USF World News

USF Women’s Basketball Coach Highlights Star Power of International Athletes

Action shot of USF women's basketball player, Carla Brito, dribbling past an opposing player during a game

TAMPA, FL (March 6, 2024) -- Of the 15 athletes on the USF women’s basketball team, 13 are international students. As the #1 destination in the State of Florida for international student enrollment, it’s no surprise to find students from around the world on USF athletic teams. Vice President of USF World Dr. Kiki Caruson recently spoke with Coach Jose Fernandez, who has led USF’s women’s basketball team for over twenty years, about how he thinks about putting a winning team together. A key strategy is successfully recruiting international athletes. “I’ve been to almost every country in Europe,” said Coach Fernandez, “attending games, visiting clubs, and watching these young women play in tournaments. If they were living here in the U.S., they would be some of the top players in the country.”

While USF’s men’s basketball recently claimed the title of AAC Champions and is now ranked #24 in both the AP and Coaches Poll, the women’s team has a long history of success. The team has competed in the NCAA Tournament nine times and has made nine appearances in the Women's National Invitation Tournament (18 total postseason appearances), including winning the WNIT Championship 2008-09. 

USF women's basketball coach, Jose Fernandez huddles with his players to discuss strategy during a game

The women’s basketball team recently earned the fifth seed in the 2023-24 American Athletic Conference Championships. With the first-round bye, Coach Fernandez and his internationally based Bulls squad will face the winner of 12-seed Florida Atlantic/13-seed Wichita State on Sunday, Mar. 10. Tipoff is slated for 3 p.m. ET and fans will be able to see the game on ESPN+. Coach Fernandez is looking achieve his and the program’s 10th NCAA Tournament berth. Coach Fernandez credits two factors to the team’s success: the ability to recruit top international talent, and a supportive administration that recognizes the value of athletics in building a top tier university. “Over the last ten- or twelve-years USF has become an attractive destination for some of the best student athletes in the world. 

Following the realignment of the Big East Conference in 2013, USF found itself as a charter member of the American Athletic Conference (AAC) where the Bulls still play today. The move from the Big East Conference to the AAC made it more difficult to recruit top talent to USF. Looking beyond the U.S. allowed the team to recruit from a larger pool of highly talented women. As Coach Fernandez points out, “in Europe high school students play for clubs and leagues, often with professional teammates who are 25+ years old with lots of experience. School athletics are different overseas,” he explains. The best players tend to play for clubs located in major cities. Upon graduation from high school, European universities do not offer the same unique combination of academic study and athletics as do American universities. A student must balance a full university schedule with club or league play. For many it is impossible to satisfy the demands of both. 

Other universities have noticed USF’s success in recruiting international athletes. “It’s been such a winning strategy for us” notes Coach Fernandez. “We would not have achieved the success that we’ve had if we did not have international students on our team. And, more importantly, we are attracting students who are very talented academically, not just athletically.” In 2023, USF women's sports earned a graduation success rate (or 6-year graduation rate) of 88% or better. Women’s basketball earned a perfect score – all players graduated USF within 6 years.  

This year Coach Fernandez added a global recruiter to his coaching staff. Having a dedicated talent scout who can travel during the season will give Fernandez more time with the team at home while allowing USF to continue to effectively recruit talent from abroad. Through his global recruiting travels, Coach Fernandez has generated broad awareness across the world regarding the caliber of USF’s team and the opportunities associated with earning a degree at USF. There aren’t many places the coach hasn’t visited, but the Maldives remain on his bucket list. 

Although he might not admit it himself, Dr. Caruson points out that another factor in the team’s success is Coach Fernades’ leadership. His 24-year tenure with the team is uncommon in an industry often characterized by coaching turnovers. Out of 360 Division I coaches, only a dozen have been in their positions for over twenty years. Consistency of leadership enhances the stability of the team and allows for long range strategic planning. 

When Dr. Caruson asked how Coach Fernandez chose this career track, he answered simply, “I love basketball. I loved it from a young age. I played in high school, but I wasn’t as athletically talented as some of my peers,” he laughs. “I saw the game in a different way. I could envision the play unfolding. I was a good teammate, and I could shoot the ball, but I was an average player. Plus, I was short, so my future as a player after high school was limited. How else was I going to stay involved in a game I loved? Through coaching,” he exclaimed.

Coach Fernandez knows leading a team is about more than teaching athletes how to play USF’s style of basketball; it’s about teaching them how to work together and how to stay positive when life gets difficult. “Sometimes it’s hard for our players to be far from family.” He often invites players to spend time with him and his family at home. He has a wife and two daughters. 

He says he learned a lot about coaching from his own high school coach, Tom Moore, who was an important role model. “He and my next-door neighbor, who was a retired former basketball coach and athletic director at Miami Beach High School, took me to my first Final Four game when I graduated high school.” He began his coaching career on the men’s side as a student manager for the Miami-Dade Junior College basketball team. From there he made several stops at high schools in Miami, an AAU program, and Barry University before coming to USF.

Dr. Caruson asked if having so many athletes from different countries presents any unique challenges, but Coach Fernandez said the international diversity of the team is not disruptive – in fact it’s beneficial. “Basketball is an international language. Many of the players already know each other because they play each other within the European circuit.” English is the common language used on the court, but you can hear an impressive array of languages during down time: Spanish, French, Italian, Dutch, Swedish, among others.

“Our international players face the same difficulties as any other international students who are here on their own without their friends and families nearby to offer support. Many come here straight out of high school” he said. “Navigating a foreign country is hard enough for adults. Imagine doing it as a young person, taking a full load of college classes in a foreign language, and playing basketball at an elite level, all at the same time.”

USF World, through its International Student Support Team has partnered with USF Athletics to help build supportive communities for international student-athletes. International student groups at USF can showcase their organizations by tabling at “international night” pre- or post-game events. International nights provide a way for students to connect with each other and learn about other cultures and groups. Efforts are also underway to collaborate with the International Student Athlete Club (iSAC) to help build a welcoming community outside their sport.

Before wrapping up the interview, Dr. Caruson had one last question for the coach about former USF women’s basketball star, Courtney Williams, who now plays professionally. Her Moola Kicks shoes are a deep emerald green color in tribute to her alma mater. Asked if he had a favorite pair of kicks, Coach Fernandez laughed and said he wouldn’t look good in the Moola high tops and “besides we’re an Adidas sponsored school, so I have an incredible number of wonderful Adidas shoes in my collection.