The Roles of Teamwork and Mentors in Life & Sports with Olympic Silver Medalist Juliene Brazinski Simpson
In this episode of On Record PR, guest host Jennifer Simpson Carr goes on record with Juliene Brazinski Simpson, director of athletics at the College of Saint Elizabeth and Olympic silver medalist and co-captain of the 1976 U.S. Women’s Basketball Team.
More About Juliene
Born and raised in Roselle Park, New Jersey, Juliene played college basketball at John F. Kennedy University in Nebraska where she was a four-time All-American. After graduating, she became a member of 11 different U.S. women’s national basketball teams representing the U.S. in international competition. Some highlights, a silver medal in the 1973 World University Games, a gold medal in the 1975 Pan Am Games and a silver medal in the 1976 Olympic games in Montreal where she was also a co-captain along with Pat Summit.
Following her playing career, she got her first head coaching position at Amarillo Junior College. After one season she moved on to become the University of Cincinnati women’s basketball coach. A year later, Juliene was named the head women’s basketball coach at Arizona State University. During her eight seasons at Arizona State University, she became the second-most-winning coach in program history with over 300 wins. Two of her teams were ranked in the top 20, which included a birth in the Sweet 16 and a runner-up finish in the Women’s National Invitational Tournament.
Juliene was named Western Collegiate Athletic Association Coach of the Year, Regional Coach of the Year, and also had the highest university sports team, GPA six out of her eight seasons. Following her time at Arizona State, Juliene went on to coach six seasons of Bucknell University, which included a Patriot League Championship in 1996. In 1997 Juliene moved on to coach four seasons at Marshall University, followed by eight more seasons at East Stroudsburg University. In 2000, Juliene was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. In 2001, she was the recipient of the Carol Ekman Award given out by the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association, and in 2009 Simpson became the director of athletics at the College of Saint Elizabeth. In 2017, she was inducted into the National Polish American Sports Hall of Fame.
In full disclosure, Juliene is also someone that I have the honor of calling my mom.
Juliene: Thank you. I’m happy to be here and excited to be able to share some of my memories and thoughts and possibly hints of some things that my role models and mentors have helped with in regards to leadership.
Jennifer: I appreciate that and I’m very excited to have you as my very first guest as a guest host of On Record PR. It was interesting as I was prepping for this conversation, I realized that I had very vivid memories of specific stories that you told as we were growing up about your experience playing basketball but never really had the chance to talk to you start to finish about your path and your journey getting to where you were. What I mean is, for women who came after you there was always an opportunity to play sports. There were girls’ basketball teams, girls’ athletic teams and other female-oriented extracurricular activities. But, going back to when you were a child, that wasn’t necessarily the case.
I’m interested to hear about your childhood and getting started as a woman athlete at a time where women’s athletics weren’t popular and there weren’t a lot of opportunities for young women.
Juliene: Well, certainly I can try to take you back to memory lane. I’m the youngest of three children. My sister became a nun, my brother very athletic. I hung with the boys, went down to the block and played in the playground. One of the stories that I always like to tell is my dad was a Little League Baseball coach for my brother’s team and he was probably 12 or 13, and I was a couple of years younger. I would go with them to practice. The only way that I would be able to get out on the field is if I put my pigtails underneath my baseball cap because girls were not allowed to even be on the field at that time. My father always told the story to people, he was so proud because when they would pick sides, he would pick two boys, one for captain from each team. When he would say, ‘pick your first person’ many times they wanted to pick me after my brother because he was the best. Many times I wouldn’t, of course, I had to be the last. There were many times also when I was growing up, I remember this up at least until eighth grade, is when I did go and play with the guys, like touch football, if the groundskeeper knew I was there, again either with pigtails, or put my hair under my hat, I would constantly get kicked off, which obviously for me at a young age I couldn’t understand that because my first role model was my mother. My mother always said you could, girls could do just as good as boys, but most time as my father would say, ‘when you put your mind to it, you could do anything.’ My mother then would chime in and say, ‘girls can be better than boys.’ I took that to high school and I did play four years of high school basketball. A funny story when I finally tell some people that didn’t know my past, I went for two years to a convent in Pittsburgh to follow my sister because I idolized her. I tried to be a nun for two years but that didn’t work out. After my second year there, I told my mother I really couldn’t go back to my next year because I couldn’t pray and play basketball at the same time because my knees couldn’t take it. Needless to say, I did stay in New Jersey and played two years at Benedictine Academy, an all-girls school, and it was great experience.
