Caught between impromptu selfies and hugs from FIU women’s basketball alumni in the upper lobby of FIU Arena on Saturday, former FIU coach Cindy Russo looked cloaked in happiness.
“How could I not be? My whole life’s here,” Russo said, smiling.
That includes Inge Nissen, who Russo recruited to Old Dominion as a player in the 1970s and cajoled into coming to FIU as an assistant coach as the 1980s waned. FIU honored the 36-season head coach and the 26-season assistant/associate coach at halftime of its 68-62 loss to Rice.
Family, friends and, most of all, around 40 former FIU players from Russo’s first recruiting class in 1981 to the recently graduated found their way across town or across the Atlantic to FIU Arena for the ceremony and postgame reception at the Fountainbleu Hotel Suite.
FIU announced the renaming of the women’s basketball locker room after Russo and presented her with a key to FIU athletics. Nissen received a plaque from FIU President Mark Rosenberg after an introduction during which Rosenberg mispronounced her first name several times. Later at the suite, athletic director Pete Garcia presented Russo with a basketball signed by all the former players present. A walk across the suite felt like a timespan stroll.
Here’s a table of FIU players from the days of being named “Sunblazers” and practicing in an airplane hangar: Kim Pellegrini (1981-85), Lynette Richardson (1982-86), Regina Hanshaw (1982-84), Loretta Risco (1983-84) and Cheryl Miller (1983-84 and that’s “Dr. Cheryl Miller” to distinguish from the other 1980s hoopster named Cheryl Miller).
Between howling laughs, they recalled Russo as “very strict, very tough” and a tip drill in which each player ran the length of the court after tipping the ball. If the ball hit the ground before two minutes were up, the entire drill got repeated. The voices and recollections streamed over each other.
“She was all about defense and conditioning!”
“Sprints on the soccer field at 5 a.m.!”
“And if she found out you didn’t like somebody on the team, she made you room with them!”
There’s Andrea Nagy, part of the first trio of Eastern European players recruited by FIU and an All-American point guard. After a seven-season pro career, she’s a photographer and stay-at-home mother in Broward County.
“Coach Nissen was the one who came over and sold the whole thing to our parents and to us,” Nagy said. “It was a big opportunity for anyone from Europe to come to America, especially from the Eastern bloc. It was something you couldn’t even dream of.”
That was one of the three most important sell jobs in FIU women’s basketball history. In 1980, FIU got Russo to come back from Lamar University to the team she had coached as a graduate student head coach. And in 1989 Russo got Nissen to come to FIU to coach.