The Cal State Northridge women didn't take the prescribed path to the NCAA tournament. They limped out of the gate, losing their first five games before regaining their balance, finding their footing, and ultimately earning an invitation by winning the Big West tournament.
The 16th-seeded Matadors, who play at No. 1 Notre Dame on Friday in their NCAA tournament opener, have the right person at the helm. Because when it comes to navigating roundabout routes, coach Jason Flowers is a human GPS.
Flowers, 38, dreamed of playing at UCLA when he was a kid growing up in Watts. But, like his team this season, he didn't get off to a promising start. He was cut by the Bruins as a walk-on, transferred to UC Irvine and made a name for himself in two seasons there, then worked his way back to Westwood.
"He was definitely tenacious and relentless in bringing a competitive spirit to every practice," recalled Steve Lavin, his coach at the time. "His teammates were better prepared for competition because he went full throttle every day."
That ethos has worked out beautifully in Flowers' eight seasons at Northridge. He has guided the Matadors to the NCAA tournament three times in the last five years. Not bad for a coach who inherited a program that had won a combined 13 games in the three seasons before he arrived.
Northridge on Tuesday introduced its new men's coach, Mark Gottfried. He replaces the fired Reggie Theus, who was 53-105 in five seasons. The Matadors have not finished the season with a winning record since going 17-14 in 2008-09.
That invites the question: Would Flowers ever consider coaching on the men's side?
"The answer I always have in regard to any of my future plans is that God will place me exactly where he wants me," said Flowers, whose 122-134 record gives him the most coaching wins in school history. "He's been in control up until this point, and the ride hasn't been the smoothest of rides — just like anybody else's life — but the path that I've traveled I wouldn't change for anything. Whatever destination or whatever check points are along that path, I'm OK with."
By every indication, Flowers is happy with the foundation he and his assistants have built, working alongside his wife, Northridge softball coach Tairia Flowers, and raising their three children. And he enjoys not only coaching players, but also helping them develop as human beings.
"Basketball is basketball, coaching is coaching," he said. "But the men's and women's jobs are completely different in many respects. There's so much more involved with men's basketball than just basketball.
"Some people will watch women's basketball and say it's more of a pure game because it's played below the rim, and you have to focus on fundamentals and those things. I agree, and as a coach I appreciate that we have to teach those things. But I think there's just as much purity in the developmental aspect of young people in women's basketball, as opposed to men, as well.
"These young men, who are kids, the first time there's a sign that they could be good, they get all of these people trying to latch on and advise, do this and that. But I don't have to worry about a player coming in here and being one-and-done. … I can focus on four years of development, not just in basketball, but developing these players as young women and being successful in whatever it is they want to do."
Each week, Flowers has a regularly scheduled meeting with his players to discuss issues other than basketball, whether it's their academics, home life, or any problems they might be confronting.
He's far from a pushover, and had two of his best players coming off the bench for prolonged stretches this season when they failed to meet his standards. Although Flowers expects the same level of focus, preparation and intensity from his players at this point in the season, he doesn't have to emphasize that as much.
"His attitude in the preseason and regular season compared to when it was time for the Big West tournament was completely different," sophomore forward Eliza Matthews said. "Now, he's more chill and relaxed, like, 'This is what I prepped you for this entire year. You've got this.' "
Flowers is one of several guards from that era of UCLA basketball who have carved out careers as coaches. Among them, Earl Watson played 13 years in the NBA and had a stint as coach of the Phoenix Suns; Cameron Dollar was head coach at Seattle University and now is an assistant at the University of Washington; Tyus Edney is a UCLA assistant; and Ryan "Moose" Bailey coaches basketball at the Brentwood School.
Flowers likes to say he's completely comfortable coaching women's basketball because "I tell people all the time, women made me a man."
"I was raised by a single mom," he said. "For a good chunk of time growing up, we lived with my aunt and her daughter. Literally, I was around women all the time. I had coaches who were male figures … but the women made me a man. My daughter was born my freshman year at UCLA, so there's another woman who made me a man — there's no option. Then I meet my wife later on at UCLA, and she continues the process of making me a man.
"So for me, I guess I was trained for this position for a long time."