Amaka Agugua-Hamilton and Felisha Legette-Jack have a bond reconnected in the ACC
Agugua-Hamilton played for Legette-Jack at Hofstra. Now, the two Black women are leading Power 5 conference teams.
Felisha Legette-Jack could always tell that Amaka Agugua-Hamilton had what it took to be a head coach.
As a player for Legette-Jack at Hofstra from 2001 to 2006, Agugua-Hamilton was the Pride’s leader and captain, who would help the team make its first postseason appearance in 2006.
Upon graduating, Agugua-Hamilton was ready to start her career as a coach and join Legette-Jack, who had since become the head coach at Indiana University.
But Legette-Jack said no – not yet, anyway.
Legette-Jack pushed Agugua-Hamilton to gain outside experiences before joining her, which amounted to a graduate degree at VCU, where Agugua-Hamilton served as a graduate assistant and later as an assistant coach.
“Then I brought her over to Indiana, not because she was my player, but because I knew she was ready,” Legette-Jack said of Agugua-Hamilton, who would serve as a Hoosiers assistant coach and recruiting coordinator for two seasons.
In the 11 seasons since Agugua-Hamilton departed Legette-Jack’s Indiana coaching staff, both coaches have charted two distinct paths in the sport – Agugua-Hamilton’s path has been characterized by patience and perseverance, and Legette-Jack’s path has been built on redemption and resilience.
Agugua-Hamilton’s and Legette-Jack’s basketball journeys will come together once more as both coaches begin new chapters in the ACC this season.
In March, Agugua-Hamilton was announced as the next head coach at the University of Virginia. Days later, Legette-Jack was named the new head coach at Syracuse University. Both will be tasked with changing the cultures at their respective programs.
When their teams play in January, it will mark the first time the two will have coached against one another. For both coaches, it’s a special relationship entering a new era, one that has evolved from coach and player to mentor and mentee to head coaching colleagues in a Power 5 conference.
“And to be two women of color, that’s another special thing,” Agugua-Hamilton said. “I hope people watch and I hope they’re inspired by that and they see that you can really help your players become what they want to become and inspire them to be everything they want to be.”
“[Amaka Agugua-Hamilton is] sharp. There’s not a situation on the court that’s going to go unnoticed for her or is going to surprise her.” — Felisha Legette-Jack
When Agugua-Hamilton stepped off the plane in Charlottesville, Virginia, a day after it was announced that she would become the sixth head coach in Virginia program history, she felt the weight of the moment. Greeted by members of the university, accompanied by her son and husband and being in her home state, it hit Agugua-Hamilton that the opportunity that she had worked her whole career to get to was now in front of her.
“When I got off that plane, it just was such a blessing,” Agugua-Hamilton said. “It was just an awesome feeling.”
When asked how she would summarize her coaching journey leading up to this new opportunity as a power conference head coach, Agugua-Hamilton said:
“I think the grind is unmatched.”
It was a long road traveled before Agugua-Hamilton landed her first shot as a head coach. In all, she’d work as either an assistant or associate head coach for 13 seasons for four teams before being named the new head coach at Missouri State in 2019. At Missouri State, Agugua-Hamilton became the first African American female head coach for any sport at the university.
“She was such an efficient assistant, so determined to be the best at her job,” Legette-Jack said. “For her to be a head coach right now is what I saw her to be three or four years prior to when she got the job at Missouri State.”
In her first season with the Bears, Agugua-Hamilton set a Missouri Valley Conference record for wins by a rookie head coach and became the only first-year head coach in the conference to win an outright MVC title. Missouri State finished the season 26-4, and finished the season ranked No. 19 in the AP Poll. The following season, she’d lead the Bears all the way to the Sweet 16 while receiving a second-straight MVC Coach of the Year award.
In 2021-22, despite losing two critical players to injuries early in the season, one of whom was the reigning conference defensive player of the year and first-team all conference, Agugua-Hamilton coached her team to a 25-8 overall record, an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament and a win over Florida State in the First Four. She became the fourth head coach in Division I history to reach 60 victories in less than 70 games to begin a coaching career.
“She’s sharp,” Legette-Jack said. “There’s not a situation on the court that’s going to go unnoticed for her or is going to surprise her. She’s a student of the game. She studies all scenarios. She’s going to really use your strengths against you. She’s going to really concentrate on your weaknesses. … She’s really great because she’s really organized.”
