Cindy Russo first assumed the FIU head women’s basketball coaching job when she was a graduate student on food stamps. A month remained in the eighth of Don Shula’s 26 season as Dolphins coach. Joining the Los Angeles Lakers broadcast team as color man? Just-retired Lakers player Pat Riley.
And FIU, the teenage school in the West Dade suburb, opened its Biscayne Bay campus.
“I love FIU,” Russo said by phone Thursday afternoon. “We grew up together. I came here as a baby. FIU was a baby, too. I’m proud to say I was head coach here for 36 years.”
In the midst of her 36th season, after 667 wins at FIU and 707 overall, Russo announced her retirement Thursday, effective immediately. Associate coach Inge Nissen, an FIU assistant for 26 seasons, will assume the head-coaching duties he has handled for the last several weeks for the 3-13 Panthers. She’ll be assisted by associate coach Cristal Randolph and assistant coach Lindsay Bowen.
Russo’s mother, for whom she was caretaker for years, died in late December. Since returning from the funeral, Russo has been floored by the flu. Still unwell with the tiring Conference USA travel schedule ahead, she didn’t see returning to coaching this season as good for anybody.
“For my first time, I had to put me No. 1 for health reasons,” Russo said. “I don’t have the physical capabilities of coaching a Division I team. It’s not fair to them. Coach Nissen is a Hall of Famer, Coach Bowen is an All-American. [The players have] got all they need. If they listen, they’ll be fine.”
Though the midseason retirement comes as a surprise, retirement itself does not. Few, if any, around FIU expected Russo to coach past this season, which she entered ninth among active coaches in wins.
Russo’s teams reached seven NCAA Division I tournaments, seven postseason Women’s NIT tournaments, most recently in 2012 and 2013, and posted 18 20-win seasons. With the current team at 3-13, Russo’s FIU record stands at 667-373 and an overall record of 707-395.
No other person in FIU Athletics so encompasses the breadth of FIU’s growth as an athletic department and university. When Russo took over as head coach in 1977, the campus consisted of fewer buildings than the current campus has parking garages. Russo left FIU for two seasons to coach at Lamar University, then returned to the FIU head-coaching job in 1980.
“We played at Miami Christian High School,” Russo said. “We practiced in a hangar, ‘The Tin Gym.’ Plastic floor, no A/C. There were birds flying around that would [defecate] on your head.”
As assistant coach at Old Dominion, she helped recruit Denmark native Nissen to the Monarchs, where a dominant career led to Nissen being inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. In the midst of 22 consecutive winning seasons (1981-2003), they made FIU truly “international” by being among the first NCAA coaches to cannonball into the Eastern European talent pool.
They got All-Americans Andrea Nagy and Dalma Ivanyi from Hungary as well as Honorable Mention All-America Albena Branzova from Bulgaria. The early 1990s teams featuring the swift Nagy zipping fastbreak passes and Branzova hitting three-pointers to 3-footers when she wasn’t flipping over-the-shoulder post passes to cutting teammates could be exquisite to watch.
In 1993-94, they led FIU’s first NCAA Tournament team just as Ivanyi led the 1997-98 team that went 29-2 and reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Russo ranked Ivanyi as FIU’s best all-time player until after the freshman year of eventual two-time honorable mention All-American Jerica Coley. Coley ended her career last spring as the NCAA’s fifth-leading all-time scorer.
Coley’s sophomore- and junior-year teams made the Women’s NIT. Both those teams also achieved a perfect 1,000 Academic Progress Rate score. The women’s basketball team’s 3.37 grade-point average last year led Conference USA.
“I’ve had tremendous amount of support through the years from the president on down,” Russo said.