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U. of Pittsburgh Basketball
New Pitt women's basketball coach Agnus Berenato stresses family values, discipline

Sunday, May 04, 2003

By Paul Zeise, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

If the five youngest children of Theresa and Peter McGlade had their way, it is likely that new Pitt women's basketball coach Agnus Berenato would have been a world-class swimmer. Or, perhaps, one of the finest swimming coaches in the country.

Agnus Berenato was introduced as Pitt’s new women’s basketball coach Thursday. (John Heller, Post-Gazette)

"All five of us voted for a swimming pool in our back yard, but dad cast the only vote that counted and he put in a basketball hoop instead," said Berenato's youngest sister, Theresa McGlade. "So I guess that's how we got started playing basketball.

"But I have no doubt that whatever career path Agnus chose, she'd have become a rousing success at it. She's just a dynamic person and someone who I have always envied because of her energy and her ability to do such a fabulous job in all aspects of her life despite the fact that she has to juggle so many activities and wear so many hats."

Basketball may have become the family sport when Peter installed a basketball hoop next to the garage at their Gloucester City, N.J., home, but the most important lessons Berenato learned in ultra-competitive games on uneven concrete had little to do with the game itself.

It was there, with her family and friends, that she learned valuable lessons about family, love, commitment, competition and maximizing her potential. And those lessons have pushed her to the top of her profession.

"I fell in love with basketball at an early age, and that has always been my passion," she said. "But I'm not defined by it. I've always kept it in perspective and believed that, in order to be a success on the court, you have to first be a success off it as well. That's why family is so important to me, and that's why I work so hard to instill values like character, integrity and discipline into my players.

"I've never believed that you can't have it all; you just have to make the commitment to go get it."

The values that are dear to Berenato -- family, community, charity, hard work, commitment, loyalty -- are the ones Pitt officials looked for in their search for a new coach when they fired Traci Waites after five seasons.

And while Berenato's successful record as a coach vaulted her to the top of the list of candidates, it is her magnetic personality and seemingly boundless energy that made her a must-hire.

That's because what the university needed to find was a miracle-worker capable of breathing life into what recently has been one of the worst major Division I women's programs in the NCAA. Pitt is certain it found that person in Berenato and believes she'll build the Panthers into a national power within a few years.

"We weren't just looking for a coach," said Carol Sprague, the senior associate athletic director at Pitt. "We needed someone who was a coach, a recruiter, someone who could generate a lot of interest in the program, someone who values hard work, someone who wouldn't be intimidated by the size of the job or the level of competition in the conference and someone with the commitment level to get things done right.

"That's what we found in Agnus. She is the complete and total package. A complete coach for all of our needs. Are there challenges here? Absolutely, but I believe she can overcome any of them and will do a great job for our program."

Bernadette McGlade, the associate commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference and Agnus' younger sister, has little doubt that Pitt made the right choice. Maybe she's biased, but her sentiments are echoed by most everyone who knows Berenato.

"Agnus's enthusiasm is infectious," said McGlade, who hired Agnus as an assistant coach at Georgia Tech when she was the head coach.

"She has very strong commitments and beliefs and she has succeeded at whatever she has put her mind to. She is one of those people who puts all of her energy into whatever it is she is going to do -- whether it is going to McDonald's to eat or preparing to beat an opponent."

Berenato, who spent the past 15 seasons as head coach at Georgia Tech and led the Yellow Jackets to postseason berths in each of the past four seasons, has a huge task ahead of her, and she knows it.

But to fully appreciate and understand who she is, one must understand where she comes from and her values.

Loyalty and commitment

In 1985, Berenato had just finished her fourth season as women's basketball coach at Rider University when the family learned her mother had advanced breast cancer. She would no longer be able to take care of herself.

But her 10 children were raised with family values so strong that a nursing home was not an option. And since most of her brothers and sisters were not able to drop everything and take care of their mother, she knew there was only one thing to do.

