To Build a Contender
by Adam Hermann
Now in her 12th year with the school, Denise Dillon has remade Drexel women's basketball in her image.
Denise Dillon crouched next to her bench, burning a hole in the back of sophomore forward Sarah Curran’s head as Curran picked up her dribble on the right wing and looked for a pass. The Drexel University women’s basketball team trailed James Madison University by 19 points late in the second half. The game was effectively decided, but the Dragons’ head coach Dillon hadn’t left her signature crouch just yet.
It’s something Dillon has done for as long as she can remember. The crouch is her go-to move. She says she doesn’t even realize she’s doing it sometimes; it’s instinctive. At media timeouts, or in practice, she’ll crouch with her players instead of taking one of the dozen-plus black folding chairs situated on the sideline for just such a purpose.
“The girls at practice or something, they’ll ask me, ‘Why don’t you use a stool?’”Dillon explains with a sheepish grin, sitting in her office 20 minutes after the game ends, that stubborn 19-point gap still intact. “I said, well, as long as I’m able to squat down or kneel, I’m going to continue. I don’t want a stool.”
Dillon likes to keep the player that’s going into the game next in her seat so that the assistant coaches can talk to the player. And she doesn’t want to obstruct her team’s view of the game by standing up on the sidelines, so she squats out of sight. Sometimes she blends in with the video board in front of the scorer’s table.
In person, the striking Dillon does anything but blend in. Today she’s wearing a heather-gray power suit and a pair of silver earrings. She’s tall and thin, her straight blonde hair framing her angular face. Her eyes latch onto yours in conversation, and when she’s especially fired up, like she is now in her office, she doesn’t let go of that stare. She is energetic, almost jittery, still caught up in the result of the game. Dillon can’t let her team’s inability to get a hand in the face of James Madison’s sharpshooters go.
“If they’re open, they’re going to make their shots,” she says incredulously to nobody in particular.
Dillon and I met in her office in the women’s basketball suite, a collection of rooms tucked at the end of a hallway one floor below the court. A pair of glass doors welcomes visitors to the suite, and behind the doors is a well-kept waiting area, complete with a handful of cushioned chairs and couches and a tan coffee table in the center of the seats. Atop the coffee table sits the championship trophy from the 2013 Women’s National Invitation Tournament. The snipped rows of netting from the three-point win over The University of Utah rests, slightly askew, on top of the bronze bust of a basketball. A collection of basketballs, trophies and plaques sits behind a glass wall to the left. One trophy is from March of 2008, when the women’s basketball team won its first Colonial Athletic Association championship. Another is a commemorative ball from the game a few weeks later, when they faced Kansas State University in the program’s first NCAA tournament appearance.
Dillon was the team’s head coach for all of those program highlights. She’s the winningest head coach in program history; she won her 200th game earlier this season, a 71-54 win over Miami University in Ohio, smack dab in the middle of her 12th year in charge.
Dillon came to Drexel in 2001 as an assistant coach in charge of recruiting and player development after five years as an assistant at her alma mater, Villanova University. When head coach Candace Crabtree stepped down before the 2003-04 season, Dillon slid in as the interim coach.
She was inheriting a program with one winning season since 1991. Drexel’s women’s basketball team didn’t hold any weight in the city-wide conversation. It couldn’t even find a foothold in the CAA, going 13-23 in its first two years in the conference.
None of that mattered to Dillon. She wasn’t concerned with Drexel’s past. What she saw was all predicated on the future. She thought so highly of the opportunity to lead the Dragons that in 2000, when Drexel head coach Kevin Murphy resigned following the 1999-2000 campaign, Dillon actually applied for the job. She didn’t get the job then, but she got her wish three years later.
The question was, why was this her wish? Why would someone coaching at her alma mater, alongside a coach deeply entrenched in the local basketball scene and at a wildly successful program, leave to take on the most difficult rebuilding project in the city? Drexel had never been known as a basketball school. There was no history. Lil Haas had led the Dragons to moderate success in the second half of the 1980s, but there was no precedent in the last decade that suggested Dillon would be able to elevate the program’s profile. So why did she want so badly to try?
“I just felt like this was a program that I thought I could do some things with,” Dillon said, using her hands demonstratively as she talked. “I was aware of all the other schools in the City 6, and just felt this had” — she joined the tips of her fingers to form a triangle — “a unique niche that we could sell.”
What niche? Historic ineptitude and proximity to 30th Street Station? No, Dillon saw the marketability of the city. She saw Drexel’s environment and told herself she could sell the vibrant, bustling city to prospective recruits.
