Up Next

NCAA Basketball

South Carolina assistant coach Jolette Law is ‘one of the best that’s ever done it’

Elite recruiter and relationship builder believes she will get another shot as a head coach

Jolette Law remembers when her coaching career was a blank canvas.

In 1994, Law had just accepted her first coaching job as an assistant at Ball State after multiple world tours over four years as one of the first women to play for the Harlem Globetrotters.

“I had no idea what I was doing. No idea,” said Law, formerly a standout point guard at Iowa under legendary coach C. Vivian Stringer.

What Law lacked in coaching experience she made up for in ambition. She quickly dedicated herself to the profession.

Law closely followed the careers of coaches she looked up to – coaches such as Geno Auriemma, whom she watched build UConn from the ground up. She attended coaching academies held by Tara VanDerveer, whose offensive mind fascinated her. She admired the way Renee Brown, then a skillful recruiter as an assistant at Kansas, carried herself on the court as she coached under Marian Washington.

When Law would go out on the recruiting trail, she watched what top recruiters such as UConn’s Chris Dailey or Tennessee’s Mickie DeMoss did. She studied their mannerisms and their habits in the gym. The best recruiters, for example, got to the gym early and left late, and they didn’t sit in the stands talking to everyone.

When Law was told that, as an assistant coach, she’d need to learn how to sell a program, she went out and bought books by John Maxwell about leadership and how to be an influencer. Anything she could do to become a better coach, she did.

“I picked people’s brains. I watched. I studied,” Law said.

Nearly three decades since her coaching career began, Law now stands as one of the top assistants and recruiters in the country, on the top team in the country, the South Carolina Gamecocks. She’s been to more than 20 NCAA tournaments, assembled numerous top recruiting classes for her programs and is a championship-winning coach. In some ways, Law’s impact has gone overlooked as she’s supported some of the best coaches in the game while waiting patiently for her next opportunity to lead a team of her own.

But make no mistake, says Usha Gilmore, who’s now the athletic director at Division III Illinois Tech. She was coached by and has coached alongside Law:

“[Jolette] is one of the best that’s ever done it.”

Illinois coach Jolette Law (left), a former assistant coach at Rutgers, visits Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer (right) during a practice on March 29, 2008, in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Elise Amendola/Associated press

As a player at Iowa in the late 1980s, Law was awestruck by the knowledge of the game Stringer exhibited daily. As the team’s point guard, Law, who helped lead Iowa to multiple Elite Eights during her tenure, had to be an extension of Stringer on the court.

Law had to think like Stringer and see the floor as Stringer did. At times, she even went back to her dorm room and mimicked her – walking through hypothetical game situations in which she predicted what her head coach would do. While Law always imitated her coach, she never thought she’d later become one herself.

Stringer saw the coaching potential within Law early, telling Law often that she’d make a great coach. Law emphatically rejected the idea at the time.

“ ‘You have a high basketball IQ. Your passion for the game. Your work ethic. People can relate to you. You’re going to be a great coach one day,’ ” Law said Stringer told her.

Law joined Stringer’s staff after she accepted the head coaching position at Rutgers in 1995. Law quickly evolved from Stringer’s pupil to her top assistant. Stringer taught Law to approach coaching with an insatiable appetite to learn, to always be prepared and to be three steps ahead.

Perhaps most important were Stringer’s lessons about attention to detail. During one of her early seasons at Rutgers, Law submitted a scouting report to Stringer for an upcoming matchup against Tennessee.

Later that evening, Law’s phone rang. On the line was Stringer. It was 1 a.m.

“Jolette, No. 8, you didn’t have the cut,” said Stringer, who spotted a hole in Law’s scouting of a Tennessee play.

“Coach, that was a read,” said Law, who trusted her original observation.

“No, no,” replied Stringer, who instructed Law to see for herself. Law found the corresponding VHS tape, turning the counter to the appropriate play. Stringer pointed out the player action once more.

“She made that cut, she came back and that wasn’t in the scouting report.”

While Law maintains to this day that it was, in fact, a read, that moment forever changed how she broke down film. To master the craft was to understand that no detail could go uncovered. That’s what separated the good from the great. Law adopted that habit.

“From that point on, every cut, I don’t even know if they were going to get a glass of water, if I saw it on the tape, I made sure every cut, everything, was on that scouting report. She made me detail-oriented.”

Illinois coach Jolette Law (center) walks with Illinois guard Adrienne GodBold (left) after Illinois upset Ohio State 66-65 at Assembly Hall in Champaign, Illinois, on Feb. 9, 2012.

John Dixon/Associated press

As a child growing up in Florence, South Carolina, Law watched as her dad Joseph masterfully sold cars. Law would travel with him to her uncle’s used car dealership and watch as her dad went out on the lot and somehow convinced a customer who walked into the dealership to leave driving a new vehicle.

