ODU Hires DeLisha Milton-Jones as its New Women’s Basketball Coach

She was born in the South and played women’s basketball in the SEC, where as a senior she was conference Player of the Year and an All-American.

She had a long career in the WNBA, where she was named an all-star three times, and also won two Olympic gold medals.

South Carolina coach Dawn Staley is one of her mentors and a close friend, and she has a devoted husband who has taken care of the household and been there to support her in order to allow her to focus on basketball.

Bonus hint: she’s a Type A personality who demands strict discipline and hard work on the court and in the classroom.

If you think this describes Nikki McCray-Penson, who stepped down last week after a successful run as Old Dominion University’s basketball coach, you would be correct.

But that same, very impressive resume also belongs to DeLisha Milton-Jones, who ODU officials announced Friday will replace McCray, who left to become the head coach at Mississippi State.

In many ways, ODU has hired someone who could be McCray’s clone.

That’s not my line; that came from Milton-Jones when she met with the selection committee via Zoom on Tuesday.

Committee members said she blew them away with her passion, with her poise, with her enthusiasm and desire to coach at ODU. She said that what you got from Nikki, you’ll get from me. In some ways, she added, I am her clone.

She told the committee and she and McCray are close and have talked about the ODU program for many hours. She added that she’s not going to change much. She said she will up pick up where McCray left and continue to move the program to a higher level.

We’re going to be fast and aggressive, she added, and that’s good news for fans who loved McCray’s style of play. I’m not going to overhaul things, she said, adding this will be as seamless a transition as possible.

She also received an enthusiastic endorsement from McCray, who recommended Milton-Jones to athletic director Camden Wood Selig last week. I still care about ODU, she said, and DeLisha is the right coach to take this program even further.

Before Selig reached out to Milton-Jones, McCray reached out to her. Milton-Jones told the search committee that McCray told her this is a great program at a great university and a great situation in that the program is loaded with talent.

I guess that means we have more to thank McCray for than just the amazing rebuilding job she did in three seasons here. We should also thank her for helping ODU to hire a great replacement.

McCray lifted ODU’s program from mediocrity to the doorstep of the NCAA tournament in just three seasons. Had postseason tournaments not been canceled by the coronavirus pandemic, McCray almost surely would have taken the Monarchs to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2008.

A lot of people were disappointed when McCray left and that’s understandable. Fans saw it as a huge blow to the program and it was.

But Dr. Selig and his staff made a rapid recovery, hiring a replacement in just six days who met every metric the selection committee set. President John R. Broderick interviewed Milton-Jones on Wednesday and is also enthused that she’s coming to ODU.

“I’m confident that under her leadership, our program will continue to add to its exceptional history,” Broderick said.

Two of the giants of women’s basketball said Dr Selig made the perfect hire.

Nancy Lieberman-Cline, aka Lady Magic, is the most storied basketball player in ODU history and was delighted when she learned Milton-Jones will coach her alma mater.

“I can’t think of anyone else who would be better for Old Dominion than DeLisha,”Lierberman said. “With what Nikki has done with the program, you had to hire someone with credentials.

“You had to hire someone with cachet and DeLisha has that.”

Mel Greenberg, a decorated journalist who has covered women’s basketball since the 1970s, texted me hours after McCray announced her departure and said that not only did he think Milton-Jones was the best choice, but that she wanted the job and that was sure ODU would hire her.

“I know it’s hard for the fan base there losing Nikki,” he said. “But I don’t think Old Dominion could have made a better choice. She is such a great competitor.”

McCray not only worked hard on the court, she also reached out to ODU’s fans, trying to lure back those who abandoned the program over the last decade or so.

Greenberg said Milton-Jones will instantly appeal to ODU’s fan base.

“Her personality is infectious,” he said, recalling an hour-long discussion he had with her a few years ago.

“It was the first time we’d talked longer than a few minutes. She’s one of those people who when you talk to her, you feel like you already know her.

“The fans will love her. She’s outgoing and really connects with people.”

Coaches often coach their teams to play like they played, and if that’s the case with Milton-Jones, ODU will again be one of the nation’s best defensive teams.

She once told ESPN: “Whatever I do, I give 150 percent. And you know I’m going to be in your face with the idea of taking no prisoners.”

Her off-the-court nickname is “Sunshine,” befitting her pleasing personality.

But Lieberman said she had another nickname in the WNBA – “D’Nasty.”

“Not only could she play the game, she played it so physically,” Lieberman said. “You didn’t want to go against her. She was someone you always wanted on your team.”

Milton-Jones’ resume differs in some respects from McCray’s. She had a longer career in the WNBA – she didn’t retire until 2016 – and has head coaching experience and had immediate success. She became an assistant coach at Pepperdine after retiring and then head coach for two seasons.

In her second season as head coach, the Waves were 22-12 and made the Sweet 16 of the WNIT. Pepperdine officials seemed satisfied with 22 wins, but Milton-Jones wasn’t.

“I wanted more,” she said at the time.

So, nine months ago, when Syracuse called and offered her the chance to coach at in the ACC, she said yes. She wanted experience coaching with a Power 5 powerhouse.

Now she’s head coach of a program with a storied past and a bright future.

ODU returns all but two seniors from the team that was 24-6 and has an outstanding recruiting class. This team will almost surely be picked to win Conference USA next season.

ODU has won three national titles, a WNIT title and produced 55 All-Americans, including Lieberman, Anne Donovan and Ticha Penicheiro. When McCray was introduced as head coach three years ago, she said she wanted the rebuild ODU into a Top 10 program.

She left before the job was finished but made remarkable progress for Milton-Jones to build on.

Milton-Jones knows ODU’s history from personal experience. Her last collegiate game at Florida came in an NCAA regional championship game won by ODU, 53-51. She played for Donovan on the 2008 Gold Medal Olympic team.

She credits Lieberman for bolstering her confidence at a key juncture when she played for the Gators.

Lieberman introduced her to some of her friends as “the best basketball player in the country that no one knows about.” Milton-Jones told Lieberman a few years later that hearing that from a two-time Wade Trophy winner helped give her the self-confidence to become of the game’s best.

Milton-Jones was named the nation’s best collegiate player when won the Wade Trophy and Honda Sports Award in 1997.

She retired from the WNBA having played 499 games, then the most in league history, and ranked among the top 10 in scoring, rebounding and several other categories.

Like McCray, she was raised by a mother who demanded only the best from her daughter. When she took to the court at an early age, she outworked people and never lost that drive.

She did not rest even during the WNBA offseason. She would get on a plane and play for a foreign team or play for USA Basketball. She won five international medals playing for USA Basketball and played professionally in Russia, Italy, Czechia, Spain, Turkey and South Korea.

For those doubters, if any remain, Lieberman has some advice for you.

“Google her name,” she said. “Her record speaks for itself. She’s going to do great things at ODU.”

I’ll leave the last words for Milton-Jones, who paid tribute to her husband, Roland, in a statement she asked officials to release.

“My heart is filled with excitement as I step up to lead the women’s basketball program at Old Dominion,” Milton-Jones said. “I’m tasked with the responsibility of maintaining or superseding the exceptional work that is currently in place due to the relentless work of Nikki McCray and her staff.

“The history of this prestigious program is one that I’m intent on continuing with a forward progress towards even more success.

“I’m very thankful for President Broderick and Dr. Selig for entrusting me with this grand opportunity to lead the women’s basketball program and invest in the ODU community wholeheartedly. My husband Roland and I couldn’t be happier.”

When ODU fans finally get to meet here, they’ll be happy as well.