The Berenato clan, from left: Sons Joey and Andrew, daughters Theresa and Clare, husband Jack and daughter Christina. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)

"While we were all trying to figure out what we were going to do, Agnus resigned from her job," Bernadette said. "Then she moved from Trenton back in with our mother and took care of her until she died later that year. She was trying to make a career, but didn't even think twice about dropping it to help out the family."

Berenato said she learned that value from her mother, which is why such a decision was a no-brainer.

"My dad died when I was in seventh grade," said Berenato. "There were still seven of us in school, and the three others were in college. But my mom, she rolled up her sleeves and kept us together. We didn't have much, we were poor. But we did have each other, and that's why I believe so strongly in family and commitment.

"I learned to appreciate what we did have instead of complaining about what we didn't have because that's the approach my mother took despite the difficult circumstances. That's why I look at everything as an opportunity to succeed rather than a chance to fail."

Berenato has five children despite being in a profession not conducive to raising children. The job of a Division I head coach requires long hours, seven-day work weeks, few vacations and little free time.

But her children, Theresa (20), Andrew (18), Joey (14), Clare (13) and Christina (9) and her husband, Jack, all have worked together to overcome those obstacles.

"My mother is amazing because she's done so many things, yet she's always made time for us," said Andrew, who will be a freshman at Georgia Tech next year. "Like family dinner. She always makes sure to make it home for dinner. I have a lot of friends who can't say that about their parents, but mom always juggles things in order to be home with us for dinner.

"That means a lot because it shows that we really are the most important thing to her and, in turn, we make the effort to help her any way we can."

Berenato believes her strong family values reach her players because, in her eyes, they are part of her extended family. That's why it is not uncommon for her to have players over for dinner and why she works so hard to build a family-like atmosphere in the locker room.

It also is why she is so involved in the community wherever she is and why getting her players involved in numerous community projects will be a high priority.

She credited her husband for allowing her to pursue her dreams.

"He knew from day one that basketball was my passion," she said. "But he has always gone with the flow. He's an incredible man in many ways and he's been a huge part of my success. I believe family is always right behind faith among priorities, but I don't believe you have to choose career or family.

"To me, it is a matter of making time for all of those things that are your priorities."

'E' for effort

When Pitt interim athletic director Marc Boehm introduced Berenato for the first time, he said "nobody will outwork her."

Former Georgia 'Tech men's basketball coach Bobby Cremins, a close friend of Berenato's, agrees. He also said that along with work ethic, Berenato brings enthusiasm and energy to every task.

"She is a live ball of action, a real go-getter," Cremins said. "Nobody will ever know the things she had to fight through in order to have success at Georgia Tech, but she's worked so hard to get to where she is it is great to see her have success. Through good times and bad, she's always been supportive of me, and I've always appreciated that.

"But the thing about her beyond her genuineness and integrity that stands out is how hard she works and how competitive she is. She will win there, I know it."

It is not uncommon for Berenato to work long days, but with five children and a husband to attend to, that has caused her to be creative. At Georgia Tech, she held 5:45 a.m. practices so she could be home in the early evening with her kids. Then, she would break down film and do other tasks late at night when they were in bed.

She doesn't waste a minute and won't allow her kids or players to do so, either. There is no television from Sunday to Friday because she believes it fosters laziness. Without it, her children are forced to be creative and find other activities.

Despite the fact that all five of her kids were born during her coaching career, she never took a maternity leave. In fact, her oldest child, Theresa, was born on a Thursday, the day of a game. She missed that game because she was in the hospital, but was released on a Friday night and shocked her assistant coaches by showing up Saturday to coach an afternoon game.

"I'd use some vacation days to visit Agnus," Theresa said. "But I'd only be at her house for about half-hour and I'd already be tired and stressed out just watching her. It is amazing. She'd have a phone in one hand while she was cooking dinner, doing laundry, changing diapers, cleaning the house, visiting with me -- there was never a moment to relax.

