Bulldogs Beat

‘I didn’t think she would come’: How Chelsea Newton became vital coaching asset for Lady Bulldogs

Georgia assistant coach Chelsea Newton during a women’s basketball game between the University of Georgia and Charleston Southern University in Stegeman Coliseum in Athens, Ga., on Sunday Dec. 2, 2018. (Photo by Kristin M. Bradshaw)
Georgia assistant coach Chelsea Newton during a women’s basketball game between the University of Georgia and Charleston Southern University in Stegeman Coliseum in Athens, Ga., on Sunday Dec. 2, 2018. (Photo by Kristin M. Bradshaw) Special to the Telegraph

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A number of picture frames and jerseys hang across Georgia assistant coach Chelsea Newton’s office. There was no opportunity to pick the decorations or decide where they would go. Everything was pre-designed on her first day in 2015.

The names of Ashley Houts, Teresa Edwards, Katrina McClain are emblazoned on red, black and white alternating jerseys and perched above the workspace give Newton a reminder of basketball’s legacy, a sport she has been connected with for a lifetime.

“You look up there and see all of those great names,” Newton said. “It shows you how special of a place this is at Georgia. You see all of the memories that have taken place.”

Newton has always been connected with those other names, in uniform, and didn’t envision that changing. She saw herself moving onto another venture after shedding the jersey. Instead, she now sits behind a red-and-black nameplate and a cluttered desk full of paperwork. Welcome to the coaching world.

“I had no desire to go into this,” Newton said. “(Rutgers’ head coach C. Vivian) Stringer is the whole reason why I’m here.”

Newton’s devotion to basketball started when she was five years old on an outdoor court in her hometown of Monroe, Louisiana. She would always play pickup games or have a ball in her hands, but little did she know it would take her to coaching.

Years later, Newton’s name is well-traveled across the landscape of women’s basketball. She has collected the accolades as a four-year contributor at Rutgers under Stringer, a second-round WNBA draftee by the Sacramento Monarchs (in which she flashes a championship ring won in her rookie season, no less) and a four-year pro career which featured two All-WNBA honors.

“I was always the guard on the floor telling people where to go,” Newton said. “I always thought it was what I was supposed to do … be the extension on the floor. I never thought of it turning into any of this.”

Then, after a season with the Chicago Sky, Newton got her first taste of the field as the Rutgers’ Director of Player Development in 2006.

She started to see the idea of coaching as more of a reality, then a spot came open at Rutgers when Newton needed most to start a new chapter. She had signed with the Seattle Storm, and a few days into training camp, injuries started to flare up. Newton’s body couldn’t do it any longer and it was time to call it quits on a playing career.

After returning to Louisiana for a couple weeks to ponder, Newton had an interview and was offered the position. A far stretch from something she would have imagined, the start of Newton’s ascension and trek to Athens began in the hustle-and-bustle of New York City.

“I said ‘Well, let’s do this thing. We’ll see how it goes,’” Newton said.

An unexpected connection

Joni Taylor’s dream to become a head coach started in her second term of assistantship at Louisiana Tech in 2005. She was in the beginning stages of her career at 26 years old and knew she wasn’t ready to take on the duties. But she began to prepare.

Ten years prior to making her first coaching hire, Taylor purchased a small notebook and carried it in her purse.

“I had a growing list of coaching candidates for when I got a job — both male and female coaches,” Taylor said. “I had no idea where I would coach, whether it would be Division I, Autonomy 5, mid-major or any other level. But I would look at what these coaches were doing. As time went on, names were added to the list and some were taken off.”

Newton was near the top of that list. She is known for a recruiting prowess and was landing McDonald’s All-Americans across the Northeast region. When Taylor was recruiting in different areas, she would see Newton doing the same.

Georgia’s long-tenured head coach Andy Landers retired in 2015 after 36 seasons at the helm, and Taylor got her shot with the Lady Bulldogs. She began pursuit of Newton, but a sense of newness made it seem unlikely she would land the five-year assistant with the Scarlet Knights.

“We only met twice,” Newton said.

Twice in a lifetime, and it was only a brief greeting, at that.

The first in-depth chat between Newton and Taylor came unexpectedly in Tampa, Florida. The two were in Amalie Arena watching the Women’s Final Four and Taylor wanted to chat. It lasted nearly an hour and had nothing to do with the game of basketball, yet Taylor had a clear intention.

“She thought it was just a conversation, but I was testing her,” Taylor said. “I was listening closely to see if she would be the right fit for this program. It was about seeing if I wanted her to be my assistant.”

As history shows four Final Fours later, Taylor was in approval of Newton’s qualities, but it was now a battle to pry her away from the place the Rutgers’ assistant had called home since 2001.

