During Yolett McPhee-McCuin’s five-year tenure as the Jacksonville University women’s basketball coach, she proudly displayed the social media hashtag #NoCeilings as the main tenet of her coaching philosophy.
But McCuin also knew that if she wanted to live out her dream of taking a program to the Final Four, the reality was it had to be accomplished on a bigger hoops stage.
So when Ole Miss AD Ross Bjork offered her the Rebels’ job Tuesday in a follow-up interview, McCuin knew the prospect of coaching in the Southeastern Conference and all its built-in resource advantages was something she couldn’t pass up.
McCuin, 34, didn’t leave Oxford until reaching an agreement on a four-year contract (maximum length under Mississippi law) that is expected to triple her JU salary, a deal that had two years remaining.
“It’s in the SEC, the number one conference for women’s basketball and the opportunity to go up against some of the best coaches in the country,” McCuin told the Times-Union about why she accepted the position. “It’s a chance to take a program that hasn’t had a lot of success recently, like Jacksonville when I came here, and elevate it.
″[Leaving JU], it’s bittersweet, but my logo is no ceilings. That’s what this is about, me continuing to break the glass ceilings. I definitely can accomplish that at Ole Miss.”
McCuin, hired by JU after it experienced 11 losing seasons in 14 years, guided the Dolphins to a 94-63 record (50-24 in the ASUN) and had three 20-win seasons the past three years, including a first-ever NCAA tournament berth in 2016.
The former Clemson assistant had a phone interview with Ole Miss before the women’s Final Four, then engaged in serious job discussions in person on Tuesday.
“Throughout our search process, it became clear to us: Coach McCuin is a star in the making, and we better secure her leadership before another program does,” Bjork said in a statement.
JU athletic director Alex Ricker-Gilbert felt it was just a matter of time before a Power 5 school came to recruit his prized coach. It marked the second time in four months the Dolphins lost a coach to the SEC, following volleyball coach Julie Darty to Mississippi State in December. McCuin is also the first women’s head basketball coach in ASUN history to go directly to the SEC in the same capacity.
“I just know how talented Coach Yo is,” said Gilbert. “This opportunity was coming whether it was this year or next year. It’s her dream to be a Power 5 coach and be in the Final Four. She’s been a great ambassador for our program and university. She’s one-of-a-kind. I’m happy she’s getting this opportunity. We will miss her.
“This speaks to what she’s done in five years here, how she created excitement for women’s basketball on campus.”
Gilbert expects to move quickly on hiring McCuin’s replacement, especially with signing day on April 11, followed by a criticial eight-day AAU recruiting period that starts on April 13. JU assistant Darnell Haney, who was on staff the last five years, is among the candidates to replace McCuin, but he also has the option of joining her at Ole Miss.
“We’re going to do a search, but [Haney] will be considered,” Gilbert said. “I’m going to try and be aggressive with this. I have to move with some pace here. There’s some time sensitivity to this because a big recruiting period is coming up.”
McCuin is taking over a downtrodden Ole Miss program, which went 70-87 the last five years under Matt Insell and a woeful 18-62 in SEC play, including 1-15 this past season. The competition will be daunting. The Rebels’ biggest rival, Mississippi State, finished NCAA runnerup the past two years and South Carolina – coached by close friend Dawn Staley – won the national title in 2017.
Ole Miss hasn’t gone to the NCAA tournament since reaching the Elite Eight under Carol Ross in 2007. The Rebels also had a string of NCAA appearances during the 19-year tenure of Van Chancellor (1978-97).
“There’s some work to be done, construction to be done, but I think I’m sitting on some prime real estate,” McCuin said. “The support is definitely there. I think I fit what they need to get the program back to relevance.”
McCuin and her husband Kelly, who also works at JU, will move to Oxford permanently with their two daughters in June.