By Joseph Staszewski
Kim Barnes Arico is surrounded by Michigan blue and yellow every day she goes to work at Ann Arbor, but still can’t believe what she is seeing.
The former St. John’s University women’s basketball coach and Long Island native remembers she is a long way from home and the New Jersey high school gyms where her career began.
“She walks in every day and says, ‘Can you believe we are at Michigan right now? ‘We are at Michigan. It’s Michigan,’” said Wolverines director of basketball operations Amy Mulligan, who was Barnes Arico’s sports information director at St. John’s.
For Barnes Arico, those moments, which may continue, are also times of reflection to remember how she got there. She is a rare breed of coach.
The 43-year-old was never an assistant and worked her way up from high school to Division III to Division II and eventually Division I at St. John’s. When she took over the Red Storm in 2002, they were considered one of the worst programs in the country before she turned them around.
“I’ve been down at the bottom,” Barnes Arico said.
St. John’s has now been to four straight NCAA tournaments and its first Sweet 16 came in Barnes Arico’s final year (2011-12). The journey helped develop a blue-collar mentality she has never lost.
“If I have to shovel the driveway, I’ll shovel the driveway,” Barnes Arico said. “If I have to take out the trash, I’ll take out the trash, because that’s who I am.”
She took those lessons with her to Michigan. She didn’t change what worked despite a bigger stage and better resources. Barnes Arico remains down to earth and approachable and kept the underdog mentality that worked at St. John’s.
“She’s still the same person,” said assistant Coach Joy McCorvey, who played for Barnes Arico on the Red Storm.
She is preaching that while the men’s basketball and football programs at Michigan are nationally known and have won championships, women’s basketball is not at that level yet. It hit home with her players.
“Everyone was able to jump right in and buy into what she was saying,” Wolverines junior guard Nicole Elmblad said. “She was really leading by example with everything she talked about.”
Barnes Arico draws similarities between Michigan and St. John’s, a program she still keeps up with. The Wolverines are coming off a program record 22 wins and a second-round loss in the NCAA tournament, similar to what the Red Storm did with a senior group in 2006.
Michigan is currently 5-3 after splitting two games at the Barclays Center last weekend. It also has a nationally ranked recruiting class coming in next season. Barnes Arico believes that group can transform Michigan like the class featuring Nadirah McKenith and Shenneika Smith did at St. John’s.
Barnes Arico hasn’t stopped connecting with the New York City area’s top talent. Her incoming players include Cardinal Spellman senior wing Maria Backman this year and next season Cambria Heights native Lauren “Boogie” Brozoski, the Long Island Lutheran point guard.
“The fact that she still comes home and has that New York culture says a lot,” Backman said.
In order for Barnes Arico to keep doing that, she needs to remain true to herself and the ideals that landed her at Michigan.
“I think that is the most important thing for me — to remember where I came from and how I got to where I am,” she said.
It’s that perspective that will allow her to reach even greater heights.