Lifelong Dream Leads Ryan McCarthy to Propel Alaska Anchorage Women
This article was originally published May 12, 2020.
Since 2012, women’s basketball at the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) have made the Division II national championship game, featured in the Sweet 16 thrice and won the Great Northwest Athletic Conference (GNAC) seven times, and those postseason numbers could be higher if not for a cancelled 2020 tournament.
To put it further into perspective: in the last six seasons, UAA has lost just 18 games. Its overall record during that period is 185-18.
This is all while being located thousands of miles from almost all of its competition in what the unfamiliar consider to be unlivable tundra. And yet, the program has more than endured.
McCarthy took over the head coaching position in 2012, and it was something he had dreamed about since he was a child.
The coach grew up in Anchorage and regular attended men’s and women’s basketball games at the nearby university with his dad. In fact, McCarthy’s roots to UAA are so deep, he was born at Providence Alaska Medical Center, which is across the street from where the Seawolves play.
“When I first got introduced to the sport of basketball, my dad would take me to UAA games, and I would watch the Great Alaska Shootout,” he said. “We were a big basketball family, so this was the place where I fell in love with the game, a place I wanted to go to.”
McCarthy played the sport, and although he spent his high school years in Oregon, he wanted to move back north to put on a UAA jersey for college. Only one problem: the Seawolves didn’t recruit him.
Determined to still play college basketball, Ryan McCarthy committed to Northwest Nazarene in Nampa, Idaho, which plays in the same conference as UAA. That wasn’t a mistake.
“UAA didn’t recruit me,” McCarthy explained, “so I chose a school that was in their league.”
While in college, McCarthy relished the opportunity to play against UAA, especially when the game was in Anchorage. His fandom waned as his competitive side took over, but the importance that the school and basketball programs held for him didn’t disappear.
“I always liked going and playing at UAA more than I liked them,” he said. “I was a competitor, so I didn’t really like anybody else. But that was the place I always wanted to have a good game. Whenever we played UAA, I wanted to play well. I wanted our team to beat them especially because I wasn’t recruited by them, and that was something I really wanted.
“It was always a goal of mine to play on that floor. When I had the opportunity, it was a bucket list thing for me. I always felt really fortunate that I had the opportunity to play at UAA and be able to compete against that team.”
After his freshman in college, Ryan McCarthy changed his major from business to education, acknowledging the drive within him to coach after playing. Getting to do it at UAA was the dream, and it never left him, even when he was playing professionally for Tus Bramsche in Bramsche, Germany, for the 2006-07 season, when he led the league in threes and free-throw percentage.
“I got a cell phone when I moved over to Germany, and it was when you could first get a song for your ringtone. My song that I chose was the UAA fight song,” McCarthy recounted. “It was kind of a pie-in-the-sky goal to be able to coach there one day and be able to move back to Anchorage. I never truly thought it would happen.”
McCarthy got his coaching start at his alma mater, spending 2007-12 on the women’s staff at Northwest Nazarene as an assistant, interim head coach and associate head coach during those years. Then in 2012, the UAA job opened up, and McCarthy tried to realize his dream.
He applied, as he did for a handful of other head coaching positions at different programs. He was told no by all of them, including UAA.
“I had been told no on probably six or seven other jobs when I started applying for head jobs,” he said. “I didn’t have a crazy resume. Nothing super special happened during the time I was (coaching at Northwest Nazarene). We didn’t make any crazy deep playoff run or anything. When I wasn’t chosen, it didn’t devastate me or anything.”
That made it twice that Alaska Anchorage rejected McCarthy, and twice that he brushed it off and kept on keeping on anyway. Then, in August 2012, he received an unexpected call from UAA.
“I thought maybe they were calling me to be an assistant coach there or something,” he said.
But they weren’t. The new hire had fallen through, and UAA needed someone to fill the position. The previous regime had left chaos in its wake, and the school was scraping for whatever it could get.
“They mentioned to me the head job, and they were going through NCAA major infractions for impermissible benefits that the program under the coach before had committed,” McCarthy said. “So, it wasn’t that good of a job at that point, and so I thought that was why I would have a chance. They were losing scholarship money, and they were getting put on probation by the NCAA. They had a mass exodus of players, so I don’t think it was this super attractive job to a lot of coaches. It was to me because of the school and my history with Alaska.”
After two rejections, finally an acceptance from UAA came, and Ryan McCarthy was on his way back to the place that meant so much to him growing up.
But that was just the start of the battle.
When McCarthy first arrived on campus, his program had seven players. His first recruiting class was three intramural players. But by the end of the 2012-13 season, his program had surpassed preseason expectations, finishing tied for third in the GNAC with a 17-10 (11-7) record.
The program hasn’t looked back since.
While UAA might not have hired its first choice, it certainly made the right choice with McCarthy. Under his guide, the program has reinvented itself and climbed back to where its supporters believe it should be.
