Ann Arbor — Nearly 10 minutes into an interview with Kim Barnes Arico for a story about Kim Barnes Arico, she had not said anything about herself.
Frankly, that’s really not chief among her priorities.
“Not so much,” she said, smiling.
Barnes Arico, in her fifth season as Michigan’s women’s basketball coach, is one win from her 100th victory coaching the Wolverines, and that could come Wednesday night against Northwestern at the Crisler Center. She will be the second coach in program history to reach 100 victories and the fastest to achieve that milestone. Sue Guevara was 123-82 at Michigan (1996-2003).
It’s not something that is on her radar, though.
“I think after the fact a lot of the times you’ll look back and you’ll be like, ‘Wow, that was pretty neat,’” Barnes Arico said of hitting 100 wins. “I didn’t even know. I just think it means I’m getting old.”
The Wolverines are 16-5, 5-2 in the Big Ten and hoping to break back into the NCAA Tournament field this year. According to ESPN’s latest Bracketology, Michigan is projected a No. 9 seed in the upcoming tournament.
Barnes Arico, 46, has guided the program to at least 20 victories each of the previous four seasons and the Wolverines have gone to the postseason each year but only reached the NCAA Tournament her first season after replacing Kevin Borseth, making it to the second round. The next year they reached the WNIT third round and the semifinals of the WNIT the last two seasons.
She came to Michigan from St. John’s, a mess of a program when she took over 10 years earlier. But Barnes Arico led the Red Storm to four NCAA appearances and in February 2012, a monumental 57-56 upset of national powerhouse Connecticut, ending the Huskies’ 99-game home winning streak. Twice she was Big East Coach of the Year.
Barnes Arico left the comfort zone of St. John’s for Michigan. Her family — her husband had been a high school athletic director and they have three young children — uprooted from the East and moved to Ann Arbor for the challenge of establishing Michigan as national contender.
"What kind of drew me here and what made it so appealing is just that they hadn’t done it,” Barnes Arico said. “They haven’t been there yet. The resources were there, they build this brand new facility, the commitment was there, why couldn’t we do it at a place like Michigan? For me it’s like starting over again, but it’s a great place to raise a family, a great community, the Block M and the tradition and the pride at one of the greatest universities in the world, why would you think twice about it?”
In her first season, 2012-2013, a senior-laden team quickly embraced its new coach. The seniors accounted for 88 percent of the scoring, tied a program-best 22 wins and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
“When you meet coach Arico, she has an energy and intensity that preaches a winning attitude and no matter what it takes she’s going to get it done,” said former UM standout Jenny Ryan, a radio analyst for the Wolverines’ home games. “She wants to win, but she wants to do it the right way. There’s an aura around her that’s hard to describe. When you’re around her, you feel it.”
Ryan noted her former coach’s high-energy manner that is consistent day to day. She said Barnes Arico doesn’t get enough credit for adjusting her coaching style to the personnel she inherited at Michigan. While she coached an athletic up-and-down the court, high-scoring style at St. John’s, the Wolverines, were more about, as Ryan said, “if we get over 60 points, we’ll probably win.”
“That first practice she adapted to us,” Ryan said. “She made it about our team and our style. I don’t think people realize how hard that is to do.”
With Ryan and her fellow seniors and all that scoring gone after that first year, Barnes Arico essentially faced a rebuilding process. She is delighted that despite the hit the program took in terms of losing so many veterans, the program did not take a nosedive her second and third seasons.
“We’ve kept that level when we thought that cupboard potentially could have been bare,” Barnes Arico said. “We had kids step up. Cyesha Goree, a kid that had six total rebounds my first two years here, finished with (two 300-plus-rebound seasons) and became an All-conference player. That’s a credit to the kids, their belief and their work ethic. And my staff, I’ve been fortunate to keep the staff pretty much intact and the player development has been incredible, so that really helped We were able to get some recruits who said, I want to come and want to make a difference.”
Getting to that next level and maintaining is all about recruiting. Barnes Arico, while at St. John’s, had developed a relationship with Katelynn Flaherty, a sought-after guard in New Jersey, from the time she was in eighth grade.
Barnes Arico, whose message to recruits has been — come to Michigan and be part of building something special — was able to sign Flaherty, who could have gone to a number of more established programs. She now leads the team in scoring, averaging 20 points a game and is making nearly 40 percent of her 3-point attempts.
