USC women's basketball eager to win while coach Lindsay Gottlieb is on maternity leave

Southern California head coach Lindsay Gottlieb gestures during an NCAA college basketball game against California
USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb, shown in February, gave birth to a daughter on Saturday. She is expected to return to the team before conference play begins in December. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

She was days away from giving birth to her second child, but Lindsay Gottlieb was still coaching. The USC head coach sent emails when she couldn’t sleep, fired off a few short texts and made time for a quick phone call to check on her team’s progress. Just like her daughter’s due date, USC’s opener against Cal State Bakersfield on Nov. 8 was approaching quickly and Gottlieb couldn't put either on hold, despite pleas from her coaching staff to rest.

“We’re like, please have a baby,” assistant Wendale Farrow joked at a recent practice, “and worry about motherhood.”

While Gottlieb isn't in the gym, her influence remains strong as the Trojans continue their rebuild under the second-year coach. The team is hopeful Gottlieb, who gave birth to Reese Caroline Gottlieb Martin on Oct. 15, can return in November while associate head coach Beth Burns, Farrow and fellow assistant Nneka Enemkpali start the season.

“The assistant coaches are definitely holding it down,” sophomore forward Rayah Marshall said. “The tempo is still there. The only thing we’re missing is Coach G’s energy and her whistle, but they’re definitely doing a really good job.”

Burns, who was the special assistant to the head coach at Louisville for five years, will assume the interim head coach title. She is San Diego State’s winningest head coach with a 295-186 overall record during two eight-year stints that included seven NCAA tournament appearances. The defensive-minded coach is in her second stint as an associate head coach at USC, having previously filled the position from 2014 to 2017, has worked as a graduate assistant and strength coach under Stanford legend Tara VanDerveer, and helped Louisville to two Final Fours.

Her lengthy resume includes nearly every experience in the game, but she recognized that temporarily taking over for an expecting head coach is a new chapter in her book.

USC associate head coach Beth Burns is the winningest coach in San Diego State history.
USC associate head coach Beth Burns is the winningest coach in San Diego State history. (Mark Humphrey / Associated Press)

“Having been a head coach for many years, [I know] that the greatest trust someone can give you is to let you run their team,” Burns said. “I’m honored that she chose me in a setting she knew was unique.”

After Gottlieb announced to her players in April that she was pregnant, the coaching staff formulated a plan for her absence that would coincide with the most critical weeks of the offseason. Teams rely on October to get wins in February, Burns said.

To overcome the unique situation, the Trojans used September workouts that were limited to eight hours a week to install sets and go over five-on-five situations that teams usually save for October, when 20 hours a week of practice time is allowed. Having two workouts a week compared to five made for an inconsistent learning environment, but it was a necessary obstacle for Gottlieb to set a foundation with her team and for Burns, who didn’t join the staff until June, to understand how to carry the vision forward.

“September was kind of a transition phase for us,” said Farrow, a second-year assistant who coached under Gottlieb for five years at California. “[We were] trying to establish our new schemes, reform our habits and prove our principles while understanding that Lindsay might not be here to see it through [from] October into November.”

Not only were the Trojans sorting through a coaching transition, but they also were incorporating seven transfers after going 12-16 and finishing 10th in the Pac-12 last year. Former Minnesota forward Kadi Sissoko and national champion South Carolina guard Destiny Littleton will help the Trojans replace four of their top five scorers from last season, including leading scorer Jordyn Jenkins, who transferred to Texas San Antonio. Marshall is USC’s top returning scorer after averaging 11.2 points and 7.7 rebounds last season

A second consecutive offseason of significant personnel changes means that no five players on USC’s roster have shared the court during a game, Burns noted. After the unconventional summer training format, Burns isn't sure whether the team is ahead of or behind schedule, only that things are getting better every day with the goal of rebuilding the once-proud program.

“We have some really good pieces and some really talented people, and at USC we haven’t done our part,” Burns said. “SC is one of the most prestigious and wonderful universities in the world. Women’s basketball has not done their part and we own that.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.