The Xs and Os have of course been important to this. Ryan McCarthy brings his unique brand of basketball, self-coined “Mayhem,” featuring an up-tempo and aggressive style. His program led Division II in steals per game in each season from 2013-14 to 2016-17 and is regularly in the top five for scoring margin, scoring offense, scoring defense, assists, turnovers forced and turnover margin.
But none of that would be possible without successful recruiting, and that can be a challenge when you’re trying to bring athletes thousands of miles from home to a place they probably don’t know much about.
“There’s a lot of stigma about Alaska, and people don’t really know the facts,” he said. “We’ve had questions about penguins. Penguins don’t even live in North America.”
When McCarthy speaks with out-of-state recruits, he said he gives it to them straight.
“You can be walking around downtown Anchorage and see a moose,” McCarthy explained. “There’s a lot of truth to a lot of that, and yeah, it’s going to get cold. It’ll get a little bit darker than normal, and it’s tough. It’s tough to live here. But if you’re going to be a champion, you have to be a tough player, and if you’re going to play for me, I’m going to demand the most out of you. You’re going to need to be tough. At the same time, we’ve got one of the best arenas in the entire country. We have unbelievable support here, because we’re the only show in town.”
Being in Alaska helps and hurts his program in recruiting, Ryan McCarthy said.
“I think our biggest hurdle is I have to say the word Alaska. It’s turned a lot of players,” he said. “We tell them the history of our program and how successful we’ve been. At the end of the day, sometimes that doesn’t matter to a player. So, I think it helps us and it hinders us. It helps weed the people out for whom basketball isn’t as important as they say it is, and that hurts us, because we do lose out on some talented players. But it also helps us, because if you’re willing to come to Alaska, you’re willing to make the sacrifices we’re going to ask you to make.”
The 2019-20 roster included a healthy mix of home states, with six players hailing from Alaska, three from California, and one each from Colorado, Ohio, Hawaii, Minnesota, Texas and Louisiana, illustrating the scattered nature of the program’s recruiting despite its location.
“We try to get the best players in our backyard in Alaska,” McCarthy said. “Then in terms of where else we go, it’s been, for lack of better terms, a little bit random. It’s been through connections I have in junior colleges or AAU coaches. I’ve got a pretty tight network of guys I really trust, especially a couple guys in California. It won’t always be their players. It might be somebody they know of or some sort of connection into them, and then going out and grinding it.
“Looking at evaluation sites or trying to find as many games that we can on Synergy,” he continued. “We stat watch a little bit sometimes. We always try to find a point guard who can defend. To me, that’s the most important part for us is to have a point guard who can get after it defensively, so we’ll take a look at the people with the highest steals in JUCO and get a feel for that. I think that’s what’s led to a little more of a diverse roster, because it’s not always going to be from the same place. I’d sat right now, our hotbeds are obviously Alaska, the Bay Area in Northern California, and I think we’ve done pretty well out of Hawaii.”
When Ryan McCarthy is recruiting against mid-major or small-major Division I schools for players, he highlights the atmosphere and intensity that playing at UAA brings.
“I usually tell recruits to take the last game on their schedule and circle it in red, because that’ll be the last game they’ll play,” he said. “You’re going to be able to compete for a national championship at Alaska Anchorage. You’re going to be able to play in a lot more games that matter.
“The other thing is, when you’re a little girl, and you’re dreaming about your ideal situation, when you’re scoring the winning basket, and you’re coming out of the tunnel for the starting lineup,” he added, alluding to the pre-game environment at UAA games. “We have a restaurant in our gym, and people are eating in the restaurant and look down onto the floor. They’re drinking beer and having a good time. Our community really supports. It’s not just the student section. There are a lot of paying customers paying money to watch you play. The news outlets will be there. They’ll pull you aside as you go through the tunnel, and you’ll be on TV. People will actually care.
“I’ll show them game film of their DI team that maybe is recruiting them,” McCarthy continued. “It says there’s 1,000 people in the gym, but you watch the game, and there’s like five. It looks like a funeral service or something. For UAA, there have been times where we’ve hit big buckets at home or something like that, and it’s gotten so loud. I remember we hosted the regional a couple times. We got quite a few fans, couple thousand, 2,500 or something like that, and that place can get rocking when it gets to that level. It’s what they dreamed of in terms of the environment on game day that UAA can provide.”
It’s a compelling argument that some buy, and those who do have been part of many wins and wild atmospheres at Alaska Airlines Arena. Playing at UAA has given them the opportunity to leave a meaningful legacy behind, Ryan McCarthy said, and one that women at many other programs aren’t afforded.
“Many nights, we’ll outdraw the men in attendance,” he said. “It’s a special place that way. I think for young women who play basketball, the way we’re supported, it’s really different than a lot of places in the country.”