PUBLISHED October 10, 2021 | News
When she was named the Old Dominion women’s basketball coach in April of 2020, DeLisha Milton-Jones was introduced to the media via Zoom. Because of the pandemic, most of the reporters on that call have yet to meet her face to face.
In the 17 months since, she has also had little opportunity to mingle with fans, alumni and even University officials. Attendance was limited to 250 per game last season, and social distancing kept coaches, players and fans apart.
She has, at times, been mistaken for Nikki McCray-Penson, the previous ODU coach who is now at Mississippi State.
So, Tuesday at 8 p.m. she’s having something of a coming out party to introduce herself to the ODU community.
Nancy Lieberman, the former All-American and best-known ODU alumnus this side of Taylor Heinicke, and Jay Harris, the Monarch alum who’s been on ESPN’s SportsCenter for 18 years, will participate in the event.
Harris will moderate, with Milton-Jones and Lieberman answering questions.
The event is open to the public and will be held in the Big Blue Room of the Ted Constant Convocation Center. The ODU team will attend.
Milton-Jones said the event was Lieberman’s idea.
“I told her there was no fanfare behind my hiring because of the pandemic,” she said. “It wasn’t anyone’s fault, but I haven’t really been able to engage with the community and, in some cases, interact with people on campus. And that includes students, our alumni and our donors.”
Lieberman then suggested an event where not only would she have a chance to introduce herself to ODU fans, but also to highlight the program’s storied past.
Lieberman helped elevate ODU into a national powerhouse in the mid-1970s and was the linchpin on two national championship teams. She went on to a successful pro career as a player and coach and was the youngest basketball player to win an Olympic medal shortly after she turned 18.
Harris is a 1987 graduate who has been in broadcasting since 1989 and is known to millions of fans for his role oin ESPN.
Harris worked at WODU, the campus radio station, in 1985 when ODU won its third national championship and admits “that I did not give that team as much attention as I should have.”
“I was so involved in Greek life and other things, I just didn’t do what I should have. That’s always bothered me, so I’ve been all in ever since. I love DeLisha and will do anything I can to help her.”
Milton-Jones said it will be a night to “celebrate Nancy and Jay and also introduce myself to the community.
“I want people to see us in a different light, for people to see our new vision for the program, for people to fall in love with the program again.
“It’s going to be a special night, where you can sit in an environment that is intimate and listen to two ODU legends talk.”
ODU once had one of the strongest women’s basketball fan bases in the country. But as the program slid out of national prominence in the last decade, the fan base has deteriorated.
Lieberman said she hopes the event will help lure fans back into Chartway Arena.
“DeLisha wants to take our women’s basketball program back into the top 25, and I’m confident she’s going to get us there,” Lieberman said.
Bedeviled by the pandemic and injuries, the Monarchs limped into the 2020 Conference USA tournament with just 10 wins and eight able-bodied players, including six who played regularly.
Earlier in the season, ODU lost at home Charlotte in double overtime, which ODU just using four players the last nine minutes after everyone else fouled out.
ODU pulled off three upsets in the tournament before losing 62-60 to eventual champion Rice in the semifinals. ODU finished the season by winning seven of its last nine games.
Milton-Jones made over her roster in the offseason, adding 10 players, including Iggy Allen, a transfer from Florida Atlantic was an All-C-USA choice and averaged 22.2 points and 10.9 rebounds per game. Ajah Wayne and Amari Young, the team’s two best players from last season, also return.
“I don’t ever want to be in that situation again, where we had to finish a game with four players,” Milton-Jones said. “We needed more talent and so we went out and got it.”
And now, they’re hunting for fans.
“Back when we were winning all the time, our fans played a big role in that,” Harris said. “We need them to play that same role again.”