“The city itself was so different than my environment and setting at Villanova,” Dillon explained. “The campus and the tradition of the program [at Villanova] was very strong, where I felt at Drexel there wasn’t a great tradition, and it was something that I wanted to start.”
She also saw a chance to recruit high school girls whom she thought were being overlooked. Philadelphia is a hotbed of high school basketball. There were always the girls slotted third on the stat sheet who could play just as well as the girls in first and second. Dillon wanted those girls. She could build a program around those girls: Pick the right ones and teach them to be the great ones.
Cardinal O’Hara High School sits 10 miles outside of University City, situated on the edge of the Veterans’ Memorial Highway.
This is where a man told Denise Dillon she wasn’t smart enough to attend Villanova.
Dillon began playing basketball when she was in second grade at St. Pius Elementary School, and soon she was playing sports year-round. Her parents encouraged her to try as many sports as possible, so she ran track and played baseball in the spring, swam competitively in the summer and dedicated her falls and winters to the hardwood. Dillon remains a big proponent of playing multiple sports. She isn’t so sure about the fine-tuning of young athletes these days, picking their one sport and playing it until it’s all they know.
She competed in track and field and played basketball through her sophomore year at O’Hara, competing in the high jump and dominating the paint for the Lions. In her sophomore year on the track team she won the high jump at the Catholic League indoor track championship, clearing 5 feet, 10 inches the first time she ever attempted it. She herself stood that height.
When that sophomore year rolled around, though, she had developed a greater reputation as a basketball player who was well on her way to joining the elusive career 1,000-point club. If she wanted to keep playing basketball at the next level, she had to make a decision.
“People started talking about scholarships,” Dillon said.
So she dedicated herself to basketball, the sport she felt most comfortable in. She caught the eye of Villanova University head coach Harry Perretta, who would be entering his 15th year as the Wildcats’ head coach when Dillon began her freshman year of college. He recruited her hard, and Dillon took a liking to the program 14 minutes north of O’Hara. As her senior season rolled around, she had whittled her options down to three schools — Pennsylvania State University, Rutgers University and Villanova — and she was leaning towards Perretta and the Wildcats.
One day after class, she was talking to a teacher — a man she refuses to name, even 24 years later — about her college prospects. She told him that she liked what she had seen from Rutgers and Penn State, but she thought Villanova was the one for her.
“And he, plain as day, said ‘I don’t think you’re smart enough to go to Villanova,’” Dillon recalled. “I was so taken aback, and I was so hurt, and I was thinking, ‘Wow, here’s an adult that I look up to, and he’s going to tell me this?’”
Dillon admitted that sports came easier to her than academics; she had to work double time in school to make up for it. But she hated the idea of being identified as just an athlete. She loathes the title.
“Sometimes you get identified as an athlete,” Dillon explained, “and that’s unfortunate.”
It’s something she says she tries to avoid as a coach — putting a title on a player, labeling her as just an athlete. It’s something she learned from Perretta during her time at Villanova. He would tell his players the same thing.
“[Perretta would say] there’s more to it than a jump shot,” Dillon said. “There’s more to it than getting a stop. There’s more to it than the opponent you’re playing. And I always thought he did a great job of just educating us as people and preparing us for what was next, and what was your plan.
“When things aren’t going well for us, if we’re not winning, I always take a step back just to remind myself of that. ‘Okay, but how are our girls as human beings? Are they doing all-right in school? Are they going to be OK when this all ends?’ That’s something I reflect on a lot.”
In the end, her teacher was dead wrong. Dillon played and studied at Villanova for four years. She finished her playing career fifth on Villanova’s all-time scoring list, sixth on the rebounding list and 16th in assists. She was a first-team All-Big East selection as a junior and a second-team selection as a sophomore and senior. She also graduated with a degree in education.
When she walked across the stage at her own graduation, that teacher was miles from her conscious. She was so focused on her own triumph that she completely forgot she had told her sister what the teacher had said to her four years earlier.
Her sister hadn’t.
“When I graduated,” Dillon said, “my older sister, Maureen, said, ‘We have to go back. Give me your degree. I want to show this guy.’” Dillon let out a huge laugh. “She probably held on to it a little bit more than I did.”
But now that she has a larger platform, Dillon embraces what her teacher said all those years ago. She enjoys what she did in proving him wrong, and she wants other girls and athletes to learn from her experience.
