Episode 35: Kim Barnes Arico — “It’s a woman’s world”
Hi, this is Deborah Holdship editor of Michigan Today.
Sports fans are still reeling from the tragic death in January 2020. A basketball legend, Kobe Bryant and his basketball playing UConn bound daughter Gianna. Kim Barnes Arico took the loss especially hard. She’s the ninth head coach of women’s basketball here, managing some 30 young women who comprise the, quote, “Hardest working team in America”, unquote. Bryant and his daughter were poised to elevate Barnes Arico’s sport, and her athletes to new heights, professionally and personally. As an unabashedly proud girl dad of four daughters, Bryant represented the type of enthusiastic, passionate and uplifting male role model to which many female athletes responded. The loss of dad and daughter put things in perspective for Kim and her wolverines. It’s about the journey, not the destination, she says. But what a great journey she’s had so far. Kim is the winningest coach in the program’s history. She came to U of M in 2012 and is in her eighth season right now guiding the Wolverines to at least 20 wins in each of her past seven seasons. Plus, she’s taken the team to three NCAA tournament appearances and the 2017 WNIT Championship. Kim came to U of M after 10 years at St. John’s, where she put her stamp on women’s basketball history by ending a 99 game winning streak against UConn in February 2012. The score was fifty-seven to fifty-six. It was UConn’s first home loss to an unranked opponent in nearly 19 years. As a mother of three and a coach, as a friend, colleague, mentor or casual acquaintance, K.B.A. is like a superhero in sneakers and a Michigan sweatshirt. You definitely want her to have your back.
Kim Barnes Arico: Kobe was such a great ambassador, ambassador for women, and in the WNBA and he trains young girls. He trains young women and he made the connection with young women. And I don’t know if you saw the piece— on somebody asked him, are you disappointed you didn’t have a son? I mean, golly, what kind of question is that? It’s life changing when you have a daughter and the opportunities that you want for your daughter then become, well. Why doesn’t my daughter have the same opportunities as my son? And I don’t think you ever understand that until you have a daughter. And Kobe had four. So what greater person to really promote women and promote our game specifically than Kobe Bryant? And the things he was was doing for women in our game and just for women in general were incredible. And I think it would have really changed the landscape of our game. But also just women in general and the feeling that a dad or men can have two women into the women’s game was incredible. So we will definitely miss that piece of it. But hopefully that opens some eyes to more people being able to really promote women.
Holdship: Yeah. And somehow to keep that momentum going. I mean, if his daughter had lived, you know, what a great ambassador she would have been throughout her career as well. So terrible.
Arico: Oh, it’s so terrible. It’s so terrible. Devastating on so many levels. But, but eye-opening too and and just the hashtag, you know, #girldad and my husband. And I know, you know, traditional roles aren’t there in my house and the things that he does with my daughters. And, you know, he braids their hair. He, you know, gets them ready for gymnastics meets. He’s there for their competitions. He makes them breakfast. He picks them up from school. So, you know, most times you think that moms are in that role, but what a special relationship he gets to have with them. But then also how he pushes them and drives them to, you know, be the best. You know, not be the best woman, be the best.
Holdship: Ooh, I like it!
Arico: And that’s you know, that’s the goal for the players in my program. That’s the goal for my own children. That’s the goal for women is, you know, you want to be the best. And I want to be the best at—at whatever it is that I do, I don’t want to be the best girl-
Arico: At what I do, you know, I have three children and I have a senior boy and then two younger girls. And in his life as his mom, women were always the same.
Holdship: Oh that’s so cool.
Arico: And he told me until he got to high school, like I never realized there was a difference. And then he got to high school, and he’s like, now I see— like what happened? So I always have in my mind, like, what is actually the turning point? And when does that happen for young kids?
Holdship: A lot of times we talk about teams as families. But here you’ve kind of got an all girl family, all women family. And I’m sure that brings its own special uniqueness to the party.
Arico: The end of the day, like X’s and O’s or X’s and O’s and basketball is basketball. So from that sense, I think things are very similar. You know, it’s great when I look up, I practice and there’s Coach Juwan Howard watching our practice and stealing some drills. And I think one of the special things for me is to just get to see the different personalities and how different coaches can be very successful with different styles. And I learned a lot from Coach Beilein and what a warm, welcoming person and just was great to my family and really miss him. And, you know, he was tremendous. But now Coach Howard, I mean, he just puts a smile on your face. The minute you see him, you light up. Our players in our program feel that way about him. He doesn’t miss a game. He’s front row and center. And what greater person? To promote women’s basketball than your men’s basketball coach. And when you have your men’s basketball coach sit in front and center and the men’s basketball team at every game-
Holdship: They come to every game too?