Establishing a new culture, building a new foundation and getting buy-in were a priority for Agugua-Hamilton the minute she arrived in Charlottesville. It was, in part, how she would define success in Year 1. That work started early.
When Agugua-Hamilton’s Cavaliers team started its annual summer workouts, she gave each player five shirts. One says “Give,” which is said each day at the beginning of practice. Two of them read, “Grind now, shine later,” a phrase repeated every day at the end of practice. A fourth shirt said, “Family” and the last, “Culture Wins.”
“Culture is what sustains success. Keeping your culture intact will help you continue to sustain success,” said Agugua-Hamilton, who added that she does believe that player buy-in has taken place. “Those shirts really play into who we are.”
Despite finishing last in the ACC a year ago, the talent Agugua-Hamilton sees on her roster, both returning and new, has her optimistic about what her team can accomplish in her first season.
The Cavaliers return forward Camryn Taylor, who before taking a leave of absence from the team in January, averaged 12.8 points and 6.1 rebounds. Mir McLean, who appeared in 11 games for UVA after transferring midseason from UConn, was a promising spark for the Cavaliers, averaging 11.4 points and 8.3 rebounds. Guard Taylor Valladay also returned. She averaged 9.8 points and led the team in assists and steals The Cavaliers welcomed forward Sam Brunelle, who transferred from Notre Dame.
“I do think that I can position them and put them in positions to be successful,” Agugua-Hamilton said. “I do think we have a chance to be pretty good this year.”
Agugua-Hamilton has also already made headway on the team’s future. In June, she received a commitment from 6-foot-3 wing Olivia McGhee, a four-star, top-50 recruit in the Class of 2023 who had received offers from other programs such as Virginia Tech, Kentucky, Oregon and NC State. In September, she signed 2023 five-star recruit Kymora Johnson, a 5-7 guard currently ranked as the No. 24 overall player in her class.
“I think UVA is going to get to the top very quickly,” Legette-Jack said. “You can tell in her recruiting where she is signing top 30s [players] right now in her first year. … She’s coach of the year real soon, you better believe that.”
As a part of her first week as the new head coach of the Syracuse women’s basketball team, Legette-Jack, a native of Syracuse, was asked to visit places where she grew up. She stopped at her old high school, Nottingham High School, where she won multiple state titles. Two miles down the road, she visited Thornden Park, where she grew up playing basketball.
Legette-Jack also visited one of her old residences. As she stood on the sidewalk beyond the home and looked out into the distance, what stood in clear view before her was the JMA Wireless Dome, formerly the Carrier Dome, the home of the women’s basketball team.
It was a surreal moment for Legette-Jack, who never imagined she’d be a student-athlete at the university, let alone be the first woman in school history to have her jersey retired in the dome’s rafters. Now, she viewed the dome from the perspective of a head coach.
“You take it in not for yourself but for your family and friends. For the community that surrounds you,” Legette-Jack said.
Legette-Jack is the first woman since Marianna Freeman to hold the role of head coach at Syracuse. As a young coach, Legette-Jack spent seven years under Freeman, the first Black head coach in Syracuse basketball history, from 1993 to 2000.
On two other occasions, Legette-Jack said, she desired the head coaching job at her alma mater but never got the opportunity. The timing wasn’t right.
“They didn’t really need me and I just wanted it. I don’t know if I needed it,” Legette-Jack said. “At this particular time I think it’s a perfect storm where I think the women’s program needs somebody like me and I’m ready to come home.”
Legette-Jack arrives a little more than a year after the program was embroiled in controversy stemming from a report by The Athletic that detailed allegations of threats, inappropriate behavior and bullying by then-head coach Quentin Hillsman. An independent investigation conducted by the university found that Syracuse’s “athletic department processes and personnel did not adequately identify, escalate, or address concerning behavior or complaints raised by student-athletes” against Hillsman.
Hillsman, who coached at Syracuse from 2006 to 2021, resigned in August 2021. Vonn Read, who had coached on Hillsman’s staff since 2011, served as the acting head coach for a team that featured just three players from the previous year’s roster. Syracuse finished the season 11-18 overall.
