Jada Pierce never has been a Division I head coach, but the new leader of the Niagara University women’s basketball program has no doubt that 18 years in the business have prepared her for the job with the Purple Eagles.
“I’ve been ready,” Pierce said Wednesday upon being introduced as Niagara’s head coach. “I’ve been an assistant coach in name only, I feel, the last three or four years. I know I’ve been ready to take over a program for at least that long.”
“I want to thank God, because he’s definitely given me the patience to endure this journey I’ve been on the last 18 years,” said the 41-year-old Pierce.
Pierce spent the past three years as an assistant at St. Joseph’s, helping the Hawks go 59-36 and make two NCAA Tournament appearances. Before that she worked two years for highly respected Army coach Dave Magarity. Along the way she got to the NCAA tournament with Marist, helped UMass-Lowell go to the Division II tournament and helped Delaware go 47-13 over two seasons.
“St. Joe’s coach Cindy Griffin told me within two seconds of talking to her that Jada wins everywhere she goes,” said Simon Gray, Niagara athletics director. “So we can’t wait to be hanging banners and distributing rings from the championships that Jada brings us. She’s done it as a student-athlete and she’s done it as a coach. She’s clearly a winner.”
Pierce’s lone prior head-coaching gig came from 2004 to 2006 at Division II Cheyney University, where she resigned after back-to-back 4-23 seasons.
“What I took away from it,” Pierce said of the Cheyney job, “was don’t ever work somewhere where your boss says they’re going to step down. Someone hires you and then a new person comes in. . . . I think I learned I need to be more choosy about where I’m going to take over a program.”
Pierce takes over a Niagara program that has had 10 straight losing seasons. However, the Purple Eagles have mostly been middle-of-the-pack of late in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, finishing sixth, seventh, fifth and fifth the past four years. Kendra Faustin left in May after eight seasons to coach Division II Ferris State.
Pierce knows what it takes to win in the MAAC, having worked at Marist. While Niagara returns just three of its top eight scorers from last year, one of those is all-MAAC forward Victoria Rampado.
Faustin was beloved at Niagara despite a 77-169 record.
"Kendra was close, and if you watch the record it was getting closer every year," said the Rev. James J. Maher, Niagara's president. "I think she was really ready to take that leap. The last two years she was unlucky with some injuries. But the program was getting better. I think we as a university have to do a better job of helping to support them so that they can be successful on and off the court. I do take that as my responsibility as president."
“I felt this was a great situation because they’re academic first,” Pierce said. “You have one of the best players in the conference on the team in Victoria. And there’s a lot of good pieces of players who have played. I know a lot was lost to graduation, but I still feel there are players here that maybe didn’t get a chance to play as much but they’re really talented.”
Pierce was a star guard out of Philadelphia who played collegiately at Division II West Chester. Her philosophy?
“You can expect an exciting style of play, up tempo,” she said. “We will be known for our stingy defense, whether it be full-court man or trapping zones. We want to continue the tradition of the Gallagher center being one of the toughest places to play in the conference.”
Gray said he thinks Pierce has the kind of powerful personality to build a winner.
"It takes you aout 1.3 seconds in a conversation with Jada to be won over by her persoanltiy," Gray said. “When Jada’s former student athletes reached out to us, they weren’t good, they were exceptional. The impact she’s had on the lives of her former student athletes goes well beyond their college careers. In fact, many of them remarked how they’re still in contact with Jada, and when they need help or they’ve gotten to a place in their life where they’re incredibly proud of something, she’s their first call.”
Pierce said she will retain assistant coach Erika Harris, and she has two other aides lined up. Niagara has 12 players on scholarship, which leaves three openings.
Pierce is African-American. In 2013-14, 14.3 percent of women's Division I basketball coaches were African-American, according to a report by Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. That was down from 20.6 percent the previous season. There are 349 women's D1 teams.