Arico: They are there at all the games. So I think— I think that just speaks volumes to the way that they feel about women and the way that they feel about our program.
Holdship: Well, and you came from a divorced household, but you still— you stayed close with your dad. Tell me about your evolution kind of as an athlete and your relationship with your dad.
Arico: Yeah, it’s funny. I was looking at some of your questions and I’m like, ok, girldad and thinking about my girls with my husband compared to when I was young. And I actually— I just spoke to my dad on the way over. I didn’t know we would be talking about him too much today. But my dad, I think, expected me early on to be a ballerina and to be a princess and to play with dolls. And there I was growing up with, you know, a bunch of boy cousins and two brothers and always out playing sports. So I think it took him a minute to really wrap his arms around that, because that was different than what he was accustomed to.
He has watched over the course of my career how sport has changed my life. And how— and the impact that it has made on my life has been really incredible, now he embraces it and, and with my daughters and with his granddaughters, what wonderful opportunities they can have. And, you know, he loves watching a woman’s basketball game far more than he loves watching a men’s basketball game. And I think, you know, to have that relationship with my dad, I mean, that’s my guy. And he’s a girl dad and he’s with me every step of the way. It’s really special. And I think, you know, it’s important for girls to have those relationships with their dad and for their dad to embrace, hey, they could be, you know, sporty. They have these other things that they love to do and still be tremendous—a tremendous daughter.
Arico: And open your arms to whatever it is your child wants to do and love them for who they are.
Holdship: Like, what advice do you have for parents of kids? And also warnings, perhaps, of young women who want to pursue athletics at the college level, especially basketball. Is it—I’m sure it’s different than pursuing a different sport.
Arico: It’s yeah, basketball is definitely different and the investment and the sacrifice are incredible. And I know— I think sometimes people don’t really understand what it takes to be successful at this level through the recruiting process. You know, trying to get parents to understand that it does make a difference where you go to school. And the Michigan difference is real. And when you come to the University of Michigan, it is going to change your life and it’s going to change your circle and it’s going to change your opportunities. And it’s just— and that’s what I had to explain to my parents when I left New York. Why would you go to Michigan? You don’t like the cold. As a mom, it has nothing to do with the cold. It has everything to do with the power of the “block M” and the excellence that this university represents.
Holdship: And you could come with that St. John’s win over Yukon.
Arico: Yes. And that day will never go away.
Holdship: It must have been a great day.
Arico: Yeah. That’s something that I will have forever. And being a part of the— the Big East conference at the time that the Big East basketball conference was incredible. I got to work alongside many, many Hall of Fame coaches, one being Geno Auriemma at Yukon. But Muffet McGraw, who has been a great advocate for women at Notre Dame. C. Vivian Stringer, who is one of the best ever to be a coach in women’s basketball, and what she has done for women in this game has been absolutely incredible. Great memories through those years. And one of them obviously beating UConn at UConn to break their 99 streak.
Holdship: Yeah broke that streak!
Arico: Yeah. Ninety-nine game win streak.
Holdship: Ah, no big deal.
Arico: Yeah, no big deal.
But one of the best for me, I mean, there were so many things about that night. I had hundreds of messages from Dick Vitale all the way down, and then my phone’s ringing as we almost reached New York and it was Geno Auriemma and just losing the game. And he’s not accustomed to losing. It doesn’t happen very often. And had won ninety nine straight at home and just called me to say, hey, I just want you to know I’m proud of you. And those kind of moments in my coaching career and just so fortunate to have had players that believe in a vision and believe that they can come and make a difference. And to have the Katelynn Flaherty’s and now the Naz Hillmon that believe that they can come the University of Michigan and make a difference and do something incredible that’s never been done here before. Just been fortunate to have coached some really special, special young women in my time as a coach.
Holdship: You’ve got great other female coaches here, including Hutch, that are, you know, just people to admire and aspire and be mentored by. But you started this thing called, what, the “Powerful Women’s Club”? Talk to me about that. I love it.