As were looking on to college, all the boys that were playing athletics in the area had an opportunity to get scholarships to go to college and there really was not any scholarships at that time on the East Coast. I was thinking about it staying in New Jersey. My physical education teacher who was the physical education teacher at Roselle Park, New Jersey, she was our basketball coach at Benedictine because, at that time, public schools did not have interscholastic high school sports. They only had intramurals. She was a very good coach and gave me some information that someone dropped off about John F. Kennedy College in Wahoo, Nebraska. We knew where Nebraska was, but thought ‘where is Wahoo?’ Actually, it’s between Lincoln and Omaha. A very, very small college. I liked the information, filled out the application and sent it. We got a call and someone came to our house to talk to us about athletics and John F. Kennedy College. In the Midwest, the colleges already had women’s basketball and women’s sports in the private schools. All your major universities, like University of Nebraska, did not have women’s basketball programs, they were just developing.
What helped me after I graduated from high school, in 1972 Title IX started to push women’s athletics. So, I did have a lot of opportunities throughout my college career. We won two national titles and I was a four-time All-American. I played on 11 international teams that represented the United States. I can tell you that every step of the way I did feel like a pioneer, but I always remember what my mother and father would say, especially my mother. ‘Girls can do anything that boys can do and better.’
With that, I then took my playing experience after I was done in the Olympics. I have to just tell a little bit a story about the Olympics. We were the very, very first women’s Olympic basketball team in history. I remember our Olympic coach always saying there’s going to be many teams after you, many individuals, but you will always be the very first. That is pretty special when you realize that in 1936 men’s basketball started in the Olympics. It took that long to get into the Olympics in ‘76. I was blessed myself and Pat Summit were selected as co-captains. It’s the ultimate to get to the Olympics.
When we went to Montreal we didn’t get very much publicity because no one expected us to do anything. Then, we win a silver medal and all of a sudden, Title IX and the silver medal I really think jump-started college athletics, in every single college and university. From there, I decided to get into coaching.
The experience of having to tuck your hair into a baseball cap and the experience of knowing that if a groundskeeper realized that you were a girl, they would kick you off of a field. A lot of women or young girls may get discouraged by that type of treatment and may not go back out the next time. Tell me about how that felt and what inside of you drove you to continue to go out, even though you knew that there was a risk that you would be singled out for your gender. How did that experience help you throughout your career and growing up?
I have to give a lot of credit to my brother, who is two years older. I learned how to, from a young age, spit like the boys, kick a stone like the boys and when people would make comments you learn how to let it just bounce off your chest like the boys. That is one thing I learned early on, you could argue when you’re playing the sport it’s competition on, but as soon as you left the field or left the court you were buds. You’d go to White Castle and have a hamburger and a soda. I think because he constantly pushed me to be better and he constantly drug me along. On Saturdays, when we had our chores to do, he would get done sooner because he had a lot of easier chores, and he would wait for me and then we would go to the playground and we would stay there for hours. That’s where I think I really learned that no matter what, you have to find out what’s inside of you and what’s important and what you want the most. I think I learned a lot from him about passion and never giving up.