“He would say, ‘it’s all about relationships. You’ve got to build them, you’ve got to cultivate them, you’ve got to maintain them,’ ” Law said of her father. 

That lesson from her father, the ability to connect with and relate to others, became the foundation of her approach as a recruiter, though Law emphasized one clear distinction.

“I’m not a used car person, I’m not one of those,” Law said. “I tell the truth.”

Over time, Law has had to adjust her approach to recruiting to adapt to the different generations of players. But the core of her approach has never fluctuated. She calls them her laws to live by: Be up front, be consistent and be truthful in what you’re doing.

“She’s authentic. What you see is what you get,” said Cal State Northridge head coach Carlene Mitchell, who coached with Law on the Rutgers staff for six seasons. “She’s been around a lot of great players. Those players, everyone tells them what they want to hear. Jolette is great at telling them what they need to hear.”

At South Carolina, coach Dawn Staley calls Law her insurance policy. When Staley and her staff identify which high school recruits they’d like to target, they turn to Law. During her time, Law has helped to create multiple No. 1 recruiting classes for the Gamecocks.

“[Jolette will] just say, ‘OK, thank you, I got it from here,’ ” Staley said. “She’s got an incredible heart for people. For young people. Because of that, she connects with them.” 

Gilmore will never forget her Law recruitment story. Gilmore was a talented recruit from the Class of 1996 whom Law and Stringer wanted at Rutgers. Gilmore had been heavily recruited and Law knew that if she wanted to land her commitment, she’d have to stand out. Law recalled a previous conversation she had with Gilmore, one in which Gilmore raved about her favorite new song.

“Back then — I hate to admit this — I was a huge R. Kelly fan,” said Gilmore. “One of my favorite songs was ‘You Remind Me of My Jeep’ [“You Remind Me of Something”]. They drove up to my house in a Jeep.

“I’m from the South. I like chitlins. On my official visit, they made sure somebody was able to cook some chitlins at Rutgers. It was that extra effort that Coach Law does, that extra attention to detail.”

Gilmore would ultimately decommit from her home state school, South Carolina, and change her commitment to Law, Stringer and Rutgers.

Illinois coach Jolette Law (right) talks with guard Rebecca Harris (left) during the second half against Wisconsin in the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis on March 6, 2008.

Darron Cummings/Associated press

In 2007, after 12 years at Rutgers, Law made the decision to take a leap and accept her first head coaching job. She took a job at Illinois sight unseen, grateful for a university and its administration for taking a chance on her to lead its program. She was quickly thrown into the fire in a position where she was learning on the job.

While at Rutgers, Law did a little bit of everything for the program. She was entrusted with recruiting, scouting, players, academics, even sitting in on budget meetings. She learned quickly, however, that as a head coach she had to be a better manager and delegator.

At Illinois, she said, she stretched herself too thin.

“I needed to do a better job of getting people around me that could cover my weaknesses and enhance my strengths,” Law said.

Law produced two winning seasons leading the Fighting Illini, but her teams struggled in the Big Ten. She was fired by Illinois after five seasons, leaving the program with an overall record of 69-93.

Law’s tenure at Illinois was unlike anything she had experienced. When it came to basketball, Law was very much cut from the cloth of success. Despite her efforts with the Illinois program, she didn’t get the same winning results she had expected.

Law said while failure hurt her, it also made her a better coach. 

“It motivated me,” Law said. “I’m a better assistant coach because of my experience as a head coach at Illinois. If given the opportunity again, I won’t make those same mistakes.”

Gilmore served on Law’s staff during her final two years in Illinois. Watching Law struggle to find that breakthrough in her program was tough.

“It was definitely disappointing.” Gilmore said. “I just don’t think she had enough time.” 

Just as Law’s time in Champaign ended, her next opportunity was already in motion. As soon as Law left the Illinois athletic director’s office, she got a call from legendary Tennessee coach Pat Summitt.

Summitt informed Law that she would be stepping down as the head coach of Tennessee after being diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Summitt wanted Law to serve on the coaching staff of her successor, Holly Warlick.

Law spent five years at Tennessee, when the Lady Vols made five tournament appearances and advanced to the Elite Eight three times. She played a key role in Tennessee landing the No. 1 and No. 3 recruiting classes in 2017 and 2013, respectively.

From left to right: South Carolina guard Lindsey Spann, assistant coach Jolette Law, head coach Dawn Staley and assistant coach Lisa Boyer look on during the second half against North Carolina A&T in the first round of the NCAA women’s tournament on March 16, 2018, in Columbia, South Carolina.

Sean Rayford/Associated press

In the summer of 2017, Law was on vacation in Jamaica when she received a call from Staley. After winning her first national championship as the head coach of South Carolina, Staley had an open spot on her coaching staff after the departure of Nikki McCray-Penson, who had been named head coach at Old Dominion.

“Dawn asked me, ‘are you ready to come back home?’ ” Law said.