“When I go to speak at a banquet for young student athletes, or at a camp, or at a clinic,” Dillon said, “I share that story. I tell them that there are going to be people who are negative in your life. But if you open your eyes, you’re going to find more positive people who are supporting you and encouraging you to aspire to be what you want to be.
“If you take the negatives, you can turn them into positives. In my case I think I did — but it was my job to prove him wrong. If I listened to him, I could’ve gone to Villanova, and when I didn’t do well in a class I could’ve thought, ‘He was correct’— oh woe is me. [I] ended up in another direction, but I always held onto that.
“I had some great accomplishments at Villanova, as an athlete and just as a person. But my greatest was getting my degree.”
When Perretta recruited her to Villanova from O’Hara, Dillon said, he saw something in her that even she didn’t recognize.
“We had a great relationship,” Dillon recalled, looking down at her desk for a brief second. From the way she talks about him, it’s clear Perretta had a profound effect on her. “We really did. From the beginning, he saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. It just became a trust factor. Whatever he’s telling me to do, it’s because he thinks I’m capable of it, so I’m going to try and do it. I think that makes for a great experience. In a sense, you’re putting your trust in someone else and just playing off your ability, and hoping that allows you to achieve whatever expectations you have of yourself.”
That was the kind of trust Perretta had earned from his players after 14 years of success. That was something that came with a reputation. When Dillon took over as the team’s head coach in the fall of 2003, she was a former Villanova standout and assistant coach with no head coaching experience, tasked with recruiting talent in a highly competitive college basketball scene. She knew she couldn’t immediately compete with Perretta at Villanova or Dawn Staley at Temple University. They were the big dogs. She would have to start smaller if she wanted to build towards that reputation.
“It was hard to recruit locally, because people just kept saying, Drexel hasn’t won,” Dillon said. “And it wasn’t even the actual student-athletes that we were recruiting. It was more their parents’ awareness of what Drexel had been as a program. We thought, OK, let’s just be smart about who we’re recruiting. It might not be the best player on the local team; it might be the kid, the diamond in the rough.”
Dillon’s first big get was Catherine Scanlon, who played for the Dragons from 2002 to 2006. Dillon actually recruited Scanlon from her alma mater at Cardinal O’Hara before she took over as head coach, when she was still an assistant coach for the Dragons.
Scanlon fit Dillon’s recruiting plan perfectly. That year, the O’Hara girls team was a nationally-ranked squad. Scanlon was a solid player, but she wasn’t one of the stars. She wasn’t being recruited locally. Dillon thought she could be something special at Drexel.
In 2005, Scanlon was voted the Colonial Athletic Association preseason Player of the Year. She finished her career ranked 10th on the Drexel career scoring list with 1,450 points.
Dillon’s next project was even more monumental.
In her third year as the Dragons’ head coach, en route to a 15-14 season, her second straight winning season, Dillon was watching a high schooler play in West Virginia. The young player’s coach constantly had her back to the basket because of her size, and she was extremely successful in close. But Dillon didn’t think she was being used correctly. She thought the girl was being pigeonholed.
“They always had her back to the basket in high school,” Dillon remembered, “but her ability to move and her strength and athleticism, I just thought, ‘Wow, this kid’s perfect in our system. She can do a little bit of everything, inside and out.’”
After one game, Dillon went up to Gabriela Marginean and told her she wanted to see her shoot three-pointers. The wide-eyed high school senior couldn’t believe what she had heard. Dillon reassured her that it wasn’t going to be an overnight thing; it would take time.
In her senior year at Drexel, Marginean attempted 98 three-pointers. She knocked down 40 percent of them. Marginean finished her career as the program’s all-time leader in scoring and became the first Dragon drafted into the WNBA. She still has 681 more points than any other player in program history.
And Dillon did something similar with Hollie Mershon, when Mershon replaced an injured Marisa Crane at point guard in 2010. Mershon had never played point guard before. She had been a stationary three-point shooter. But Dillon thought Mershon could use her quickness to her advantage.
In 2013, Mershon led the Dragons to the WNIT Championship in the final game of her career. With 20 seconds to play, Mershon drove into a double-team, pump-faked both and hit what would prove to be the game-winning layup. She had no semblance of those ball-handling skills before her sophomore year.
This is what Dillon has done since she arrived at Drexel. She has taught players to shed titles. She’s added dimensions previously unseen. And she’s done the same thing for the program itself. Now in her 12th year, this season will be her ninth with a winning record.
