooling of Special and her colleagues in the recent past.

Special is no stranger to Florida basketball. She spent the 2017-18 season as an Assistant Coach at Flagler College in Saint Augustine, Fla. She helped turn around the team’s play during that time, earning a 16-6 record in the Peach Belt Conference in her final season. Even though it was only a brief spell at Flagler, Special left her mark in mentoring the 2018 Peach Belt Conference Defensive Player of the Year, Tabitha Odabe.

Before arriving at Flagler, Special honed her craft as Assistant Coach at Augusta University for three seasons. From 2014 to 2017, she played a critical role in scouting, player development, planning and conducting practices, and overall player development on and off the court. The Jaguars made it to the NCAA Division II “Sweet 16” in March 2016 and amassed 46 overall wins during Jennings’ tenure.

Prior to her time at Augusta, Special got her start as an administrative assistant for the women’s basketball program at Wright State for the 2013-14 season. She assisted in many aspects of the program, most notably serving to ensure players maintained academic excellence. Wright State earned their first Horizon League Championship and first NCAA Tournament appearance with her on the bench in 2014.

As a player, Special stood out, starting 115 consecutive games at Xavier University. She is currently tied for fourth in all-time assists for the Musketeers with 515. She also still holds the fifth-place spot in Xavier’s all-time free throw percentage at .773. Special led the Musketeers to an NCAA “Elite 8” appearance in 2010, four Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament titles, and three other NCAA Tournament appearances. Special also went on to spend 2011-13 as a professional player in Finland.

How has your last 12 months been, and how have you managed to adapt through Covid and lockdowns and what are you hoping for in the near future?

Covid has been unique circumstance! Fortunately for us we have been able to play this season, I know that a lot of States over here are not playing, so we have been very fortunate to compete. It has been a little bit different because there is a limited number of people who can play games, you have to wear a mask and in some States the players have to wear a mask during the game, so it has been different! Our school is doing a 2 day spring break instead of the typical 10-12 day break, and so it’s made everything a little different. But we can’t complain because we are very fortunate to even have the oppotunity to compete!

Do you think it will affect your players or the programme long term?

No, and I hope that is doesn’t. We actually have a team full of international young ladies, so at the beginning of the year I was a little nervous because I was hoping everyone could get back and the border would be open for everybody, fortunately they were. So with vaccines coming out, I am hoping for a better year next year!

Was it always your goal to go into coaching after retiring?

For me, I knew when I was in college that I would coach. As a playing guard, I just had a niche for it, I had a very high IQ, I really studied the game, I watched lot of film and really learned the game. I fell in love with that. I was already a people person that was good at explaining who, what, where, when and why when we were on the floor. So it was always something in me, that was always something I wanted to do.

How would you describe your coaching philosophy?

I don’t really have a philosophy. A lot of people have a whole paragraph – my goal here is to bring in high character young ladies that will be accountable for their actions, and actions of their programme, they will be relentless in the classroom and on the court. They will be committed to getting better everyday. They are appreciated and enthusiastic, I’m not looking for entilited individuals…nowadays a lot of people feel a sense of entitlement and for me I stay away from those kids. I want kids that do what you ask and not feel like you owe them something. So I don’t have a philosophy, but those are the pillars that I stand by.

I heard you on a podcast with ‘American Ballers’ talking about the parents of kids, and how it’s the parents that cause a lot of issues because of the messages they give their players saying their are going to be the next Kobe…how do you deal with that situation and have you ever got to a situation where you say ‘I can’t coach you’?

Fortunately I haven’t, I spot that early. When I talk to parents, even now as the head coach here, my first response to the parents is ‘hey listen, I am going to coach the kids, not mommy and daddy, not uncle Jo Jo, not the AU coach…but Special Jennings who is the coach of this team’. I am going to coach and run it the way that I best see fit, and what I see best suits our young ladies. And if there is an issue with that, or they can’t handle that, then this is not the place for them. A lot of coaches don’t put that out there early, if you have a good kid alot of coaches just think ‘oh I’m gonna take what comes with them’. I am all about my team and doing what is best for my programme, not what fo an individual and I don’t think one person makes or breaks our programme. I am not willing to sacrifice that, so I am open and very honest, blunt and transparent in the beginning so there is no confusion.

Why do you think there are so few female basketball coaches across all the leagues from high school right up to the WNBA when women’s and girls basketball is so huge in the US?

I think that it comes down to sexism, it’s always been a stigma that men run the world and rule the world and women sit down and act like a lady. But for me, basketball is universal. Whether its a man or a women, playing a sport, you take the gender off of them, they are doing the same thing. The game does not change – it’s not a man’s game v a girl’s game. If you take Dawn Staley’s resume, and you take her name off it and put it next to any men’s collegiate coach resume, it holds it’s own. I don’t understand what the big deal is, it’s a sport, we are all atheltes, we are playing the same game – women go to clinics, men go to clinics, it’s all the same. I personally think a woman can coach a man as a man can coach a woman.

Looking to the future of your coaching career – what is your ultimate goal and do you see any specific barriers that might be in the way of you achieveing that?

My goal right now is to achieve a national championship. I want to find the right young ladies that fit here with the programme and make sure they are a great representation not only of themselves and their parents, but also the programme and the school. So when you find kids that come with all those intangbles, it makes for an easy transition.

Looking at the past, if you could start all over again from day one of coaching, is there anything that you would change or do differently in your coaching journey?

Not at all, I think every step that I have taken in my coaching career has prepared me for this opportunuity that I have now. I have learned a tonne of different things. If I’d have gone straight into NCAA Divison 1 coaching, I’d have been one dimentional. A lot of times, if you get to the D1 level, there are certain roles that coaches take on, and I didn’t want to do just that one role. So going to Division 2 gave me the opportunity to do everything, so I became more versitile and it helped me. At this level, it’s just Head Coach and Assistant, you don’t get your 4 or 5 coaches, or your GA’s or Managers, you don’t get a bunch of help and so you have to be that and figure things out. I wasn’t able to just say hey, can you tell me how to do this…I had to figure it out. I think that was the best part of my coaching journey early on.

How do you hope your players will remember you when they graduate from your programme?

I try to instill in them discipline, becuase no matter what you do in life, where your at, what stage you are, what type of career field you head towards, there is going to have to be that dicipline, punctuality, wok ethic, attitude, all those things…for me , I just hope they carry that with them to college and beyond. That’s always been my goal. I hope I foster a relationship with them that will take us beyond these early years in our relationship as player and coach.

If you had one piece of advice or tip that you feel would help other women going into coaching or progressing in their carrers, what would that be?

Your journey is journey. Your journey does not look like anyone elses, don’t come into this field trying to do it the way someone else did it. You have to find out who you are, what you want to do, what your aspirations are and you have to do it on your terms in your time and in your own skin.