'I will always bleed blue': Shea Ralph says farewell to UConn, gets introduced as Vanderbilt's basketball coach

Anchor down, as the Vanderbilt saying goes, Shea Ralph was surrounded by black and gold Wednesday upon being introduced as the Commodores’ new basketball coach in Nashville, Tenn.

New catch phrase, new school, new colors, new city. It was likely to come to this, eventually, with Ralph having been presented several similar opportunities in recent years. She finally acted on one after 13 seasons as part of Geno Auriemma’s UConn staff.

“The University of Connecticut is a very hard place to leave,” Ralph said. “I’m completely invested. I played there, obviously, and I’ve been there a long time as a coach, and I continued to be challenged there in every way. … What’s intriguing about Vanderbilt, this university, all it has going for it, the athletic programs, the excellence they display in everything they do, (you) wonder: Why isn’t the women’s basketball program in the elite conversation in our country? I think we that we can be, and I think that we should be.”

Vanderbilt, a six-time SEC champion that made its only Final Four in 1993, hasn’t had a winning season since 2016 and hasn’t been in the NCAA Tournament since 2014.

At UConn, Ralph was part of one national championship as a player in 2000 and six more as an assistant.

“I’ve spent almost half my life at UConn and I will always bleed blue,” Ralph said. “However, I could not be more excited to join Commodore Nation and help bring our women’s basketball program to national prominence. ... I’ve spent my entire life preparing for this moment.”

Ralph, 43, replaces Stephanie White, who was fired after five seasons.

UConn assistant coach Shea Ralph embraces Geno Auriemma after the Huskies defeated Texas in the regional final of the NCAA tournament in Bridgeport in 2016.

UConn assistant coach Shea Ralph embraces Geno Auriemma after the Huskies defeated Texas in the regional final of the NCAA tournament in Bridgeport in 2016.

Jessica Hill / Associated Press

“During the search, you end up talking to many people,” athletic director Candice Lee said. “When I talked to Geno Auriemma, he told me Shea is absolutely relentless in everything she does. And every person I talked to, including Shea, made it clear that she does not like to lose. We must be relentless in all that we do at Vanderbilt. I was drawn to Shea’s energy, her passion, the adversity she overcame as a student-athlete and the perspective she brings from one of the truly elite programs, not in just women’s basketball, but in all of sports.”

Ralph, the national high school player of the year out of Fayetteville, N.C., scored 1,678 points at UConn in 1996-2001, the eighth most in program history, despite tearing an ACL five times. She was an assistant at Pittsburgh in 2003-08 before returning to her alma mater. UConn made the Final Four all 13 years that she was an assistant to Auriemma.

Ralph’s husband, Tom Garrick, has left is job as coach at UMass Lowell. Ralph would not confirm that he will join her staff at Vandy, where he was an assistant under Melanie Balcomb in 2009-16.

“I did hire him as a full-time caretaker with my daughter,” Ralph said. “Twenty-four hours a day, he’s going. I need to make the right choice. I’m not going to rush through this. I owe it to myself, I owe it to our student-athletes and I owe it to the university to make sure the right people are in place. We’re going to do that sooner than later, and I do have a short list.”

Ralph leaned on her husband for advice when offered the Vanderbilt job.

“He said two words: ‘No brainer,’” Ralph said. “From the beginning, he was fully supportive because he knows and believes in Vanderbilt University and understands what an opportunity this is.”

Vanderbilt is making a push in athletics with “Vandy United,” a $300 million dollar investment that includes the construction of new basketball facilities.

The Commodores were 4-4 in 2020-21. The season was discontinued in January because the roster was depleted due to COVID-19-related issues.

“The greatest thing I learned at Connecticut is what it takes to build and sustain eliteness,” Ralph said. “If it were easy you’d see a lot more programs doing it. I loved being part of that working environment, understanding what goes into it, the ups and downs of it.”

Ralph met with her new team Tuesday.

“I’m not going to take any shortcuts,” Ralph said. “I know if we want to build something, and if we want to build something together, it’s not going to happen overnight. What I’ve learned is that when you build something the right way it might take a little time but it will last forever. … Growing up in North Carolina and developing into a woman at Connecticut has fully prepared me to spread my wings at Vanderbilt. This is going to be an awesome journey. Anchor Down.”