Eight years ago, Cindy Stein quietly walked away from the University of Missouri women's basketball team after 12 seasons.
Stein took the Tigers from a 13-15 squad in 1999 to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament two years later, and two more runs in the Big Dance after that. Five of her players, including SIU associate head coach Christelle N'Garsanet, were drafted into the WNBA. Her players earned 46 academic All-Big 12 Conference honors, but three straight losing seasons eroded her support despite 250 career victories.
She went into television work for two years before returning to her native Peoria to take over her old junior college, Illinois Central, where she was an All-American guard. Illinois Central went 32-4 in 2012-13, finishing third in NJCAA Division II. Stein then reunited with former Missouri administrator Mario Moccia here after Missy Tiber resigned, and led the Salukis to their biggest one-year turnaround ever in 2014-15.
A year after winning just five games, SIU went 17-13 overall and 10-8 in the Missouri Valley Conference in her second season. The Salukis played in their first postseason game in nine years the following year, in the Women's Basketball Invitational (WBI), and graduated their all-time leading scorer and rebounder.
Friday night against Loyola, SIU won 62-46 to move to 5-2 in the league, and gave Stein her 350th career win. Sunday, the Salukis toppled Valparaiso 74-63 for No. 351. No other current coach in the Valley has more than 285 career wins.
Stein, 57, credited her success to her staff and players, like most coaches. Her former associate head coach, Andrea Gorski, is currently at Bradley, and former assistant Tanya Warren has led Northern Iowa's program since 2007.
"You have success when you have really good people around ya, and I have been blessed with great staff," Stein said. "I've always said, I recruit a staff that is a lot smarter than I am. And it's true. I try to get really good staff around me, and we try to recruit the best players that we can. We look at the type of people they are. We look at kids that are gritty. We try to have a prototype of the kind of kid we want, and we feel like we're getting that at Southern."
N'Garsanet, who played one year with the New York Liberty of the WNBA and in Poland, said her former coach has lightened up a bit in 12 years.
"Me and Amanda Hanneman, who each played for her, we think she's a little softer, but she has been a great teacher," N'Garsanet said. "That's what she's been doing for years, taking time to teach the game. She'll teach you what she wants on the court, but I don't think she's any different than what she was when I played, to today."
Stein, a former guard at Illinois, said she knew at a young age she wanted to coach.
"I knew I wanted to coach when I was in grade school. I was trying to tell the coach then what to do," she said. "That's not a lie, either."
Her 10 freshmen and sophomores have listened well this season. SIU (11-8, 6-2 MVC) hosts Missouri State (11-8, 7-1) Friday night at SIU Arena in a matchup of top-three teams in the conference.