Newton wasn’t actively searching for a job, by any means, and wasn’t adamant on moving from New Jersey. She became established and was also fearful of how willing Stringer would be for one of her assistants to leave.

“I didn’t think she would come,” said Taylor, who started to crack a grin in the middle of the question. “She was doing great things at Rutgers, but people forget that she grew up in the south because she played and coached up north for so long.”

And Taylor’s hope, luring Newton to a city only 570 miles away from home and her father, Waymond Newton, was what won the battle for Georgia.

Lifeblood of the program

Georgia freshman guard Donnetta Johnson was a sixth-grader in Baldwin, New York, when she first met Newton, who was beginning to recruit the up-and-coming guard for Rutgers. As recruiting rules stated, Newton couldn’t start direct contact with Johnson at such a young age, but messages were relayed through the coaches and a relationship began.

Newton’s favorite recruiting moment was in the works.

“I stayed on her,” she said. “I knew what she could do on the basketball court, so I wanted to build that relationship with her that goes beyond the game.”

When Newton came to Georgia, however, there was convincing to be done. The Lady Bulldogs’ staff was on-site at the Run 4 the Roses basketball showcase tournament in Louisville, Kentucky, and Johnson was a participant.

It only took Taylor one glimpse. She was convinced.

“There was no doubt I wanted to go after her, absolutely,” Taylor said. “I trusted Chelsea.”

Johnson was a highly-regarded prospect out of the northeast and was named to an ELITE 60 team by Prospects Nation. She had transferred to Baldwin from Holderness School and was ready to be part of a future state championship team. Then things went awry when Johnson suffered an ACL tear.

Some schools previously in pursuit of Johnson became frightful of the injury that would require extensive recovery. Not Newton, though.

“Georgia kept texting and talking every day,” Johnson said. “That’s what won me over and all I had to do was visit campus before saying yes.”

Her recovery from the ACL injury was complete and she was ready to decide. After making the trip to Athens to visit the team and see the facilities, Johnson said choosing Georgia over Miami (Fla.) -- the other program in her top two -- was the sweetest moment of her relationship with Newton.

Johnson called Newton over FaceTime and asked for the entire staff to get in front of the camera. Once the words “I’m coming to Georgia” were uttered, the Lady Bulldogs’ staff was elated. The seven year-long effort paid off, and the close player-coach bond would continue on for another four.

“She’s my coach, my mother and my big sister all in one,” Johnson said.

It was moments like these that gave Newton the team’s title of recruiting coordinator and an immense amount of trust from Taylor, her boss of three-plus seasons. Newton’s purpose in every recruiting excursion mimics that of Johnson: Focus on a few athletes and build deep relationships.

The lists aren’t lengthy and there aren’t too many contingency plans. Instead it’s a sense of trust that a prospect will buy into the program’s philosophy.

Taylor now preaches the “fit” for a player to come to Georgia and it begins with character and morale, rather than performance on the basketball court. Her honed-in approach was modeled after Newton and Taylor stands in amazement each time the staff enters a prospect’s home.

“She knows everything about them before,” Taylor said. “She knows the brothers and sisters, and even knows the dog’s name. It’s incredible how much work she puts in researching and getting to know them before discussing basketball.”

In the most recent signing class, Georgia signed two five-star prospects — Javyn Nicholson and Chloe Chapman — and three-star Jordan Isaacs. It’s a specific, yet required focus that gives Georgia the path for success with signing prospects.

“We can do something special here and it starts with recruiting, the lifeblood of the program,” Newton said.

Qualities of a head coach

Another recruiting win for Chelsea Newton took place in the midst of a simple practice drill at the Stegeman Coliseum Training Facility. Jenna Staiti, a transfer from Maryland and a former five-star prospect, was on an unofficial visit to campus.

She and her mom, Sandi Staiti were spectators when they noticed Newton working with Mackenzie Engram and Caliya Robinson. They noticed the meticulous approach to footwork.

“If it wasn’t right, she could actually demonstrate how to do it,” Sandi Staiti said. “She would watch, then teach. It was huge for us and she was very constructive in her approach.”

Her on-court coaching was yet another element that gave Joni Taylor a sense of trust when Newton was first hired. She isn’t hurrying to see results, but instead is patient in development and concerned with progressions across every player on the roster.

Newton’s approach has brought success to Georgia’s program because she and Taylor are similar. Georgia opens SEC play against LSU Thursday, and needs a strong run in conference play to return to the NCAA tournament. The Lady Bulldogs hosted as a No. 4 seed last season.

Their drive, goals and persistence are streamlined into the common goal, which is “to win National Championships,” according to Taylor. But for each day Newton works, Taylor sees the possibility to reach another feat that the Georgia assistant never imagined.

“Absolutely, she will be a head coach one day,” Taylor said. “She just doesn’t realize it yet.”