Legette-Jack has previously described the state of the current program as being broken. While the task of rebuilding the program is one she is confident in taking on, she also won’t downplay the difficulty in doing so.
“This is probably one of the hardest jobs in the country right now,” Legette-Jack said. “I’m not certain how many people really wanted to put their name in the hat. From grace to shame, if you will. I thrive in that situation. This is not even a job anymore. This is personal.”
During a summer team lifting session, with players rotating through individual bench presses and huddled in the weight room, Legette-Jack stepped in and declared “whoever was doing 95 pounds, I’ll do more.” Legette-Jack proceeded to take her position on the bench.
“To get down there was by the grace of God,” she joked.
With the team counting excitedly, Legette-Jack muscled through 21 reps before rising and celebrating as her new team hyped up their head coach. It was Legette-Jack’s way of showing to her players they’re not on this journey alone.
“I wanted them to see that I’m in the foxhole,” Legette-Jack said. “I am not a coach that is standing there with a finger pointed showing you how good I am. I just want them to know that I’m all-in.”
The 2022-23 season will be Legette-Jack’s first new head coaching job in 10 years after spending the previous decade as the head coach at the University of Buffalo.
Before becoming head coach at Buffalo, Legette-Jack experienced the biggest coaching setback of her career. In 2012, Legette-Jack was fired by Indiana after three consecutive losing seasons. It was a raw feeling for a head coach who hadn’t failed at anything. Legette-Jack said the experience broke her.
“To hear that you’re not good enough is really a heart-wrenching thing,” she said. “Through that sadness and that brokenness, I was able to show people what failure looks like and I had even come to the revelation that it’s not failure, it’s just learning. Sometimes people need that little situation to help them learn even more.”
In her 10 seasons at Buffalo, Legette-Jack turned the Bulls into a consistent mid-major contender. She won three Mid-American Conference tournament championships, made four trips to the NCAA tournament, including a 2018 run to the Sweet 16, and ended her tenure as the all-time winningest coach in school history.
“To even have a second chance at a head coaching position at Buffalo was a big deal. Just historically speaking, women of color, we don’t always get second chances, and it’s unfortunate. Those are just the facts,” Agugua-Hamilton said. “For her to get back to the Power 5 level is almost unheard-of as a woman of color in a head coaching position.
“I’m just really happy for her. Nobody deserves that job more than her. She bleeds Orange and she’s done a lot for Syracuse.”
Syracuse lost two of its top on-court performers from a season ago, guards Chrislyn Carr and Christianna Carr, to the transfer portal. But standout guard Teisha Hyman, last year’s team leader in points, rebounds, assists and steals, does return. A slew of newcomers joined Hyman, including multiple players who followed Legette-Jack from Buffalo, such as sophomore guard Georgia Woolley, last year’s MAC Freshman of the Year, and Dyaisha Fair, a WNBA prospect who was fourth in the nation in scoring a year ago at 23.4 points per game. Forwards Olivia Owens (Kentucky) and Dariauna Lewis (Alabama A&M) transferred to the program this summer.
“One percent better every day” will be the motto for Legette-Jack and her team in Year 1 as they work to rebuild on and off the court. The veteran head coach said that if she and her team can create a strong and sustainable daily process, the wins will follow.
“We’ve got to win in the locker room. We’ve got to win in the classroom. We’ve got to win with our character,” Legette-Jack said. “We’ve got to win with the belief in ourselves.
“If we can do that, 1% every day, everybody under the umbrella of me as the head coach, it’s a success.”
For Agugua-Hamilton, Legette-Jack stands as an influential figure who helped mold her as as a player and helped to guide her as a young head coach. Legette-Jack is proud of Agugua-Hamilton as she has ascended the coaching ranks after her beginnings as Legette-Jack’s team captain.
The two coaches remain close, talk often and both are excited for the other’s success in this next challenge. That is, until they line up against one another in January at John Paul Jones Arena.
“I’m happy for her, but at the same time, I want to beat her when we play,” said Agugua-Hamilton, who added that she might have a flashback thinking about all the times Legette-Jack made her run and yelled at her as a player.
If there was any doubt, Legette-Jack welcomes the challenge. She’d expect nothing less.
“The best thing she can show me is to give me her best effort. No matter what, I’m going to love her after the game, and be proud of her after the game,” Legette-Jack said. “I think that she can say the same thing.”