Tammi Reiss’ Foundation And Culture Has Reshaped The URI Women’s Basketball Program

Tammi Reiss
Photo: Alan Hubbard

Watch the URI Lady Rams live vs VCU on Sunday, Feb 28th  at 1 pm on YurView for Cox customers in Rhode Island or on ESPN+.

Since taking the helm of the Rhode Island women’s basketball team in April of 2019, Tammi Reiss has infused confidence, accountability, and a sense of momentum into the program.

At 9-7 overall, including an 9-4 mark in Atlantic 10 play, the Rams are turning heads. I caught up with the personable and refreshing Reiss for a conversation covering an array of topics.

CDD: Coach, thanks for taking the time to connect tonight. A great place to begin is with those who influenced you most on your path. Can you peel back the curtain for us?

Tammi Reiss: I have to give most of my credit to my parents. When you talk about style and my philosophy in both life and in basketball, it’s “do everything as hard as you can and do it the right way,” meaning with morality and a value system.

Coming here to Rhode Island the first thing I wanted to do was lay the foundation and the culture of how we do things. We have ten commandments that we must follow as a program. And then just having those impeccable intangibles: work ethic, coachable, you show up and you’re ready to go through a brick wall and compete.

It all goes back to my childhood. No sense of entitlement. You earn everything through hard work.

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I give all my credit to developing my game to my sixth-grade teacher, who was the boys coach at Eldred Central School where I went to school. His name was Paul Tylawsky and we called him Mr. T (like Mr. T from the A-Team) because he was 6-foot-6 and he was fierce.

He saw me playing on the playground one day and said he could teach me a couple of things. From that day on he became my trainer and my mentor, taught me everything I know – even through my college days and my WNBA days.

As I got older, my college coach Debbie Ryan at the University of Virginia. She was a players coach who had a special relationship with us and gave us a lot of freedom and trust.

All of us who played for her: Dawn Staley, myself, Audra Smith, Tonya Cardoza… the list goes on and on… we are all coaching college basketball and there’s a reason for that. She made the game fun and the experience fun for us.

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I always said that is the kind of coach I want to be. I want my players to have a great experience and fall in love with the game.

I steal from all the great coaches too. I steal from Dawn Staley, Gino Auriemma, Pat Summitt, Tara VanDerveer. I want to take from the best. I want to take from winners, from how they ran their programs, their culture, their discipline, how they recruit – everything. And then you add it to who you are and develop your system.

CDD – To that end, what is the ideal style you want to play?

TR: I want to play fast and free in an open system that gives my players the ability to make decisions. I don’t want to have to be a “set” coach. Defensively, I want to play man-to-man.

Now, until you get your talent and your pieces in, you are still developing getting to the goals of the systems you want to play. Right now, we may do a little bit of pack line because we can’t get out and pressure it quite like I want to yet.

CD: You alluded to culture before. One of my favorite statements is that “Culture is a symptom.” Do you agree?

TR: It’s 100% correct. Everything you build starts with a sense of foundation. I’m a believer in “how you do anything is how you do everything.” How my kids show up for class and perform in the classroom is a direct correlation to how they show up for a practice or game.

I’m huge on foundation. That’s where I started when I got here. This was a dead program, let’s be honest, and there’s reasons for that.

When I was evaluating the program and whether or not to take this job, they were undisciplined. I knew what was going on behind the scenes – I didn’t have to see it. You have to get that set. I will sacrifice wins (and did, it cost us a game last year) to get our culture set.

Tammi Reiss
Photo: Alan Hubbard

CDD: The team has been playing well – six straight wins recently. What have you seen?

TR: First, we got healthy. We had no summer, couldn’t practice early-on, other than in pods, and then had our first game three weeks later.

We have five new starters and when we began practicing they all got hurt. We had talent but couldn’t put it together (hamstring here, concussion there) – and Marie-Paule Foppossi, [“MP”] (11.9ppg, 4.6rpg) just got healthy. I knew, once we got healthy as a unit that we’d have three weeks of practice before A-10 play. I told the team, “Don’t worry. Things are going to get better.” We stayed committed, developed that chemistry, and started winning. These are great kids.

