UK Women's Basketball

UK women: Ex-Cat Riley has unique role on UK staff as coach and confidant

Staff support associate Crystal Riley, left, talked with UK guards Bernisha Pinkett, center, and Linnae Harper during a break in the LSU game.
Staff support associate Crystal Riley, left, talked with UK guards Bernisha Pinkett, center, and Linnae Harper during a break in the LSU game. Herald-Leader

Barely getting into the NIT was something to be celebrated when Crystal Riley got to Kentucky.

By the time she graduated, the former point guard had been a part of four deep NCAA Tournament runs and a regular-season conference championship.

So the past few weeks of watching her beloved alma mater go from No. 5 in the nation to losing four games she thought it should have won have been difficult.

A few hours after a recent loss at home, Riley watched some of her former teammates running the Memorial Coliseum steps as a senior-mandated punishment.

Riley didn't think it was enough.

"I cried that night because I told them this program means so much to me, and for them to roll in and act like it didn't mean anything to them, I thought it was a slap in the face," she said.

She doesn't have a ball in her hands as a UK point guard anymore, but her new role may be more important than anything she ever did on the court.

The university job description for the 23-year-old former transfer from Louisiana State is simply staff support associate.

But she's so much more than that to Coach Matthew Mitchell and this group of Cats, many of whom she considers among her best friends.

"She's an invaluable member of our staff," Mitchell said of Riley, who was hired full-time last summer.

What Riley does can't be quantified in a job summary on a slip of paper.

And if No. 15 Kentucky really has turned itself around mentally and emotionally after that slide in which it lost four times in seven games, Riley can claim part of the credit.

The quiet, but outspoken when necessary, former player from Memphis is the go-between for coaches and players at UK.

"Really, she's like our motivation outside of each other," senior Samarie Walker said. "She encourages us on the sidelines, and if we need anything before or after practice, she's always there.

"She's been through exactly what we're going through. That helps."

And what Riley went through was program transformation, watching UK grow from a barely .500 team that limped into the NIT to a national power.

It's why Riley was so angry when she saw players not playing hard for the name on the front of their jerseys.

"When the girls come out and act like they don't have any motivation to play hard, it's amazing," she said. "It's unbelievable when you've got a group of girls that are given a scholarship and take it for granted."

Riley calmly and quietly went to Mitchell to remind him that the old Coach Mitchell wouldn't stand for the lack of focus she'd been seeing in practice or the lack of hustle on the court.

Yes, she went to her boss to tell him he wasn't doing a good enough job. He had gotten less stern, and practices had become less competitive.

"It wasn't hard telling him that," she said. "It's not hard talking to him and being straightforward with him. When he asks me what I think the problem was, I told him, and we went from there."

It was after that conversation that Mitchell said, "no more Mr. Nice Guy."

"She just helped me out tremendously," he said of that moment. "She said, 'Coach, I've never seen you work harder at trying to make people feel good about themselves and build them up and stuff.' It just has not worked. They have not responded to that."

Riley was uniquely suited to say something, assistant coach Shalon Pillow said, because she's not that far removed from being a player herself.

Players respond to her because she's been there and has done that. She has rehabbed two foot injuries and a broken hand. She has lived through Mitchell's toughest practices.

Riley organizes team-building sessions, encourages players to read material on "toughness" and talks to them privately about their accountability or lack thereof.

"It's different coming from Crystal," Pillow said. "She knows everything the players are going through because she was just a player. Things that a coach might say comes much different coming from Crystal."

And Riley doesn't pull punches.

In fact, she usually lands them directly. She has cried with them, laughed with them in locker rooms, run punishment drills with them in practice. So she sees no need to sugarcoat anything.

"I know probably more about these girls than their own teammates," she said. "I spend enough time with each of them to know which buttons I can push. I just have a strong boundary line I can step over with them."

That tightwire act goes both ways.

There are things she knows — not law- or rule-breaking things — about players that she doesn't necessarily share with the coaches.

"Coach Mitchell knows what questions to ask me and what questions not to ask me," she said. "He doesn't put me in situations where I have to break their trust."

All of this back and forth between players and coaches doesn't faze Riley. In fact, it might prepare her for one day coaching her own team.

That idea was never on her radar when she was a player, but coaching is something she can see herself doing now.

Mitchell tries to give her lots of responsibilities within various parts of the program to one day prep her for a job like his.

In many ways, she already has some of the hardest parts down: dealing with conflict, different personalities and motivational techniques.

"The most impressive thing about Crystal is she can sit in a room with people who have been coaching awhile and still disagree with them because she knows the program," Mitchell said.

"She's a product of the program, she has tremendous pride in it, and it hurts her when she doesn't feel like we are living up to the standard."

And when they aren't, she isn't afraid to say something.