"But that's who she is. She doesn't believe that there is ever too much for her to handle."

Hard work has always been a major part of Berenato's success and her greatest asset as a player. She was an excellent shooter, but more of a feisty player who scrapped for every inch. She played high school basketball for Gloucester Catholic and helped it win three consecutive state titles. At the time, there weren't many scholarships in women's basketball.

So she signed with a French professional team (Entente Senonaise) and played one year there.

Then, Title IX kicked in and women had the same opportunity to play college basketball as men.

Berenato, along with her two sisters, Mickey and Bernadette, accepted a scholarship to North Carolina and played one season for the Tar Heels. But the school was too big and too far from her Jersey roots, so she talked to her mother about possibly transferring to Mount St. Mary's College.

Her mother gave her the blessing, but said she would have to pay her way. That's probably the summer she developed her skills as a saleswoman because the only job she could find was as a traveling-bible saleswoman in Kentucky.

"I think I made $8,500 that summer selling those bibles," she said. "But I was fortunate enough to earn a scholarship, so I didn't have to go back the next summer. It was a great experience in learning how to meet and sell people."

Teacher and motivator

Clemson women's coach Jim Davis, who has coached against Berenato for a number of years and is one of her closest friends in the profession, also is sure that Berenato will be successful.

But unlike some, he thinks her impact will be immediate because he said she is a master motivator with a knack for getting players to achieve things they never thought possible.

"She is one of the best at convincing kids that they can be better than they really are," Davis said. "But don't get me wrong -- she is not a con artist. She is genuine. She really believes in her players, and you can see it in the way they play. There is never any quit in her teams. They are a lot like her -- they fight and scratch until the end. They will work hard, you can believe that.

"And I'll say this -- I don't know what the talent level is at Pitt because I'm not familiar with the program, but, if there is any talent base at all there, she'll turn that thing around, and they'll be competitive next year."

It only took Pitt sophomore point guard Amy Kunich about five minutes of listening to Berenato address the media before she was convinced that great things are coming. And she already believes in Berenato despite the fact that the team is six months from its first official practice.

"As far as first impressions go, that was amazing," said Kunich. "I was sitting in my chair listening to her and getting restless because I wanted to get my shoes on and go play for her. I'm excited already. She clearly is going to be a motivator and a welcome change for us. You can't help but get excited when you listen to her."

Program builder, recruiter

One of Berenato's highest priorities will be to reconnect the program to Western Pennsylvania's fertile recruiting base. Many top players in the area over the past decade have been stars elsewhere, but that's a trend that Sprague expects to end once people get a chance to meet Berenato.

Kunich agrees.

"I'll tell you this, if she came to my house when I was being recruited, I'd sign up that day," she said. "I have no doubt she's a coach that kids will want to play for. No doubt at all. There is just something special that draws you to her."

At Georgia Tech, Berenato took an urban program that was second-fiddle to the University of Georgia and made it competitive. When she arrived in Atlanta, the best players who stayed home went to Georgia.

By the time she left, she had built a program that could attract top-caliber players from Georgia and elsewhere.

This past season, Georgia Tech went 20-13, made the NCAA tournament and featured seven players from Georgia. She has coached 11 all-ACC players and many others who have played in the WNBA or professionally in Europe.

That is the vision she has for Pitt, and she believes that her straightforward approach and commitment to excellence will help her fulfill that vision.

"Like everything else, you don't have to choose academics or athletics or community service," she said. "I learned that early in my career. You can have great players who are great students and great people. That's what we want here.

"I know it will take time, but I am committed to going out into the community and working with high school coaches and AAU coaches, but I'll do what it takes. Pitt has given me a great opportunity, and I take it seriously. I want to succeed, but we will do the right thing and do things the right way.

"That is the only promise I can make."

Paul Zeise can be reached at pzeise@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1720.

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