Ten years ago, the Lady Lions’ coach almost stepped away from the game.
Coquese Washington said her dream was to practice law and that as soon as her playing ended, her coaching would as well.
But in 1999, the iconic women’s basketball coach at Notre Dame Muffet McGraw offered her a chance to stay with her alma mater as an assistant coach.
Throughout her career, Washington played for McGraw and said she saw her as a mentor. So when the option came to coach for her, she jumped on it.
Washington has played on the biggest stage in women’s basketball. She has won a WNBA championship and an NCAA championship.
Under McGraw, Washington was a stand out at Notre Dame both on and off the court. She was a four-year starting point guard for the Fighting Irish and named team captain for Notre Dame's first-ever NCAA Tournament team.
“She is incredibly smart, so she didn’t need a whole lot of help. She really is really good at what she does,” McGraw said. “I’m really flattered that she thinks of me as a mentor. She was somebody that really could keep her poise and could be a really good teacher of the game and had the patience I think to be a great teacher of the game.”
Washington graduated from Notre Dame in 1992 with a bachelor's degree in history and went on to earn a Juris Doctorate from the Notre Dame Law School and said she hoped to one day be a practicing lawyer.
Upon graduation, Washington began her professional basketball career in 1997 playing for the ABL's Portland Power.
Washington broke into the WNBA in 1998, playing two years for the New York Liberty. She moved to Houston for the 2000 season, where she played an instrumental role in leading the Comets to the WNBA title and was later traded to the Indiana Fever. Washington guided the Fever to their first-ever playoff berth and became the first player in WNBA history to lead three different teams to the postseason.
In 1999, in the midst of her professional stint, Washington began coaching as an assistant at her alma mater under McGraw. As an assistant, she helped Notre Dame to a NCAA Championship in 2001.
“I had a job open on my staff and she did not have any experience but I thought she would be great at it,” McGraw said. “She was interested in pursuing it and I wanted to give her that opportunity and just to see if I could try to talk her into trying it out and she was just good at it. I think she found her passion.”
While she simultaneously coached the Irish and played in the WNBA, Washington said she always thought that when she finished playing she would be done coaching. She never really thought of herself as a coaching ‘lifer’ or that this would be her profession. When she retired from playing in the WNBA, she said she was thinking about leaving coaching.
“I thought ‘Man, I like coaching, you know. I like the relationships that I have with the players.’ I liked being in the gym,” Washington said. “I loved basketball, I love being around basketball. I never thought I would enjoy coaching as much as I have, but I really do enjoy it.”
Finding her fit
After deciding coaching was an avenue she wanted to pursue, Washington was intrigued when Penn State came calling.
The Lady Lions were in the midst of one of the worst stints in program history, having not made the NCAA tournament in two seasons. They were near the Big Ten basement.
During her decision process, Washington said she consulted with McGraw, and they talked about what she was looking for in a school — strong academics, community bond and a place to raise a family.
But Washington said that when she stepped on Penn State’s campus she thought it was very similar to Notre Dame and that there was a sense of connectedness with the athletics, academics and the community at large.
“[Penn State] was one where we felt was in a great league, a great school and had a great academic component to the school,” McGraw said. “It was important to her as she was a really great student athlete. So I think when that one came up it was a really easy decision I think we both felt really, really good about the opportunity.”
At the time of her decision, Washington and her husband Raynell Brown, a professor and administrator at the Dickinson School of Law at Penn State, had a two-year-old son and were looking for a place to make a home.
“I really liked the fact that when you look around, people have been here a long time. When you look at some of the coaches, at the time coach [Joe] Paterno had been here for decades, Russ Rose had been here for a long time,” Washington said. “That signaled to me that there must be something pretty neat and pretty unique about this place that people come here and they want to stay, they want to build their lives here, raise their families here.”
On April 23, 2007, Washington officially accepted the head coaching position at Penn State and has since led her team to the NCAA Sweet 16 and back-to-back Big Ten championships.
Success did not come immediately for Washington and her staff. The Lady Lions finished under .500 in her first season and had 12 conference losses. But even with the slow start, Washington said that Penn State athletics does not have a win-at-all-costs attitude.
“We want to have a program where we are certainly competing for championships, I mean we want to win — I am as competitive as they come,” Washington said. “But there is a certain way that we want to win, a certain way that we want to compete. That means competing with class, being your best and representing this university that we are so blessed to represent.”
The basketball coach
She is simply known by her players as “Coach Quese.”