It still will be a process. But this year, we’re now beating the top teams or in nail-biters with them instead of being blown out. One game at a time. We lost recently (against Fordham and Duquesne). We made those areas we fell short in of prime importance because it’ll come back into play. We’ll get better so when we take that floor next game we’re ready.

CDD: Metrics often can’t tell the whole story. You all struggle from the charity stripe as a unit. You’re still integrating faces and a work in progress defensively. Even so, the team is 4-2 in games decided by five points or less. How is this team getting it done?

TR: Most definitely, especially free-throw shooting. When I look at the close games – the Penn State game was a killer – this one is really about the kids finding a way to win. We still may miss the free throw but we go down the other end and somehow get a damn stop. There’s grit and intangibles there that you can’t measure.

The Penn State game helped me as a coach. The last timeout in that game was frantic. I left the huddle not feeling good. And then there’s a broken play and we hadn’t covered off on everything in the timeout. It was a hard lesson to learn. But fast forward to the UMass game, we were up one and needed a stop – and we covered every detail the opposite of how we did against PSU. It was a beautiful thing. Coming out of the timeout we got the stop and won the game.

With good preparation we found a way. In the end you gotta have a little luck and a little grit. We’re going to make a helluva lot of mistakes, but I tell them as long as you play hard you can live with it.

CDD: That leads me to the next one. You’re not the tallest team in the world but you’ve done solid work on the glass overall.

TR: We work on rebounding a lot, it’s an emphasis. We work on a lot of defensive rebounding. It’s why we lost the Fordham game but we have been good overall.

Our weakness now are our littles. Our bigs are okay but our littles are giving up offensive rebounds. They got killed today in practice: they couldn’t get out of a drill until they got three stops in a row. It is so important and a huge emphasis for us. We have improved since the beginning of the season.

Tammi Reiss
Photo: Alan Hubbard

CDD: You’re getting contributions from many players. Any you’d like to spotlight?

TR: There are so many players for different reasons that contribute to our team and program. For me, to see MP on the court playing – I was at Syracuse with her when she didn’t get playing time and going through tough times – and to see her thriving and being one of the main components on a team that we rely on, I’m so proud and happy that she can put a uniform on, step out, and thrive.

Emanuelle (Manue) Tahane (14.4ppg, 10.1rpg) was our first commit. She left Missouri and had every school after her. To pick us, a losing program, and trust us to develop her and teach her – and now to watch her in the A-10 as one of the league leaders in field goal percentage, averaging a double-double… I’m so happy.

I have a story for every one of these kids.

Marta Vargas (8.6ppg, 32.6mpg) – broke her foot. And now she’s back. She didn’t have to come back. She did a whole summer, nine months of rehab. To watch her out on the floor with joy, playing with players she enjoys playing with… it’s great.

For Johanna (Jo) Muzet (8.9ppg, 8.6rpg), she’s our glue. She has to defend every top player in the league. It’s not a glory job. The poor thing has to run around all game guarding Anna DeWolfe from Fordham – or the best kid no matter what. Nobody wants the job. You look up at the end of the game and she impacts in it so many ways.

CDD: Great stuff. Let’s wrap it here. What must this team do to get to its ceiling?

TR: We have to stay healthy – and that’s every team. You have to avoid COVID (I do not wish that on anyone)… and you have to avoid injuries to certain players.

Next, it’s working on the areas we’re not completely disciplined in. There are still defensive areas, rebounding, and offensive execution – taking care of the basketball. When we get shots and we can rebound those it’s great. When we’re sitting in the upper teens in turnovers, finding ourselves in transition defense instead of going after second chance points it’s killing us.

We are working on our offense every day but if we continue to understand why we turn it over we’ll become more disciplined and get better.

Chris DiSano, is an Atlantic 10 analyst and writer. He has served as the host of A-10 Live! at Men’s Basketball Media Day and founded the former College Chalktalk. DiSano, who was named an NBC Sports top Atlantic 10 basketball follow, can be found on Twitter at @CDiSano44