MIAMI — FIU coach Cindy Russo took care of her mother for a long time, and the Panthers’ women’s basketball program for much longer.
And now, she thinks she needs to focus on herself.
Russo resigned on Thursday, immediately stepping down after 36 seasons with FIU. The school did not immediately name an interim coach, though associate head coach Inge Nissen — who was a Russo assistant for the past 26 years and has been leading the team in her recent absence — is expected to have the reins at least in the short term.
“For the first time in my life, I am putting myself first,” Russo said in a statement released by the school. “My health has been compromised for a long time now. It has been difficult to get up and move around. Basketball season is a long, stressful season that can suck you in with the demanding schedule. I just didn’t feel like I had the physical and mental capacity to keep going.”
Russo went 667-371 with the Panthers and 707-391 overall. Her team is off to a 3-13 start this season and plays at Florida Atlantic on Saturday.
But it wasn’t the losing of games that took the ultimate toll — instead, it was the loss of her mother earlier this season that forced Russo to reevaluate.
“My mother’s death exasperated everything, and it was a long ordeal with her,” Russo said. “I was by her side for a long time, and now it’s time to take care of myself. I just can’t push myself like this anymore. The team will be fine. They play good basketball and they play hard, but we just can’t finish. Someone just needs to step up and be a leader.”
Russo once posted 22 straight winning seasons, went to the NCAA tournament six times and made seven trips to the Women’s National Invitation Tournament. She won seven conference coach-of-the-year awards, doing so in three different leagues, and most recently coached Jerica Coley — who ended her FIU career last season as the 10th player in Division I women’s history to eclipse 3,000 career points.
“I want to emphasize Coach Russo’s legacy on the game of basketball,” said Pete Garcia, FIU’s Executive Director of Sports and Entertainment. “Not only was she a difference-maker to the FIU program, but she was one of the best coaches in the history of women’s collegiate basketball. Her leadership in the game of basketball will be sorely missed. She will be a member of the FIU family forever.”
Russo began her career at FIU in 1977, spent two seasons at Lamar, returned to FIU for the 1980-81 season and never left. The school said a national search for her replacement will begin immediately.
Copyright 2015 by The Associated Press