It's not often that a coach can come to a school and make a splash in their first season at the helm of any program, yet that's what Ball State University women's basketball coach Kelly Packard did.
In her first season running the Cardinals, Packard posted a 26-9 record, which included a 14-2 Mid-American Conference record. She also led Ball State to its first NCAA Tournament appearance and a 71-55 upset of the University of Tennessee.
"I think Coach Packard has proven that she is a winner and that she knows how to bring out the best in her student-athletes," Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said. "Not that it feels good, but at the same time Ball State was the better team than we were. They played so well as a team and that's probably one of the best lessons we could have been taught."
Prior to taking the floor, Packard had to interview at Ball State for the job. She was coming off a 16-4 championship season with the National Women's Basketball League's Colorado Chill.
"We had a good pool of candidates for the coaching position, but Kelly really stood out," Athletic Director Tom Collins said. "She had calmness about her. She had a plan that she articulated very well in addition to having a wealth of experience at Colorado State and in the WNBA. I remember coming away impressed with the amount of homework Kelly put in to understand Ball State."
Packard's inaugural season didn't begin as well as she would have liked, starting 7-6 in nonconference play.
"None of that just developed last year," Packard said. "We quite honestly weren't very good in November and early December. We finished our nonconference schedule 7-6. People don't remember that as much; I do."
What transpired after was almost magical.
"It was really a marvelous season," Collins said. "Kelly was able to mold all the talent and work with them until all of a sudden everything clicked. Everyone found their place and did a terrific job. The MAC Championship game everyone was nervous when it was tight. I looked down and Kelly was the calmest one in the building."
Packard's contributions to Ball State reach beyond the court. Due in part by the great season, Ball State won an ESPN Game Changer scholarship and gained national attention by defeating eight-time national champion Tennessee in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. It was the first time Pat Summitt had been knocked out of the tournament in the first round.
"Well I think what Kelly has done at Ball State with her coaching staff and team is big," Summitt said. "They understand how to compete and compete against a lot of quality teams out there and be very, very competitive. I think we're just going to see more of that. All you have to do is look at how her teams play. There's a lot of discipline, there's obviously a reason why they are good."
While Summitt sees discipline and an understanding of how to compete, Packard sees balance and non-traditional philosophies.
"I'm a mom. Mothering comes natural to me," Packard said. "It's not uncommon for me to hug my players and tell them I love them. I also try to stay in balance. I don't stay in the office till two or three a.m. It's a daily battle to keep a healthy balance, because it seems that the more time you put in will create success when in reality that isn't always the case."
Even though Packard fights to keep a balance between home and time in the office, her preparation for games and attention to detail hasn't gone unnoticed.
"Kelly's teams are going to be prepared for any and all situations," Summitt said.
Where the program goes from here under the guidance of Packard is yet to be seen, but the bar has been raised to a new level.
"I was happy for the athletic program and the athletes in the program," Collins said. "They had been so close in the past. I'm happy they finally got to experience the NCAA Tournament. The good news is, Kelly has helped raise the visibility of our program and put us on the map."