From 1988 to 1996, Steve Hancock was one of the best coaches in D-II women's college basketball. He won 135 games at the helm of the Franklin Pierce University Ravens, making the New England Collegiate Conference (NECC) playoffs five times and earning Coach of the Year honors twice.
Then he walked away.
And what did he do with his newfound freedom? Naturally, he became a vice principal.
Hancock, a veteran teacher in the public school system in Gardner, Mass., worked hard at his day job, teaching by day and winning basketball games by night. But when a chance for a promotion came along at work, he just couldn't pass it up.
"I was in the public school system for 35 years," Hancock said. "When I was a head coach part time, I was still teaching in the Gardner public school system. But then I got the opportunity to move into an administrative position, so I couldn't handle both jobs."
He chose school over basketball. And for a decade, it never steered him wrong. He enjoyed his career as a school administrator, but when he retired from that position in 2006, there was still room in his life for basketball. And he couldn't stay away.
Now he's back, and he's leading a team at Franklin Pierce — the school is located in Rindge, N.H. — that's 23-0 and ranked No. 1 in the nation in D-II.
It's been a long road back. He was out of the game for a decade, and when he returned, he only had one foot in the door. He returned as an assistant to coach Mark Swasey, working only part time.
"It was a great opportunity for me to come back as a part-time coach, and it was a lot of fun," Hancock said. "But Coach Swasey decided to take a new job last summer, and he's now out in California, Pa., and he's doing quite well. So that presented an opportunity for me. I wasn't necessarily seeking it out, but it happened to be that my old job fell back into my lap again.
"It's a lot more work," he added. "Part time, it was always just a few hours a day. I would check in, watch some game film, check out some recruits and then go home. This is a full-time job now. It's seven days a week, it's 24-7, but I love it. It's an opportunity to work with a tremendous group of young ladies, and for me to go into work every day is a pleasure."
He has no reason to complain. In his three years as an assistant under Swasey, he helped guide the team to new heights: three straight Northeast-10 playoff appearances, two deep runs in the NCAA Tournament and, finally, a trip to the national title game last season. Last year's Ravens went 29-6 before losing to Minnesota State-Mankato in the national final.
"That team was a special team last year," Hancock said. "And I thought maybe talent-wise, they were even better than this year. I think the thing that's kept this team the way we are is team chemistry. We may not be as individually talented as last year, but we succeed because these players are consistent and they work hard, and the chemistry has really fallen into place."
It also doesn't hurt to have the best player in the nation on your side. And in Johannah Leedham, his senior forward from Ellesmere Port, England, you could make a very good case that that's exactly what he has.
Leedham leads the nation with 26.5 points per game. In steals, she's second in all the land, averaging 4.2. She's a three-time All-American, a four-year starter and a constant leader on her team. To Hancock, what does Leedham's presence mean?
"Everything," the coach said. "I just can't find a word to describe what she does for us. She's the best player ever to come around at our level. She just makes everybody else better. She's our MVP, she's a great, great team leader off the court, and on the court, she does it all. She's all about winning, she's all about team. She's not about individual efforts or individual records — she'd throw those away for a W. That's the way she plays."
The supporting cast around Leedham, though, is pretty young. Hancock is using two juniors, a sophomore and a freshman to fill out his starting five. It's always a challenge to rebuild on the fly and win with a young lineup, especially in your first year back in the saddle as head coach. But Hancock is figuring things out.
"There's always a big learning curve for freshmen at the D-II level," Hancock said. "It depends how quickly they grow. But we've had a couple of young kids that have really stepped up and really contributed. We've got nine players back from last year's national championship game team, but only four with a good deal of experience. Even our veterans are limited as far as experience."
Hancock isn't making any excuses. He doesn't care how young his team is or how rusty he might be as a head coach — he just wants to win, and he's not letting anything get in his way.
"Our goal is to win a national title," he said. "That's the ultimate goal that every player plays for and every coach coaches for. We didn't win last season, but we walked away and held our heads high because we played well. We were beaten by a better team, and we knew that. But we put on quite a show, and we played a tremendous game, even though it ended in defeat.
"It was certainly motivational," he added. "The previous year, we had gone to the Elite Eight, and we were defeated in a national quarterfinal game in overtime, a game that we thought we should have won. We certainly used that as motivation in the offseason, and we came back a little stronger last year."
Every loss that doesn't kill Hancock's Ravens only makes them stronger. And by now, they've got enough tournament losses under their belts that they might be ready to win.
Even Hancock, with his decades of experience in the game, is a little blown away by being 23-0. He's referred to the gaudy record as "exciting," as a "plateau" and as "a little surreal." He sees it, however, as a double-edged sword — he's thrilled for his players and eager to give them all the credit, but he remains focused on the future.
"I'm happy for them," he said. "They worked hard and they earned it. But the important thing is what lies ahead. What matters isn't where we are or where we're ranked now, but where we stand at the end of the season."
With all his wisdom, all his experience and all those wins, you'd be crazy to bet against Steve Hancock and his Ravens. This looks like their year.
Tune in to NESN on Sat., Feb. 20, at 12 p.m. to watch the Franklin Pierce women take on Bentley.
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