LARAMIE — It was time.
That’s the best way Joe Legerski can explain his decision to retire less than a month after what’s turned out to be his final season as Wyoming’s women’s basketball coach. The program’s all-time winningest coach hadn’t contemplated his future much until his 60th birthday crept up on him a couple of years ago.
Since then, Legerski said, he and his wife, Jamie, have had annual discussions about whether that particular season would be it. Those conversations were put on hold each spring until the season ended, which came for Wyoming this year with a loss to Arizona in the quarterfinals of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament on March 31.
The answer was usually the same. This year, it was different for Legerski, who will turn 62 years old in July.
After talking things over with his family again over the Easter weekend, Legerski said he finalized his decision Tuesday. He announced it publicly a day later with a statement through Wyoming’s athletic department.
“It just seemed this was the right time to make this decision,” Legerski told the Star-Tribune in a phone interview. “In the past, when you’re in your 50s, you have so much time to work. Now that I’m 61, I start looking at things a little differently and time becomes a big factor for me.”
Wyoming struggled to find consistent success in women’s basketball before Legerski took over the program 16 years ago after a 12-year stint as an assistant at Utah. Legerski won 63 percent of his games at Wyoming and finished with 314 victories, delivering nearly half of the program’s all-time wins (705).
Legerski led Wyoming to all but one of its 11 postseason appearances, including the Cowgirls’ lone trip to the NCAA Tournament in 2008 and the only postseason championship in program history with a WNIT title the year before. His tenure ended with Wyoming’s third consecutive WNIT appearance, marking the first time the Cowgirls have ever been a part of the postseason three straight years.
As much work as Legerski put into getting the women’s basketball program to a level of sustained success it had never reached before, keeping it there required even more. Games. Practices. Countless hours of film study. Summer workouts. And a recruiting calendar that’s around the clock.
For Wyoming, a state low on Division I talent, that meant recruiting not only outside of its local footprint but also traveling overseas to find players. Legerski recalled a trip to Istanbul, Turkey, three years ago for an in-home visit with Selale Kepenc, one of 10 international players on this season’s roster, as his most recent recruiting trip out of the country, but one of his assistants, Bojan Jankovic, takes a trip to Europe every summer, Legerski said.
“The bigger thing as I got older was knowing that the years keep going by quicker,” Legerski said. “And the commitment to it. It’s a challenge.”
Being isolated from October to April every year comes with the territory of being a college basketball coach, but now Legerski can plan trips or take off at a moment’s notice without having to worry about basketball getting in the way. At the top of Legerski’s list is a trip to California to see his twin grandchildren that were born less than two weeks ago.
“It just seemed like it was getting more and more where I made the decision that I wanted to spend more time with my family,” Legerski said. “That’s basically what the decision came down to.”
Legerski said he was also comfortable walking away following a season that will go down as one of the best in program history. Led by a trio of seniors in Marta Gomez, Clara Tapia and Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year Bailee Cotton, the Cowgirls finished third in the league’s regular-season standings. Their deepest run ever in the MW tournament came up just short of a title with a loss to perennial league power Boise State in the championship game.
And Wyoming’s WNIT run was its deepest since winning it all 12 years ago, while its third-round win over Pepperdine was victory No. 25 on the season. It was just the third time the Cowgirls have won that many games in their 46-year history.
“When you win 25 games, you’re usually looking for a new contract, not for retirement,” Legerski said. “It just seemed like it was the right time for me to go out with this group. They accomplished more than I think what people thought of them. They just continued to excel and believe in one another, and that’s a good memory to go out on.”
Then and now
There are plenty of those to go around, but the one that stands out above the rest for Legerski is capturing that WNIT championship with a 72-56 win over Wisconsin in front of an overflowing Arena-Auditorium crowd of 15,462 fans — easily the largest crowd to ever take in a women’s home game at Wyoming and the second-largest crowd in school history.
For Legerski, it was validation that the program he’d spent four years building was well on its way to arriving at the level of success his successor will be trying to maintain.
“That seemed to be the jumping-off point to when the fans really started to embrace the women’s basketball program,” he said. “Up until that time, we’d play in front of a couple of hundred fans. After that, we always played in front of thousands.”
As for who that might be, Legerski said he won’t be involved in the search for his replacement. The only suggestion Legerski said he’s made to Wyoming athletic director Tom Burman is to consider members of his staff for the position in addition to any outside candidates.
“I think we’ve been highly successful over our time, and you have that opportunity that maybe somebody on the staff gets to continue that,” Legerski said. “But I will not have any say in what that decision is and which way the administration decides to go.”
Legerski does have one piece of advice for the next coach: Embrace the fans. It’s something Legerski said he learned not only as a coach but as a fan himself growing up in the Cowboy State. The Rock Springs native has vivid memories of making the hours-long trip to Laramie for Wyoming sporting events as a youngster — the kind of commute he said he gained a better appreciation for as a coach with the crowds inside the Arena-Auditorium growing bigger by the win.
“Living that experience as a fan and knowing the challenges to even get to a football game, and then to flip around and I get this opportunity to coach and I see people coming as far away as Cody and Worland to come watch us play, I knew what that person has been through,” said Legerski, who got his start in coaching as an assistant at Rock Springs High in 1979. “It just makes it all that much more special to know that they cared enough to drive four to six hours to cheer for our team.”
But Legerski is stepping away from it all now. He’ll take some time to decompress. He’ll make up for lost time with Jamie, his three children and his newborn grandchildren. And he’ll figure out ways to fill the rest.
“It’s not about just sitting around the house anymore,” Legerski said. “I’ll look for things to do.”
Just as soon as he gets used to having a lot more of it.
“It’s different. There’s no doubt about that,” he said. “For 40 years, I’ve had a team to worry about every day. This is very different now.”