LARAMIE - Joe Legerski, a Rock Springs native and a 1979 University of Wyoming graduate, realized an "opportunity of a lifetime" on Thursday by signing a five-year contract worth an estimated $200,000 annually to replace Cindy Fisher as leader of the Cowgirls' steadily improving basketball program.
It is the most lucrative coaching contract in UW women's sports history.
Legerski's annual base salary of $100,000 is $17,000 more than Fisher was earning before she resigned on April 22 after five seasons.
His yearly total compensation package is approximately $87,000 more than the $113,000 Fisher could have collected if she had met all the incentives in her contract.
A former assistant under then-head coach Chad Lavin from 1987-91, Legerski returns to Laramie after spending the past 12 seasons as a top assistant to Elaine Elliott at Utah.
"We want to continue to build this program," UW President Philip Dubois told the fans, media and players gathered inside the Rochelle Athletics Center. "Cindy accomplished so much here in her five years. We were very sorry to see her go, but we know that Joe can build upon that.
"He certainly has my personal commitment and support."
Then Dubois added, "He comes from a program that has a great record of accomplishment and great tradition of its own, but he's got to trade in that red stuff for the brown and gold."
No problem, Legerski said.
"I do have to trade in my red, but I don't have to buy new brown and prairie gold," he responded. "I'll just pull it out."
Legerski's hiring continued a dramatic spike in UW head coach salaries over the past year.
In 2002, fifth-year men's basketball coach Steve McClain's total compensation package was boosted from about $300,000 annually to approximately $600,000.
In December, new football coach Joe Glenn was awarded a guaranteed $445,000 annually. His predecessor, Vic Koenning, was collecting about $240,000 before being fired after three seasons.
UW Athletics Director Lee Moon indicated that Legerski's record salary is worth the cost. He cited the coach's Wyoming roots and his vast experience in the Mountain West Conference, calling him "another good Cowboy Joe fit."
Also, Moon compared Legerski's coaching background, which includes stints at Rock Springs High School and Western Wyoming College, to that of McClain.
Prior to coming to Laramie, where he has succeeded in establishing the Cowboys as a perennial conference championship contender, McClain held head coaching jobs at the high school and junior college levels and served as a Division I assistant.
"Joe is the best of all worlds for us," Moon said. "Not only is he a great fit for Wyoming, but a highly qualified coach from one of the most successful programs in this part of the country. He knows this league, he knows Wyoming, and(he knows) what it takes to be successful.
"We are happy to welcome him home."
The Cowgirls' players, who were understandably rattled by Fisher's abrupt resignation - less than a month after she agreed to a five-year contract extension - also welcomed Legerski.
"When coach Fisher told us she was leaving us, the thought that runs through your head immediately is why? What did we do wrong? Have we not lived up to standards? Those are really hard questions to ask yourself after you have such a successful season," point guard Brenda Pickup said.
"And then the question of, what's gonna happen next? Who's my next coach gonna be? Am I gonna like him/her? Are they gonna be a good coach? Are they gonna work us to death? All these things run into your mind.
"I'm quite excited about coach Legerski … and I give him respect already because of how he's gonna expect hard work from us. If you couldn't tell from this little press conference, he knows what he wants in this program. I'm just excited to see where it's gonna go from here."
Legerski promised UW would play together as a team and work hard in practice to become better in games.
During Legerski's tenure in Salt Lake City, Utah compiled a 254-96 record, including 24-7 last season, and won seven conference championships.
Armed with his extensive knowledge of the Mountain West - Legerski was the recruiting coordinator and lead scout for the Utes - he is certain he can enjoy similar success in Laramie. The school's greatly upgraded facilities will only help his cause, Legerski said.
"The facilities have changed here. … Coming back this week, I've had a chance to see the commitment that's been made to Wyoming basketball," Legerski said. "Walking through the facilities, I kept turning to (wife) Jamie and saying, 'I can recruit to this place. We will get good players here. We will win here.'"
The Cowgirls are coming off one of the finest seasons in school history, an 18-12 campaign that included the first postseason victory in the program's 30-year history.
In Mountain West play, UW ended lengthy losing skids against Colorado State, Brigham Young and New Mexico and posted its best showing (7-7) in the conference's four-year history.
Legerski met with UW's returning players following Thursday's late-morning press conference and said he planned to talk with each of the team's seven incoming recruits, including Gillette's Michelle Lieber, by Thursday night.
Also, Legerski said he hopes to have his coaching staff in place "within the next few weeks." He was expected to meet with Fisher's assistants - Mary Ann Falcosky, Blaine Patterson and Aubrey Eblin - before the end of the week.
One day after she resigned, Fisher accepted an assistant coaching job at Nebraska. Ironically, Fisher began her duties for the Cornhuskers on Thursday.
She has not returned phone messages left by the Star-Tribune.
A look at Joe Legerski, who was named Wyoming's sixth women's basketball head coach on Thursday:
FAMILY: Wife, Jamie, and children, Zane (16), Madison (8)
and Joseph III (6).
EDUCATION: Bachelor of Science in Business Education, UW, 1979.
COACHING EXPERIENCE: Head coach, Rock Springs High, 1984-86; Head coach, Western Wyoming College (Rock Springs), 1986-87; Assistant coach, UW, 1987-91; Assistant coach, Utah, 1991-2003.
LARAMIE - How long has it been since Wyoming defeated Utah in women's basketball?
A few hints: Joe Legerski was an assistant coach for the Cowgirls, Dr. Terry Roark was UW's president and the
school's football team was fresh off a trip to the Copper Bowl.
"I really hope he does know how to beat Utah," UW guard Ashley Elliott said.
If anybody can figure out how to end the Cowgirls' 24-game losing skid against the Utes, it's Legerski, who was hired
as the school's sixth head coach on Thursday.
He returns to Laramie after 12 seasons as an assistant under Elaine Elliott at Utah, where he was part of the
Utes' past 20 victories against his alma mater.
"The last time Wyoming defeated Utah, I was at Wyoming," Legerski said. "That's a challenge. Her program has been at the top of this league, and that's somewhere we want to go.
We'll come up with a few wrinkles for Elaine, as I'm sure she'll have for me."
UW hasn't defeated Utah since Feb. 23, 1990, a 69-66 victory in Laramie. The Utes won both games last season to
boost their lead in the all-time series to 47-6.
Hopefully, Legerski can reverse the Cowgirls' fortunes.
"That would be very nice," UW guard Brenda Pickup said with a laugh. "I sure wouldn't mind beating Utah."
The Wyoming Cowgirls' returning players appeared genuinely impressed by new head coach Joe Legerski during Thursday's media conference in the Rochelle Athletics Center.
Here's what some players had to say about the Rock Springs native and longtime Utah assistant:
"First impressions mean a lot, and he did a great job. He seems like a very nice guy, he knows what he's talking about and he has his feet on the ground. I'm ready to work hard for him."
- Forward Kristen Lenhardt, one of seven returning letterwinners on the 2003-04 team.
"This last week has been pretty tough for us, but I feel confident now that everybody else I've talked to has so much confidence in coach Legerski. What he's done with the Utah program is amazing, and it's gonna be great to have a coach here who already knows the program and already knows some of our players and already knows all the players from the other teams. I have a lot of confidence in coach Legerski and what he's gonna do here."
- Guard Ashley Elliott, the team's leading returning scorer next season.