Arico: It’s not really real. I started it in my mind and I just, you know, take more people into the club every year. But part of the reason, you know, I left everything I knew. I left 40 years of the East Coast and a place where, you know, I raised my family and my parents were. And for me to have an opportunity to be surrounded by strong, powerful women and great women. And at a university that supported women, Hutch being one of them. She’s just tremendous. And she’s changed the landscape of college athletics. You know, so many times when I look back who were my coaches when I was younger and it was— and it was men a lot of times. And, you know, they were tremendous. And I learned so much. And I and I wouldn’t knock them at all, but they weren’t me. And, you know, they weren’t a woman and they didn’t have the same issues and the same thing. So to be a role model and a mentor and to have other women assistant coaches and I think it’s great to have a diverse staff, but really to have other strong, powerful women for our girls to learn from-
Arico: -is really, really important. And we have an understanding and we’ve been in their shoes. So as much as, you know, you think, ok, what a what a typical 18, 19 and 20 year old women are going through. We’ve been there.
Arico: We lived it. And I think. You know, a lot of times, you know, I put my arm around my players and I say, I know right now you think you’re the Lone Ranger and I know you think you’re the only one that’s ever gone through what you’re going through right now. But I can promise you, I know you think I’m old, but I can promise you. A few years ago, I went through the same things, whether it was relationships, whether it was issues with my parents, whether it was academics, whether it was figuring out who I was or what I wanted in my life. We’ve been there as much as you know. We have a party of 30 women, and that sounds like it could be tenuous at times. It’s unbelievable. And we smile, and we laugh, and we cry. I’m so happy that our players have those role models and those mentors and people that are there saying, hey, Naz Hillmon. If you want to be president of the United States and have a family with three kids, you can do it.
Holdship: Bring it, yeah.
Arico: Bring it. And these women around you are showing you that it is possible and that you’re going to have a team of support and people behind you that are showing you that you can do whatever it is you want to do. And we talk about it when we get to the circle, our team circle every day, like put your shoulders back, like project your voice, you know, stand tall. You’re a strong woman and you’ve achieved a tremendous amount to be playing basketball at the University of Michigan. But it’s our job and our opportunity to mentor young girls and to produce strong, powerful women. It’s important for me to give them confidence, while at the same time trying to teach them lessons and trying to help them grow. And I think being a mom really changed me as a coach because I looked at it in a different light. And now I said when I when I became a mom, I said, Oh, my goodness, how do I want people to treat my children? How do I want them to talk to my children? I don’t want them to be easy. I want them to challenge them. And I want them to try to make my child the best that they can be. But I also need to make sure they love them and they care for them and they build them up. And it’s so hard being a teenager.
It’s important for me to make sure that they know they are loved. It’s gonna be ok. And, you know, that’s the first thing. It’s gonna be okay. And sometimes it’s gonna be bumpy. And, you know, we talk about it in the office a lot. Life is hard. And sometimes as a young kid, you don’t really understand that. And for the first time when you’re going away from your parents and you’re away and you’re trying to juggle school at the University of Michigan, one of the greatest universities in the world, the academics are tough. And now you’re trying to juggle playing basketball at an elite level and you’re trying to juggle being away and handling all these independents, all these things on your own. For the first time, it becomes overwhelming. And we talk about, you know, inch by inch. It’s a cinch, yard by yard. It’s hard, like take one thing at a time. Just focus on that one thing and try to be the best that you can. Don’t worry about practice at the end of the day and don’t worry about your four classes. And I got a test on this one. And then I got this and then I got— oh, my gosh, you’re gonna be overwhelmed. Like, take a deep breath. And one thing at a time and think about living in the moment.
It’s so much more than just basketball. And it’s about building relationships for a lifetime. And as much as we’re gonna remember some great wins and some tough losses, the thing that you will remember most are the relationships that you built and those will be your people for the rest of your life. And you’re gonna be there for them in the good times and the bad. And you’re not turning your shoulder if they miss ten shots that day. Yeah, you know, but also the importance of getting back in the gym and and and— embracing the grind.
Holdship: And being the hardest working team in America.
Arico: That’s right.
Holdship: So I’m a little obsessed with Kim right now. I have to admit, and I’m channeling that obsession toward a new love of women’s basketball at Michigan. I hope you do the same. Ok, that’s it for now. I will be back with you next month. Until then, find more Listening Michigan podcasts at michigantoday.umich.edu under the podcast tab. Or find us and subscribe at Spotify, Google Play Music, iTunes, TuneIn, and Stitcher. See ya next time, and as always, go blue.
