Belmont University was a No. 12 seed facing fifth-seeded Michigan State in the 2016 NCAA Tournament pod played at Starkville, Miss. As the host site, the Mississippi State athletic director dropped in on the game to make sure event operations were running smoothly.
From a spot on press row, Scott Stricklin watched the Bruins throw a second-half scare into the Spartans before Big Ten athleticism took over down the stretch. Stricklin was impressed by the energy of the coach on the Belmont sideline and was equally struck by the presence and personality exuded in the post-game media session.
“I thought he was a guy who someone should pay attention to. Maybe someone I’d look out for and recommend to my AD friends looking for a basketball coach,” Stricklin said. “So he was a guy I’d already been tracking.”
Cameron Newbauer is no longer a blip on Stricklin’s radar. On Monday, the 2017 Ohio Valley Conference Coach of the Year and two-time league champion was hired to become the 10th women’s head basketball coach in University of Florida history and the first male to hold the title. His contract is for five years.
A news conference to introduce Newbauer — aka “Coach Cam” — is scheduled for Tuesday at 4:30 p.m. at the UF Women’s Club.
“It’s the University of Florida, that’s the excitement for me,” Newbauer said Monday. “A national brand. One of the most revered athletic programs in the nation. What those coaches and [former AD] Jeremy Foley have built is incredible, and in spending time with Scott Stricklin I know he’s the right leader in that department for the program. It’s just an incredible place for my family and I to take this next step, and I couldn’t be more grateful.”
Stricklin said Newbauer, 38, was the best fit among a pool of candidates to succeed Amanda Butler, who was released this month after 10 seasons, a 190-136 overall record and 71-85 mark in Southeastern Conference play.
“There was never a doubt that Cam wanted to be in the SEC, at this level,” Stricklin said. “Of all the people we had intensive conversations with, he was the most prepared and ready to come in and be successful in this league.”
Or as Newbauer put it, “It’s kind of hard to find the words right now. It’s surreal, an absolute dream come true for me. I’ve worked and been blessed and fortunate to have opportunities come my way. This is one that is going to take a lot of hard work and diligence, but it’s one I’m proud to have in front of me.”
Newbauer went 79-50 in four seasons at Belmont — 51-15 the last two seasons on the way to the NCAA Tournament — in what was his first stop as a head coach after a run of assistant stints, including turns with the Georgia men’s and women’s teams. The Bruins won OVC regular-season and tournament titles the last two seasons, highlighted by a perfect 21-0 record against league opponents in ’16-17 to become just the seventh team in OVC history to post an unblemished mark in conference play. As a 13-seed in the NCAA Tournament, Belmont took fourth-seeded Kentucky to the final possession before losing 73-70 at Lexington.
Along the way, the Bruins ranked in the top 50 nationally in 16 different statistical categories, including 17th in field-goal percentage (.459), 14th in 3-pointers made (245), third in rebounding margin (plus-11.5) and ninth in assists (526).
“You have to get a feel for what you have, but pie in the sky, I know what we’d like to become; we want to be a tough, hard-working group that really cares for each other. The culture piece is huge for our program,” Newbauer said. “In the SEC, there’s a number of different styles of play you have to learn to win against. You can’t play fast or slow, be an offensive team or defensive team. The best athletes in the nation are in this league.”
He’ll take over a program that went 15-16 overall and 5-11 in SEC play, which tied for 11th in the league standings.
UF’s new coach will have some tools to work with in three returning starters, led by All-SEC freshman guard Delicia Washington, plus the addition of transfer point guard Funda Nakkasoglu, who averaged 19.1 points per game at Utah State in ’15-16 on her way to first-team All-Mountain West Conference honors. UF will return guard Simone Westbrook, a starter on the ’16 NCAA tourney squad who missed the entire season following knee surgery last summer
An incoming freshman class of fives players will be headlined by Indiana Gatorade Player of the Year Karissa McLaughlin, a career 2,500-point scorer who led her Fort Wayne prep team to the state championship last month.
“We’re going to get on the phone with those kids ASAP and begin building relationships and see where their hearts are,” Newbauer said. “This is a tough time. When young people go through change, they don’t always understand the growth that can come from it.”
Part of that growth, both players and UF followers are about to find out, is the premium Newbauer will put on community involvement and fan engagement. When coaching against the Gators at the O’Connell Center, he witnessed what the fan base is capable of.
But it’s a two-way street.
If women’s basketball — the only UF program never to win an SEC title — is ever going to reach the next level, the Gators will have to do some selling off the court, also.
“We’re going to be accessible. Very accessible. We want people to come see our team and meet our players, and we’re going to get out in the community and serve,” Newbauer said. “It’s bigger than just Florida basketball. It’s about the fan experience and the personal touch. If they invest in coming to our games, they deserve for us to get to know them.”