We were playing basketball at one point, and this really sums it all up, I might’ve been in eighth grade, he was in high school and we were playing on the playground. I couldn’t play right away because I wasn’t selected so I would work on the other end when they would run back and forth, I’d get off the bench and practice my ball handling and shooting. Then it was my turn. I was a point guard. In basketball, that’s the person who brings the ball down the court. I was on my brother’s team and I brought the ball down and they’re really guarding him and I was afraid to pass him the ball. They stole it and went down the other end. He said, ‘give me the ball, I was open.’ I said, ‘I didn’t think you were open.’ He said, ‘don’t be afraid.’ The next time we go down the court, he yelled so I thought, I’m going to give him the ball. I come down the court and I threw the ball to him. The kid stole the ball again, and ran down the other end. Now, he was really upset and he said to me, ‘if you make a mistake, you’ve got to run back and play defense.’ He was really after me. I remember I was getting so angry at him thinking, why is he doing this to me? The next time, I had a lot of confidence and thought, ‘I’m going to get him that ball and we’re going to score.’ So this is the third time down the court, I pass him the ball, the kid stole the ball, I ran all the way down the other end and I took a charge. The guy knocked into me. I stood up and I said, ‘charge.’ The guy who had the ball missed the shot and said, ‘I didn’t charge you.’ I said, ‘yes you did.’ Mind you, I’m an eighth grader and here’s a high school senior who was an All-American high school athlete. Now, all the guys were teasing him and he gets upset and tosses the ball at me and says, ‘take it sissy.’ As he turned his back, I took the ball and with all my might I threw the ball as hard as I could and hit him in the back of the head. He comes after me. My brother stood in between and, of course, exchanged a few words. Then, the kid went down the other end and my brother looked at me and he said, ‘that time you needed to be afraid.’ When we got into the we got into the car, I had a 20-minute lecture on how you never give up, but yet when things happen, you can’t get upset. What I really learned is it didn’t matter if you play with women or men. It’s that passion of loving the game and finding a way of being competitive without looking at yourself as a female or male. I have taken that with me to my adult life – in coaching, in administration and in my leadership roles – it doesn’t matter who I’m working with, male or female is pretty much the same thing.
About leadership, as you mentioned, the point guard of a basketball team is the one who not only brings the ball up the court, but is also responsible for leading the team in calling the plays. It is the ability, as you’re bringing the ball up the court, to see what’s happening, not only on your team but also the defense and how they’re lined up. Tell me about how you fell into the position of point guard and how your leadership carried from on the court to off the court.
It’s interesting. When I did start at a young age, that was probably the only position that I was able play because I was the smallest person. I liked that role. When you hear ‘leaders are born,’ I’m not so much sure they’re born. I think it’s a development of responsibility and I love to be in charge. I loved responsibility from day number one. If we talk about housework, I don’t want to lead in any of that. There was just this responsibility that I love to serve others. I think when you’re a leader you learn that. As I went through college and then went on to the international teams, I knew the game so well and I had passion. I wanted everybody to be at my level. As I got into coaching, it took me a while to go from getting out of the position of point guard to be a head coach because I thought like a guy, I almost acted like a guy. Coaching women is quite different than coaching boys or men. You have to be a good listener and a good communicator. I had to learn a little bit more and take a step back.
What I’ve learned throughout is if you’re a leader, you’re a servant of other people. But how do you serve? What I had learned early on is that you have to be a good listener and you have to be a good communicator. Probably the bottom line for me is that they have to be able to trust in what I do and I have to trust them and what they do and not micromanage. In my roles, I did really learn things that you have to be able to not ask questions and only get a ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ You’ve got to be able to involve people, whether you use their information or not. I really learned this as a coach because my mentors in coaching, they would say to me, ‘you need to make sure you ask them, make sure they understand that you’re listening, but the bottom line is you have to be the one to make the decision because this is your program.’ It is something that took me a while to learn how to do, but I utilized my mentors and my Olympic coach, my assistant Olympic coach, and some other mentors that I have had along the way. It is something now that I take a lot of pride in.
You’ve talked about mentors. I’d like to talk about that for a minute because you’ve mentioned your Olympic coach, Billie Moore and assistant Olympic coach Sue Gunter. I’ve been fortunate throughout my athletic career to have women to look up to and mentors. Now, in legal marketing, I have some really strong women and mentors. Tell me a little bit about the mentors that you’ve had and how they’ve made an impact on you and what you would recommend for young women who are looking for someone to fulfill that mentor role.
I’ve been blessed because besides those two mentors, there were other people along the way. At Arizona State, I was a very young coach and Mona Pummer, who was our senior women administrator, took me under her wing and she taught me a lot of little things. Sometimes when you’re young you half listen to it. But later you realize that they were really important. I learned from her and from others that the key is to network and gather all the information that you can about what you’re interested in doing, picking and choosing certain things other than just jumping in. Sometimes you have to jump in with both feet, but it’s a lot easier if you already have some of the skills to be able to problem-solve.
Pat Summit was another individual. I always laughed because she has that big Southern drawl and when I took the job at the College of St. Elizabeth she said, ‘Juls, what are you doing at that little school?’ And she would call and ask me how am I doing and I would think, ‘Wow, I got 10 more years on my life because being an athletic director was something different, something more that fit my personality, and more to accomplish.’