A lifetime decision
Kim Barnes Arico is a pragmatist.
Theory and abstract principles serve little purpose when you spend your adult life as a working wife, mother, daughter, and coach in college athletics. Make that elite college athletics.
Barnes Arico is U-M’s ninth head coach of women’s basketball. In her early years as a coach at St. John’s University in Queens, N.Y., she and her husband negotiated a mutually beneficial deal that created much-needed balance. In a rare role reversal (that has since proved to be a smashing success), Barnes Arico’s husband took command of the family’s household and childcare duties. That agreement allowed the rising coach to focus on “her girls” at work and on her family at home.
“There are certain things you can control,” Barnes Arico says about life and athletics. “And effort is one of them. You can’t control the outcome, but you can definitely control the effort at which you play.”
The effort required to be a successful Big Ten coach requires tremendous support. From her wise choice in a husband to the various mentors she’s admired, Barnes Arico is an expert at attracting it. Now she is a master at giving it.
Perhaps that’s why she is the women’s basketball program’s winningest coach, taking the Wolverines to at least 20 wins in each of their last seven seasons. At St. John’s she coached a historic 57-56 win against the University of Connecticut, ending that program’s 99-game home winning streak. Since she joined U-M, the women’s team has made it to the NCAA tournament three times and won the 2017 WNIT championship. One of her recent players, Katelynn Flaherty, BS ’18, is the all-time leading scorer in men’s and women’s basketball at Michigan.
Flaherty recently returned to campus from New York City, where she is working as a sales consultant at Unum. She wanted to pay it forward with the next class of Wolverines, sharing her revelatory experience as a U-M alumna, Barnes Arico says.
“She was like, ‘Coach, the Michigan difference is real, and it has nothing to do with basketball!'”
Net worthFlaherty is now working in Manhattan. Her recent visit illuminated the career possibilities beyond professional sports.
Barnes Arico lights up when she talks about Flaherty.
“There will come a time where you’re not a basketball player anymore,” she says. “I tell them, ‘Look, you are at the University of Michigan. That can give you so many opportunities; it can open doors and make connections and build a network that isn’t just a basketball network.
“Katelynn will be as driven in the business field as she was as a basketball player,” Barnes Arico says. “That hard work, that teamwork, that ‘being a part of something bigger than yourself’ — those are the skills that you’re going to take with you in life.”
So while she aspires to win championships and trophies, Barnes Arico says she also finds value in her relationships with strong, powerful women. Ties she forged with fellow teammates transcend time and place, and she remains close with her Montclair State college coach, Alice De Fazio. They even worked together at U-M when De Fazio was director of player personnel, bringing her network full circle.
“She was my coach, my mentor, and then my friend,” Barnes Arico says.
Male mentors have had an equally dramatic impact, including UConn Head Coach Geno Auriemma, who called to congratulate her for ending his epic winning streak. Former U-M men’s Head Coach John Beilein was a great teacher, and Coach Juwan Howard supports the women by attending every home game with his players.
Lakers Legend Kobe Bryant also was a mentor of sorts, Bryant died in early 2020 when he and his basketball-playing, UConn-bound daughter, Gianna, perished in a horrific helicopter crash. That was a tough week for female athletes everywhere who’d found a brilliant champion in Bryant. He proudly embraced his role as a #GirlDad.
“It’s life-changing when you have a daughter,” Barnes Arico says, “and you realize, ‘Why doesn’t my daughter have the same opportunities as my son?’ And I don’t think you ever understand that until you have a daughter. And Kobe had four. So what greater person to really promote women and promote our game? The things he was doing for the women’s game and just for women, in general, were incredible. And I think it would have changed the landscape of our game.”
As the 2019-20 regular season nears the end, Barnes Arico remains optimistic about the game, her team, and a new WNBA players’ contract for the players who do go pro. That could include such dynamic sophomores as Naz Hillmon and Amy Dilk, junior Hailey Brown, and freshman Maddie Nolan, to name just a few.
“This last month has really opened our eyes and been a constant reminder to our program of how fortunate we are,” Barnes Arico says, “We are not dealing in life and death. It’s basketball. Every day we say, ‘Put your shoulders back, project your voice, stand tall. You’re a woman, you’re a strong woman. Get out there and smile and try to enjoy the moment.'”
Very pragmatic, indeed.