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Building Game Changers

The head coach of the women’s basketball program has spent the past 15 years molding champions, on and off the court.

Coach Quentin Hillsman celebrates with his players.
Hillsman is mobbed by his players after upsetting No. 5 Louisville at home on Feb. 9, 2020, earning him his 300th career win.

Syracuse University women’s basketball coach Quentin Hillsman is so focused on his next challenge that when he won his 300th career game last February he almost missed his own celebration.

“I don’t always count my wins,” says Hillsman, speaking by phone from the Carmelo K. Anthony Basketball Center after a recent practice. “When my wife came up to me after the game, holding a bouquet of flowers, I didn’t know what to say. I knew it wasn’t our anniversary or my birthday. When she told me that it was my 300th win, I was shocked. It turned out to be one of the greatest moments of my career.”

Kiara Lewis, who scored 24 points that afternoon to help upset No. 5 Louisville, says Hillsman took the event in stride. “It was a proud moment for him, but he was just chill and to himself—the way he usually is after a game. Wins are important to him, but not as much as his relationships with his players.”

Hillsman has devoted his 25-year coaching career to turning student-athletes into success stories. Since joining the Orange in 2005, he has recorded a perfect 100% Graduation Success Rate. “The best ‘W’ of all is graduation day,” says Coach Q, as his players lovingly call him. “I want them to leave here, be happy and contribute to society.”

Head coach Quentin Hillsman has transformed the Orange into a national championship contender during his 15 seasons. Hillsman discusses transforming the program into a national power, playing games during the pandemic, how star Tiana Mangakahia’s recovery from stage 2 breast cancer is inspiring the team, his snazzy fashion sense and more.

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A Visual Style of Coaching

Quentin Hillsman cuts down the net after NCAA regional championship.
Coach Quentin Hillsman cuts down the net after leading the Orange to its first-ever Final Four victory in 2016.

Meanwhile, Hillsman has transformed the Orange into championship material. Averaging 20 wins per season, he is the program’s winningest coach. Hillsman also is a global presence, as evidenced by his trailblazing work with the Netherlands women’s national under-19 basketball team and other Dutch junior national programs.

“Coach Q has a visual style of coaching,” notes Nicole Michael ’10, a former Associated Press All-American who is a teacher-coach at New York Prep in Manhattan. “He articulates a vision of what needs to be accomplished and then motivates his players based on what they’re expected to do. His goal is to win a national championship.”

If this season is any indication, Hillsman is on his way. Consider his stats: 12 consecutive postseason appearances, seven trips to the NCAA Tournament, 18 all-conference selections, five All-America honorees and four WNBA Draft picks.

No wonder stakes are high for this year’s squad, whose seven first-year players constitute the highest-ranked recruiting class in program history.

Lewis, a redshirt senior who is one of the NCAA’s top shooting guards, marvels at how Hillsman attracts—and retains—elite players. “This year, he has really shown his ability to pick talent. Players come through for him because they trust him and believe in what he is building.”

Brittney Sykes ’16, a former Orange standout who is a guard for the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks, says this about him: “Coach Q is real with you—he doesn’t sugarcoat anything. That’s what makes him a great coach and recruiter.”

Fighting to Succeed

Hillsman’s path to greatness began not on the court, but in the ring—specifically, the Palmer Park Community Center in Southeast DC, where future boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard also trained.

Growing up in a gritty working-class neighborhood, Hillsman considered boxing a necessity. “It taught me self-defense and how to have some toughness,” says the Maryland native, adding that he once met Leonard, who later acquired the facility. “Sugar Ray was my idol. His speed, strength and agility made a huge impression upon me.”

Hillsman’s other heroes were his parents. His mother, a music teacher, taught him compassion and empathy. His father, an engineer and computer business consultant, instilled in him professionalism and entrepreneurial thinking. “My dad put on a suit and tie every day and went to work—something that, in a mostly Black area, was not common. I learned early on that image was everything,” says the famously bespectacled coach, known for his sartorial splendor.

Hillsman eventually traded in his hand-wraps for high-tops, helping lead St. Mary’s College in southern Maryland to two basketball conference championships and a tournament title. A career-ending back injury, followed by postbaccalaureate work at the United States Sports Academy in Alabama, forced him to consider his options.

After a decade on the coaching carousel, Hillsman landed at Syracuse University as assistant coach of the women’s basketball program. In those days, the team was far from the juggernaut that it would become, often struggling to stay above .500.

Players come through for him because they trust him and believe in what he is building.

—Kiara Lewis

The impact of Hillsman’s promotion to head coach a year later was immediate. Almost overnight, he turned the Orange into one of the best conditioned teams in the conference, a crucible of speed and explosiveness. “Coach Q always made sure we could outrun our opponents,” recalls former center Kayla Alexander ’13, who now plays for the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx. “I have flashbacks—no, nightmares—of all the running we used to do. This translated into a fast-paced offense and a strong 2-3 zone defense, which is Syracuse’s thing.” 

Creating Camaraderie

Coach Quentin Hillsman poses for a photo with his family.
Hillsman and his family celebrate the Orange’s win over Washington at the 2016 national semifinal.

Syracuse’s physical, up-tempo style harkens back to Hillsman’s own time on the court. “He coaches the way he used to play, seeing everything from the vantage point of a point guard,” Michael says. “Coach Q relies on his guards to read the floor and create opportunities.”

This is reflected in the way he mentors Lewis and Tiana Mangakahia, one of the nation’s top shooting and point guard combos. Mangakahia says one of the first things he did at the beginning of this season was reinforce the duo’s chemistry.

“He brought us into his office and told us how important our relationship is with one another. We’ve since become best friends,” she explains. “Coach Q doesn’t put one player above another. He wants continuity, which creates camaraderie.”

Still, Hillsman’s never-say-die, win-at-all-costs mentality makes for great theater. Much has been written about his fiery pregame speeches and florid, dress-to-impress wardrobe, courtesy of four different tailors. But his ability to bring out the best in people is what stands out most for his players.

“I never realized how compassionate he was until I became sick,” adds Mangakahia, who was sidelined last year with breast cancer. “He immediately flew my parents over from Australia and then began calling me every day.”

Hillsman points out that real wins take place off the court—at home, in the classroom, throughout the community. That, at the risk of sounding glib, basketball is a metaphor for life. “If that’s the case,” he concludes, “we’re champions already.”

Rob Enslin

This story was published on .

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