For young people, I am part of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association group that mentors. Our big goal in that particular group is to really mentor by visiting with them on a phone or FaceTiming, getting groups together, and getting them involved. I do this on my college campus as well because we don’t have a women’s group. I laugh because I come home and ask my husband, ‘is there a paper on the back that says, tell Juliene all your problems?’ I think people feel comfortable because it’s never a big deal to me. I’m not a drama person, but I will say, ‘listen, so that person said that to you, how did it make you feel? What do you think you could do about it?’ I just give them things to think about. So, for young people, the more they can network, the more they can read about their positions, the more they can be themselves and surround themselves with people who they would like to be.
Jennifer: That’s great advice. I have found very similar success in the Legal Marketing Association. Women who will take Zoom calls with you and who make themselves available. And again, not only women but men, too, who lift each other up. One of my favorite sayings is, ‘a rising tide lifts all boats.’ I think that’s true in many professions that if we can all be successful together; it just makes the industry or the organization much more powerful.
Juliene: One thing I’d like to add is something I was taught a while ago. If you have a pie, separate that pie to 12 different sections and find different people within that pie that can fulfill what you’re not good at. Maybe for instance, there’s somebody in that pie that you can call that you can vent to and by the end of the conversation you are laughing. Then, there’s somebody in that pie that is a top-notch person that can analyze what you’re trying to say and consider your thoughts in their mind and come back and give you some ideas. So, there’s a combination of people that you have surround yourself with, with all kinds of different personalities, but yet they have the skills to be successful. That’s where anybody in any business can take pride in their job. That’s something when you’re looking for mentors, you need to find people who have pride in their job and what they do.
Jennifer: What you’re saying with the pie example is essentially building a team or building a network of individuals who may have strengths different than yours so that collectively you’ve got a network or a team of people who can lean on each other Wen perhaps they’re dealing with something that someone else in that network might be more skilled in or more experience with.
Juliene: Absolutely. And I think I started to tell the story of my mother and father three kids and a dog. We became a team at an early age. I think that really shows some times when you are working with people, you could find people early on that have good teamwork. There’s some people that have not been brought up by that, but yet they are very good in what they do and they learn how to be a team player and they learn what role they can play. That is important to me. I think I you mentioned team and immediately I think of teamwork and how important it is in any position that you are part of is to be able to surround yourself to and to be in a group that respects you. That’s a big thing for me is that when people ask what I like about my job, every place I’ve been, the first thing I think of is do they respect me? Do they respect the fact that, you know, they’ve hired me, yes. But do they respect the fact that if there’s something that needs to be done in my program that they give me that latitude to take care of it or at least voice my opinion and feel like it’s important.
I can’t say I’ve had a conversation with an Olympic athlete and not talk specifically about your experience in the Olympics. Tell me and tell our listeners, who I’m sure are very interested to hear, what it was like trying out for the very first women’s basketball team who would be representing the United States in the Olympic games. And, once you were selected, walk us through the journey.
Wow. It almost seems like it was yesterday. You know, it’s those kinds of memories that that never go away. Especially because it wasn’t an easy task. The process is so different now, but years ago, anybody and everybody that wanted to try out for the Olympics could. They have four different sites. One on the East Coast, one on the West coast, one up North and one down South. They could have had any place from 15 to 2,000 people trying out for three or four days. From there they took about 35 people. And then brought him to Warrensburg, Missouri at Central Missouri State. We tried out for four days and then they selected the top 15. I don’t think I ever could imagine that I wouldn’t have made the team because I had made 10 teams prior to that and I was the point guard and very important position.
However, years ago it was very political if you think it’s political. Now, they didn’t have four or five people selecting they had 13 or 14 people that were from all over the United States and they’re watching 30-some people trying out. It was difficult because when they got down their top seven or eight, we had to play one-on-one against almost every person you could think of. We were in every single drill because they wanted to make sure that they had the right person for the position.
