By Dylan Manfre
Lynn Milligan is usually clapping her hands and strutting up and down the sidelines of Alumni Gym wearing a blazer and heels — it is her signature coaching look. Over the years, she has learned the 40 minutes of back and forth is a fraction of what she says is required of a good coach.
“You’re judged on 40 minutes on the court, but I don’t think people understand what goes into that and understand the process of the people that are between those lines,” Milligan said via FaceTime. “That’s always the part I’ve always liked the most, is the relationships I get to build — even as an assistant coach for 15 years.”
“You bring a young woman to Rider and they are a 17, 18-year-old kid, as a freshman. When they leave as a senior, they’re a 22, 23-year-old woman. And there’s a lot of stuff that goes on from 17 to 22 in a young woman’s life that has absolutely nothing to do with basketball.”
Milligan knew from age 16 she wanted to be a coach. Specifically, the Rider women’s basketball coach. In a candid interview on The Jump Around Podcast with Blake DuDonis, she said she never had a “real job.”
Her jobs working with sports camps and children all pointed her toward her goal of becoming the head coach at her alma mater. Yes, Milligan is a Rider alum where she played softball in addition to basketball.
She built an extensive resume as an assistant coach at Drexel University and Saint Joseph’s University before applying to the job at Rider in 2004 after her former head coach Eldon Price stepped down. While she was at those other stops, she was still fixated about coaching Rider.
“I was an assistant coach for 15 years and I loved it, I really enjoyed it,” Milligan said. “But in my mind, I was preparing myself to be the head coach at Rider… If the opportunity came where I could be a head coach at Rider University, that’s what I wanted to do.”
When Price stepped down, the opportunity came for Milligan to achieve the goal she desperately set out for. This was her chance.
She was rejected for Tori Harrison.
Milligan described it as ”devastating.” Her main concern was that she would not be too hard on herself.
Harrison’s short-lived time at Rider produced a 14-73 record in three seasons. Not exactly the best mark for a program in the rebuilding phase.
“In hindsight, it’s probably good it happened that way because three years later I was even more ready,” Milligan said. “I tried to turn my devastation into a positive and say ‘When the opportunity comes I’m not gonna miss it next time.’”
Although she does not like to reflect back on it, Milligan’s first three years did not produce spectacular numbers either. She went 22-68 — a winning percentage of .323.
Those years came with a great deal of pressure to live up to the tradition of being an alumna of the university as well as the women’s basketball program. She took over the program with two goals: having the team maintain a GPA greater than a 3.0 and to hang a banner in Alumni Gym.
“I take a lot of responsibility in that and I want everybody to be so proud of this program and just be committed to its success and want to be around our kids and be the best,” Milligan said.
Her players see that drive and passion each day on and off the court.
“I kind of call her the team’s therapist,” senior guard Stella Johnson said. “If you have a problem, you go to [Milligan], and she talks to you and makes you feel better.”
During the early years of her tenure, Rider endured multiple exits from the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) tournament and experienced a handful of losing seasons. From the 2011-2012 season to the 2015-2016 season, Rider’s best overall record was 15-15.
The worst under Milligan was 4-26 in 2009-2010.
“The one common denominator we had every season was, our vision was very clear, our work ethic was obvious. I think the way we were doing things was the right way,” Milligan said. “I think you saw the growth of parts of the program every year and I think that’s afforded us the opportunity to do what we’ve been doing.”
In order to get the two MAAC Coach of the Year awards (in 2017 and 2020), get to the conference final appearance in 2016, two multiple 20-win seasons and become Rider’s all-time wins leader with 163, she needed to establish a unique culture on and off the court.
“She’s one of the most well-prepared coaches in terms of the amount of film she watches, just trying to out-scout the other team,” said Assistant Coach Pam Durkin, who has been on Milligan’s staff for the same 13 years. “I’ve just never seen a coach work as hard as her.”
The 2019-2020 season, unique in every way possible, brought with it a culminating feel with it. Rider had six seniors — the most in the MAAC — and a real shot at winning the conference title for the first time in program history.
Coaching the group gave her a lot of excitement and adrenaline, especially when senior guard Amari Johnson tipped the ball in with 0.5 seconds left against Monmouth to secure the regular-season title. Milligan called it the most important shot in Rider women’s basketball history.
When the MAAC cancelled the tournament due to the coronavirus, emotions ran high for everyone on the team, Milligan included. Although her birthday wish of cutting the nets down on March 14, her 50th birthday, did not come true, Rider was awarded the MAAC tournament title according to the conference bylaws. Milligan is still incredibly happy about what her team accomplished this season.
“There was so much history that we made this year that that final piece of the MAAC awarding us the championship is great because we had an opportunity to go to the NCAA tournament … those words themselves are something that has never been said about Rider women’s basketball. However they came about, I’m proud of them.”
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