How UCLA coach Cori Close navigated a championship run and loss of her father
Azzi Fudd and Lauren Betts dedicated their gold medals at the FIBA U19 women’s basketball World Cup to a man they barely knew.
That was for your dad, the No. 1 recruits in the 2021 and 2022 classes, respectively, told UCLA and Team USA coach Cori Close after the Americans beat Australia in the championship game. Their coach immediately broke down in tears.
The UCLA coach led Team USA’s under-19 squad to a dominant run in Hungary this summer while grieving the loss of her father, Don. The former high school teacher and coach died Aug. 2 in his Chatsworth home.
The team was in Spain for an exhibition match when Close joined an emotional FaceTime call with her mother and sisters to say their final farewells. Close called the team after practice and Fudd immediately noticed a change in the coach’s demeanor. She knew whatever Close was going to share was bad. Several players, including the incoming Connecticut freshman, teared up at the news.
“From there on, we played for her and for her dad’s sake,” Fudd said.
Her father’s health had been declining steadily during the summer and Close knew it was possible he wouldn’t survive through her month-long duties with Team USA. Before leaving for training camp in Washington, she discussed the situation with her mother and decided she should stay with the team no matter what.
That’s what he would have wanted, said Close.
Don Close, 82, was fiercely competitive. He coached boys’ basketball at Milpitas High in the Bay Area, taught health and psychology during his 30-year teaching career, and was involved in YoungLife, a religious organization focused on working with middle- and high school students.
At home, Don coached Close, the middle of his three daughters, in soccer, swimming and basketball until she reached high school. She attended Milpitas, but she wasn’t mature enough to handle his coaching at the time, she said.
While Close counts former UCLA coach John Wooden as a main influence of her coaching philosophy, her father is a close second. He loved to win, but above that, he emphasized developing young adults.
“It was all about leading people’s hearts and wanting to make a difference in their lives through sport,” Close said. “He just lived that really well.”
With her team already facing pressure to win a gold medal on the world stage, Close didn’t want her personal grief to take away from the team’s mission. She struggled with how to allow herself to feel her emotions while also being present for her staff and players.
Looking back two weeks after the gold-medal game, Close thinks she was just surviving day by day. She couldn’t have made it without the help of assistant coaches Aaron Johnston and Joni Taylor, and Greg Callan, one of the team’s managers.
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There were moments when players noticed Close thinking about her father, whether she was sitting on the bus and looking at an old photo or reading a message on social media. When she stepped on the court, she switched gears.
“To watch her come to practice every day and have the energy she had and the passion she had and the excitement she had, it was genuine,” said Taylor, the head coach at Georgia. “I hate to use the word compartmentalize, but it was compartmentalization at its finest.”
Even without the weight of Close’s personal tragedy, Team USA was facing several challenges in the tournament. The coaching staff didn’t get to work together in the 2020 U18 Americas Championship because the event, typically used as a dry run for the U19 World Cup, was canceled during the pandemic. The team was entering strict pandemic guidelines in Hungary that required testing every other day and prohibited players from going outside without supervision for most of the tournament. Plus, Close was a first-time head coach for Team USA.
There was extra pressure that came with that new title, Close said. The U.S. women won the U19 World Cup a world-leading nine times, including a 2019 title in Thailand for which Close served as an assistant coach.
“There’s just such incredible tradition and there’s just an expectation that it’s like gold medal or bust,” Close said. “Not because that’s what’s being told to me, but that’s just a responsibility you want to uphold. You don’t want to be the one that doesn’t keep that standard moving forward.”
Team USA did just that behind tournament MVP Caitlin Clark, the Iowa star who averaged team highs of 15.2 points and 5.2 assists per game in the World Cup. The Americans went 7-0, led the tournament in almost all statistical categories and won games by an average of 47 points.
With such short preparation for the tournament compared to a months-long preseason with their college teams, Close and her staff knew they had to make some concessions when coaching their team of all-star recruits. The 12-person roster had elite guards and athletic forwards the coaches wanted to highlight, but Close anchored their identity on rebounding, toughness and teamwork.
It’s the style Don would have loved.
Even as vascular dementia began to rob Close’s father of some cognitive function, nearly every day he asked if there was a UCLA game or if he could go to practice. On the day before she left for Team USA training camp, Close pushed him in his wheelchair into the practice gym at UCLA. It was their final day together.
Don, who always focused on how hard a team played and who was making hustle plays, regularly sat behind the UCLA bench during games. His spot was about three rows up so he could see the whole court.
This season, the Bruins, who added four transfers, including AAC player of the year IImar’I Thomas (Cincinnati) and Serbian Olympian Angela Dugalic (Oregon), are poised to have one of their best teams in Close’s 11-year tenure.
It will be hard not seeing Don in his seat, Close said, although she knows he has a better one now.
“If he’s able to watch these games from heaven,” Close said, “he’s going to have a whole lot of fun watching what this team does.”
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