Washington walks along the sideline calmly watching her players sprint up and down the court taking mental notes. She can seem laid back and quiet at times, but when she is upset her players will know it.
Washington said in her coaching, she follows one phrase: “the pursuit of excellence.” She said that goes for everything and not just on the basketball court.
“You have to give the best for yourself and for your teammates in everything you do,” Washington said. “That is academically, socially and athletically. We want kids to come here and have an unbelievable experience. The way that we know and we feel that you can have a unbelievable experience is simply pursuing excellence, pursuing excellence in everything you do.”
Senior point guard Alex Bentley has been an integral part in rebuilding the program under Washington’s vision, as she earned Big Ten All-First Team and WBCA Honorable Mention All-American honors last season. After leading her team to the Sweet 16 last season she was named co-captain this season and credits Washington for making her into a more complete player and that she has helped her grow into the player that she is.
“I think my decision of coming to Penn State was one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life,” Bentley said. “Coach Quese, she has been through the WNBA, she has been through coaching at the top institutions already. She knows the game, and I have been picking her brain ever since I was a freshman stepping on the court. She has just been amazing.”
As a former point guard herself, Washington said she is harder on the point guards because they are the floor generals and they have to be an extension of her.
“They are responsible for the team and they are responsible for how the team functions,” Washington said. “That doesn’t absolve everybody else of doing their jobs, but at the end of the day, our point guards are responsible for how the team plays. When things aren’t going well the first people I am looking at, talking to and getting on is our point guards.”
Junior guard Maggie Lucas is having the best season of her career, as she has eclipsed the 1,500-point plateaufor her career, averaged nearly 20 points a game and is No. 3 in the nation in three-point percentage. She said that Washington had a great vision for the program and that she felt really comfortable with her during recruiting.
“She has done everything for me,” Lucas said. “She puts me in a lot of positions where I am able to succeed. She is constantly pushing us to become better women overall, getting involved in things outside of basketball. She has helped me with my mentor game overall.”
The life coach
Last season Bentley remembers one of her first conversations with Washington her freshman year having a goal of filling he Bryce Jordan Center with fans.
After the Pink Zone game last season, Bentley said Washington put her arm around her and told her to look around the audience, look at the stands and look at all the fans. She said Washington told her that she helped make that happen, and that stuck with her.
“I think the biggest thing that coach does is not only tell us what to do, she does it herself,” Bentley said. “She is the epitome of a great woman. We just see that and want to be like that, she is a role model and a mentor. Us as women, we want to be like that one day.”
Washington said she wants her players to become great women on and off the basketball court. She said the most rewarding thing about coaching is getting the chance to see her players making positive impacts on their communities where ever they are.
“I think we have gotten to the point where we have come to understand each other,” Edwards said. “When I first came here, the first thing that I relied about her was that she is a family-oriented person and that is something that definitely made me want to come here. It has just been a great experience, she has helped me grow a lot as a player and in life.”
A redshirt junior transfer from Maryland, Dara Taylor said that because of Washington, the transition from the two programs was seamless.
“She just has something about her that makes everybody like her,” Taylor said. “She is just a great person. She is smart, she is easy to talk to and she is funny. She kind of gives us the role model to follow after.”
Walking out on to the court for warm-ups, there are two people who stand out from the Lady Lions.
Freshman Candice Agee calls them her mascots because they are always cheering and full of energy, but Washington just calls them her kids.
Her seven-year-old son and three-year-old daughter, as well as her mother and husband, travel to all of the away games and trips with the team, and Washington said the players have a blast with them.
“I think the cool thing for my family is, they are part of my basketball family. They travel with us and they are at practice,” Washington said. “My son plays 1-on-1 after practice with Alex Bentley. They are a part of what I do here. It is not like my personal family and my Lady Lion family, it is all mixed together and I think that makes it a great experience for all of us.”
Both Edwards and Bentley had similar reasons for coming to Penn State, they said they like the family aspect that Washington brought to the program.
“Just how she is there for us,” Bentley said. “I’m sure you hear it all the time from every one of us because it’s the truth, she just cares about us like that. If you’re down she will see it and she will want to talk to you. She is like a mom.”
Assistant coach Maren Walseth said having her kids forces Washington to stay calm. She said if Washington is getting upset at practice and her daughter wants to blow the whistle she has to smile and it just makes for a relaxed environment.
“I am just more at ease when my family is around,” Washington said.