Law going to South Carolina wasn’t a decision based solely on professional trajectory – it was also personal. Law’s mother Lena had been diagnosed with a rare disease in her liver that required Law to drive back and forth from Tennessee to South Carolina. Coming to South Carolina allowed Law to be just an hour away from her mom, who could attend games and watch Law on the sidelines.

Law’s mother died in March 2021, while Law was with South Carolina in Texas for the national championship game against Stanford.

The 2021-22 season was one of the toughest Law had endured as she wrestled with the absence of her mother.

“I knew every day, every step of the way, she was my motivation,” Law said.

The Gamecocks ended the year as champions, Law’s first, as her brother and nephew watched from the stands.

“When we won the national championship, you drop to your knees,” Law said. “It was one of the most remarkable feelings in the world. It was a beautiful thing.”

At South Carolina, Law’s focus is defense. She enjoys scouring film to study a team’s offensive tendencies until she unlocks the key that will disrupt them. Her goal is to make the game a little ugly. Over the course of a game Law, who sits to the right of Staley, is constantly looking at South Carolina’s defensive presence, analyzing what’s working, what should change or how they can mix in different looks to throw off the opposition.

For someone with a defensive mindset, Law feels like a coach in a candy store with this year’s South Carolina roster, which is loaded with athletic, high IQ, defensive talent.

“It’s a very privileged place to be when you can scheme differently, you can go tall, small, quick, or you could just go power,” Law said. “I’m fortunate that I’m able to do that with Coach Staley and our staff.”

Staley says one of Law’s talents is being able to get players to buy into defense, particularly those who didn’t enter the program with defensive prowess. Staley used the example of Brea Beal, who came to South Carolina having scored more points in Illinois than Candace Parker. But Law saw her potential to be a defensive stopper for South Carolina.

Staley credits Law for being able to tap into Beal’s competitive nature, work with her to believe in her ability to defend and do it every single day. Beal is considered to be one of the best defenders in college basketball.

“She likes to challenge our players, those who don’t think defense is a priority,” Staley said. “She takes those players and she just finds a way to connect with them to connect with defense.”

Sometimes that connection extends beyond the court. Every now and then, Law will be called over by one of her South Carolina players, who all approach her with the same look of disbelief after discovering the history of their assistant coach.

“You were in a MC Hammer music video?” The players will exclaim, after watching Law’s cameo in MC Hammer’s “2 Legit 2 Quit” in 1991. “Oh, my God, you were a Globetrotter? We saw you on YouTube!”

“Back when I was coming up, you had to really dig to find some footage. I’m like, this stuff needs to be staying in the archives,” joked Law.

In the following video, Law appears at around 13:06 in a Harlem Globetrotters jersey:

Law has had several head coaching opportunities arise over the last decade she’s served as an assistant coach. But this time around, Law has exercised a cautious patience. She wants her next job to be her last job.

“Now that I’m older, I have the opportunity of seeing things differently,” Law said. “I’m more seasoned. When the time is right, I know I’m ready. I’m prepared.” 

Last offseason, Law believed that opportunity might have arrived. After a 27-year tenure, Stringer was retiring as Rutgers head coach. After spending 12 years at Rutgers, many as the right-hand woman of Stringer, Law saw yet another chance to return home. The anticipation built as Law’s phone rang with colleagues telling her Rutgers was what she had been waiting for. Those calls included Stringer herself.

“Coach Stringer was like, ‘I want you to be here.’ I think she really wanted me to be her successor,” Law said.

But Law didn’t get the job. Rutgers decided to hire Coquese Washington, another coach who had long been searching for her second opportunity as a head coach, as Stringer’s successor. It’s the only time Law has ended a hiring cycle feeling a sense of disappointment.

“I think a part of me thought that the Rutgers job was my job to have, Law said. “God saw that that wasn’t the job that he has for me. In my mind, he gave it to me that I need more for you to do – I’m not finished, you’re not finished – with your assignment here at South Carolina.”

Law recently looked over her coaching résumé and surprised herself with just how much she’s accomplished during her career.

“It’s not until you put it on paper that you see how many Final Fours. How many NCAAs,” Law said. “I’ve been truly blessed with great players and great people.”

After 30 years in the coaching game, the daily grind hasn’t gotten old to Law. She continues to work with her players with the same vigor her mentors worked with her, driven by a passion for the game that only grows deeper.

In due time, she’ll likely add a new program to her résumé, one she’ll call her own. But before doing so, there’s one more title she’d like to add first: two-time national champion.

“I’m a strong believer that I trust God. When he tells me to go, I’m going to go,” Law said. “But in the meantime, I’m loving life here being a South Carolina Gamecock. … We’re on our way to see if we can do this thing back to back.”

Sean Hurd is a writer for Andscape who primarily covers women’s basketball. His athletic peak came at the age of 10 when he was named camper of the week at a Josh Childress basketball camp.