“She told me how much of a change I could bring to this program,” Flaherty said. “I could already see the change in the team. I just believed. My whole life I think I’ve been an underdog — people look at me and don’t think I’m a basketball player. I wanted to make a name for myself along with helping great coaches build a program.
"A lot of people go to the top programs like UConn and Tennessee, but I wanted to step in and play right away. I knew if I came here other people would follow. She’s beginning to attract that national name and national attention.”
Hallie Thome, Ohio’s 6-foot-5 Ms. Basketball followed Flaherty to Michigan. She is a sophomore center who was All-Big Ten Freshman team and was second nationally in field goal percentage last season.
Barnes Arico is finding recruits more open to Michigan. She thinks even the presence of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh helps her cause.
“I’m sure the coach ‘Harbaugh Effect’ hopefully has an effect, as well,” she said. “The brand definitely helps, the academics definitely help. I think maybe it’s more challenging initially than I thought because they don’t have the tradition here year in and year out as an NCAA Tournament team.
“But you’re selling the belief of, ‘Hey, you have an opportunity to graduate from one of the greatest universities in the world and a chance to come in and make an impact on this program right away. And you hang that first banner. You be the one, you be part of the group that hangs that first banner, and it’s yours forever.’ And just trying to build it that way and trying to bring the alumni back and get the excitement back in the program.”
Barnes Arico credits Flaherty for being one of the first to believe in her vision at Michigan.
“She wanted the academics,” Barnes Arico said. “She told me early on when she was here, there’s no place like Michigan in New Jersey. There’s no place right there that has what Michigan has. For her, she came here and Hallie Thome kind of followed. She was recruited by the top-five teams in the country, as well, and she said I want to come and make a difference and I know I could come and be an impact right away. Both of those kids have stepped on the floor and made a difference for us from their first day on campus.
“If you build it, they will come. It’s a combination of many things. When you look at the great programs, traditionally and the stability and the continuity you think of Hutch and her staff, but the Michigan brand definitely and the success of our program definitely helps that.”
Hutch is Michigan softball coach Carol Hutchins, who has won a national championship here and has her program in the upper echelon of the sport year after year. She has become an important mentor and benchmark for Barnes Arico, who grew up idolizing legendary Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt.
“Now that I’m here and get to work and watch somebody like (Hutchins), I’m just taking advantage of those opportunities to try to watch her in action and see how she speaks,” Barnes Arico said. “And when you listen to her, and this is one of the first things I’ve learned from — and she knows none of this — but one of the first things from listening to her and watching her, it’s never about her, it’s always about Michigan. It’s always about we are fortunate to work at a wonderful university like this and what Michigan can provide to our team and our players.
“She’s incredible. Maybe when you’re younger, like in your 30s or starting out in the business, you’re trying to figure it out. She was one of the first who hit me with, we have a greater responsibility. It’s not just about winning games. It’s not just about going to practice and teaching Xs and Os, but just the greater responsibility of teaching these women in our program to be strong, powerful women and they can impact the world and make a difference in the world. I kind of learned that through her a little bit. I love watching her. I love bringing my children to her games. Just the relationship she has with her players while being tough, but then still, they love her.”
Not only is Barnes Arico building a program, but she and her players are trying to build a fan base. Michigan currently is averaging 2,480 a game at home, where the Wolverines are 10-0 this season. Three days after Christmas, they drew nearly 4,000 for their game against Rutgers.
“It’s definitely improving,” she said. “I think there’s a buzz around the community of the program. We have to take responsibility of marketing our own program. Our kids are tremendous at being out in the community. We do a ton of community service. We do a lot of free camps and clinics to get our faces out there as much as possible and connect. On the women’s side a lot of it is relationships. That’s really important for us to do and I think our players do an excellent job of that.”
Former and current players say Barnes Arico holds them to the same high standards she holds herself and her personality, bright, upbeat and competitive, never changes day to day.
She said friends have told her she’s been successful because she has a strong feel and intuition regarding her teams. Barnes Arico wasn’t a name player in college, and she had different coaches who each taught her something different. She knows one thing — to win you have to get players to play for you and believe in your vision.
Barnes Arico never saw herself here, at Michigan, but not a day passes she doesn’t appreciate every minute of this opportunity.
“Maybe because I haven’t come the normal path,” Barnes Arico said. “I wasn’t a big-time Division I player. I didn’t work at a big-time Division I university. I started as a Division III player, was a high school coach and worked my way up. Old school. But having the appreciation of hard work and then really, really believing hard work will play off.
"If 20 years ago you told me I would be sitting here … never.”