Once we made the team we started to train. We trained three times a day. We played scrimmages at night. We went three hours at a time. You practice early in the morning, you went back, you’d had a half-hour before lunch, you had lunch and then 1:30 P.M. you were back again shooting, just shooting for a couple of hours. Then, you went back and had dinner. Then, you played games for two or three hours. We did play against a lot of men’s teams to prepare us. For me, because I played with the boys, it was great. I’d rather play against guys than girls at that time. From there, we had to qualify for the Olympics. We had not yet, so we had to go to McMaster University in Canada. We did win that tournament, which then took us to the Olympics.
There was some time in between of qualifying and going to the Olympics. We continued to train different places and then it was our opportunity to go to Montreal. It was great for me because my family got to drive to Montreal and watch some games.
What I remember is walking into the Olympic Village and just looking around and almost wanting to pinch yourself to say, you watch this on TV every four years and here we go. Our rooms were on the seventh floor and so every day I would walk the seven floors up and walk the seven floors down. I was only one of a couple people that would do it and not take the elevator because I just wanted to cherish every single moment. The only time I took the elevator is when they told me my luggage was there. I walked down and I took the luggage back up.
When you enter the Olympic Village, once all your whole group is there, not only basketball but your whole delegation, they raise your flag. That was my first experience of being all dressed up in one of our outfits that we got and standing there and watching the American flag go up. Speaking of our outfits, we all stopped in Plattsburgh, New York to pick up our gear. If you could imagine a huge field house with tables. The first thing you got was your suitcase and then you just pulled your suitcase along and they put things in it in whatever size you needed until it was completely full. Then they gave you travel bag and they put things in there like a hair dryer and a camera.
We practiced before the opening ceremony. Then, since we were the very first game of the women’s basketball Olympic games, it was a 9:00 A.M. game, so our coach would get us up at 4:30 A.M. We would have breakfast, breakfast in the Olympic Village is 24 hours-a-day, whatever you wanted, and lots of food. Then, we would be practicing by 7:30 in the morning, so we were wide awake. That was always kind of a big joke for us — here we go again so early in the morning. I’m an early morning person, so it didn’t bother me.
Probably the biggest experience of a lifetime was to walk into the stadium with the United States team. I heard that the camera was on one side when you walked in, so I slowly made my way over to that side. If you look at the photo that they took of the Americans walking in, you can see actually see me. You have to really look closely. I pushed a few people to get over there. That was the first year that they had a man and a woman run in together with the Olympic torch. Prior to that was always a male. So, they ran in together with the Olympic torch, ran up and both of them together lit it.
Tell me about the championship game.
Because this was the first Olympics, they weren’t sure if it was going to go over well. They selected six teams and you played each team once and then whoever had the best record won, which was Russia. Russia was undefeated and we came in second. Once we were done with our last game, we had to wait. We knew the Russians were going to beat whoever they played.
Jennifer: I didn’t realize that when women’s basketball started in the Olympics, it’s not like it is today where you play a championship game.
Juliene: Correct. Now they do pools because so many more countries are invited. But it was amazing. When we received our medal it was, even though they didn’t play our national anthem cause they played the Russian national anthem, but to be able to have that memory of stepping up to the podium with your team and then getting a medal around your neck.
The medals, up until 1976, were solid silver or solid gold but it became too expensive. That was interesting because it was the last. My mother and father got to watch it from way up high because they were able to get tickets to see that.
I want to ask you before we go, if you have any words of advice that you would give young athletes, young women and business professionals who are trying to find themselves and trying to figure out who they are and what it is that they want to do in life.
I have to relate back to when I was a young person. It’s the same. I think you have to find something that you really enjoy doing that’s not a job. Something you have a lot of passion about. In order to be successful, you’re going to have to work very hard and you’re going to have a lot of ups and a lot of downs. You’re going to find yourself challenged at so many curves and so many turns. I really encourage the young people to feel good about the mistakes they make because they’re not mistakes, they’re lessons in life. I find that if people really find a passion and feel good about that, it helps them as a person.
f you’ve enjoyed this episode of On Record PR, please consider giving us a 5-star rating on our Apple Podcast page and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play or iHeartRadio.
Connect & Learn More
Juliene Brazinski Simpson
Jennifer Simpson Carr
To learn more about guest host, Jennifer, click here.
To learn more about On Record PR, click here.
For more DE&I resources, please visit our Diversity, Inclusion, Equity & Anti-Racism Resource Center.