In her first year as an assistant at Villanova, a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer asked Perretta what he thought of the job Dillon was doing as a coach.
Perretta didn’t hesitate.
“Coaching is the perfect job for her,” he said.
From afar, her job might seem complete. Dillon has reversed the fortunes of a program that, when she arrived, had been chewed up by the 1990s and spat out along the railroad tracks that run perpendicular to campus. She gave the Dragons their first conference title. She brought a national tournament to campus, and then won it. She sent a player to the WNBA, set program records and turned the team into a respected entity in the city landscape.
But this has been just the first leg of Dillon’s much grander plan. She doesn’t think the program has reached its potential. Not even close. She said she puts together tough out-of-conference schedules with the intent of one day winning those games and showing power conferences that Drexel is a program to be reckoned with, just like James Madison has done.
And she wants another conference championship. Oh, she wants another one so bad. Her nose wrinkles when she thinks about it and her stare locks on again.
“I’m bothered that we don’t have another CAA championship,” she said, still sitting in her office after the 19-point loss to James Madison. The Dukes will likely be the team to come out of the conference tournament in March and represent the CAA in the NCAA tournament. After her disappointing debut against Kansas State in 2008, Dillon wants that shot again. She wants to do more, too. Two years ago, when the Dragons won the WNIT, Dillon set a goal.
“Go to the Sweet 16,” Dillon said, steel-faced.
She’s not messing around. She thinks she can get the Dragons there.
“Now you’re working. You’re challenging yourself again. Every team’s goal is to win their conference championship. Then it’s finding what separates us from the others. The first step would be to win that first NCAA game. So we win another championship, and then the goal is the Sweet 16.”
The goal seems lofty to some. It might seem clinically insane to others. This isn’t the University of Connecticut. It’s not Villanova. This is Drexel. Drexel doesn’t go to the Sweet 16.
When I asked Dillon how she sets goals like going to the Sweet 16 while acknowledging the limitations of being Drexel University, she drew a blank stare. She thought about my question for a second, chewing it. And then a menacing grin started to spread, and Dillon almost looked offended.
“If you look for excuses not to do something, you’re clearly not going to do it,” Dillon said. The fire was back, just like it was when she first came off the court. “If you look for reasons why you’re going to do it? Well, then you’re going to be working towards that goal.
“[The players] are not aware of what obstacles Drexel should have . I don’t know what they are. Maybe we’re mid-major. I’m not going to deny that. I know James Madison has a problem when they’re called mid-major, but why? If everything’s based off football — we don’t have football, so obviously we’re mid-major. Our conference is a mid-major conference.”
She paused and gathered her thoughts, realizing her answer had become something much more than that.
“I’m not sure why that would become an issue. It’s just another title, right?”
And Dillon’s never been one for titles.
In the middle of our conversation, the topic shifted to her time at Villanova. Not the basketball side, but the academic side. She majored in education, and she thought for some time that she was going to be a teacher — an elementary teacher, from kindergarten to fourth grade, was her goal. She said she’s always felt a connection to teaching, and she even did her field experience in a classroom during school. But Perretta hired her to work at Villanova before she looked into working as a teacher in a serious capacity.
It was by choice as much as it was by chance. She likes teaching, but she said she couldn’t handle the docile environment of a classroom.
“When I was in the classroom,” she explained, “I felt a little …claustrophobic’s probably a strong word, but I’m a mover.”
She thought about how recess would be her only time to get up and move around with her students. That wasn’t going to be enough. Even now, she said, she spends as little time as possible in her office. She’s all over the athletics facility, and she’s all over practices, and she’s getting in extra jump shots with her players.
But she doesn’t play full-court with her coaches anymore; not after a pickup game a few years back on the day after Christmas, when it took 12 stitches to sew her up.
Dillon hopped into a game at the end, with her team leading by one. An assistant coach, Melissa Dunn, put up a layup that caromed wide, and Dillon went for the rebound. So did Delise Johnson, a 6-foot-1 forward from Queens, New York. Johnson grabbed the rebound and subsequently threw an elbow right into her head coach’s face.
Blood pooled on the hardwood as Dillon checked to see if her nose was broken for the seventh time. It wasn’t.
She looked up at the assembled players and assistants and asked, “Did Delise make the putback?”
Article Design by Noel Forté
Article Layout by Jordan Bodisch
Reported and Authored by Adam Hermann
Special Thanks to: Denise Dillon & Stacy McCullough for agreeing to be interviewed for this piece.