There is nothing like the thrill of coaching in your first NCAA Tournament game.
This is what Kim Barnes Arico was thinking just before her St. John’s team faced California in an NCAA Tournament first-round game in State College, Pennsylvania, in 2006.
As St. John’s got ready to take the court, Barnes Arico passed Geno Auriemma, who already had won five NCAA titles with Connecticut, in the hallway.
“He came over to wish me luck and I started telling him how excited I am to be there,” Barnes Arico recalled in a phone interview this week. “He looks at me and says, ‘Getting here is the easy part. The hard part is staying here.’
“I get that now.”
Barnes Arico, who grew up in Mastic Beach and now is the coach at Michigan, is fully aware of the challenge of building a program that can get to the tournament year after year. In her seventh trip to the NCAA Division I Tournament, the No. 8 Wolverines will play No. 9 Kansas State on Friday in Louisville, Kentucky.
She always has been up for a big challenge, which is ultimately why she left St. John’s for Michigan after taking the Red Storm to the Sweet 16 in 2012.
For the first 40 years of her life, Barnes Arico had never lived outside the metropolitan area. She played at Floyd High School and Stony Brook University before finishing at Montclair State in 1993. She had stints coaching in high school, at Fairleigh Dickinson-Madison and at New Jersey Institute of Technology — where she once lost a game by 100 points — before landing a job at Adelphi in 1999. She caught the attention of St. John’s after taking Adelphi to the women’s NCAA Division II Sweet 16 in 2002.
Barnes Arico, 48, is quick to say she had a perfect life when Michigan came calling seven years ago. She had built an impressive program at St. John’s, taking the team to the NCAA Tournament four times in 10 years. Her husband had a job he liked as a high school athletic director in New Jersey. And her parents lived in the area and could help out with her three young children.
Yet Barnes Arico was confident enough to know she was good at her job, good enough to do it on what she felt was a bigger stage. And so she made what she calls a heart-wrenching decision to leave St. John’s to try to build a big-time program at a sports-crazy school that had never had much success with its women’s basketball team.
Leaving one job for another is something that happens all the time in the sporting world. Barnes Arico said she often is asked about it because in today’s world, it still is more unusual for a woman to move her family for a job opportunity than it is for a man.
“It’s kind of an unfair question, but it is also a reasonable question,” she said. “Part of my role in this position is to be a role model and a mentor for younger women, to let young coaches coming up know that you can achieve it. You can be a mom and you can be a coach. You can have the best of everything.
“A lot of times, men do it and there’s no hesitation. The wife stays home. They are going to do it and they pack up and move. That’s kind of acceptable in this day and age, but with women, not so much. I’m fortunate that my family dynamics are I have a son and two daughters. It’s our job to show them that this is our normal. It’s OK for Daddy to make dinner and be at the PTA and be the class mom or dad and go on field trips. And it’s OK for Mommy to be in this role.”
Barnes Arico said leaving St. John’s for Michigan was difficult but ended up being the best decision she ever made.
Michigan had been to the NCAA Tournament only once since 2002 when Barnes Arico took the job after the 2011-12 season. Friday’s game will be her third trip with the Wolverines. She has won at least 20 games in each of her seven seasons, also qualifying for the tournament in 2013 and 2018. She guided Michigan to the WNIT title in 2017.
Last summer, Barnes Arico signed a contract extension that put her in the big leagues. According to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Michigan Daily, Barnes Arico has a deal that pays her $728,000 per year plus bonuses for winning a Big Ten title or making the NCAA Tournament.
The deal runs through the 2022-23 season, which means she will have plenty of time to continue establishing a big-time program.
Said Barnes Arico: “This is where I want to be.”
No. 16 Robert Morris vs. No. 1 Louisville, 12 p.m.
No. 9 Kansas State vs. No. 8 Michigan, 2 p.m.
No. 10 Buffalo vs. No. 7 Rutgers, 4:30 p.m.
No. 15 Towson vs. No. 2 Connecticut, 6:30 p.m.
No. 13 Belmont vs. No. 4 South Carolina, 1:45 p.m.
No. 12 Bucknell vs. No. 5 Florida State, 4 p.m.
At Iowa City:
No. 15 Mercer vs. No. 2 Iowa, 2 p.m.
No. 10 Drake vs. No. 7 Missouri, 4 p.m.
At College Station:
No. 12 Rice vs. No. 5 Marquette, 2 p.m.
No. 13 Wright State vs. No. 4 Texas A&M, 4 p.m.
No. 9 Clemson vs. No. 8 South Dakota, 7 p.m.
No. 16 Southern vs. No. 1 Mississippi State, 9 p.m.
At Coral Gables:
No. 12 UCF vs. No. 5 Arizona State, 7 p.m.
No. 13 Florida Gulf Coast vs. No. 4 Miami, 9 p.m.
No. 10 Indiana vs. No. 7 Texas, 7 p.m.