ASUN Hall of Fame Spotlight: FIU's Cindy Russo

ASUN Hall of Fame Website

Cindy Russo is the second inductee in a series of features highlighting the ASUN Hall of Fame Class of 2016. Russo turned FIU into a TAAC/ASUN women's basketball powerhouse winning nine regular season titles, including seven straight. She guided the Panthers to six conference championships, including four consecutive from 1992-95. Several of Russo's student-athletes earned individual accolades, including three Conference Players of the Year, five Tournament MVPs, seven All-Americans and 26 All-Conference selections. Russo will be inducted alongside Daniel Murphy at the Hall of Fame Induction ceremony on October 17 at the Sawgrass Marriott in Jacksonville, Fla. 

Previous ASUN Hall of Fame Features
Jacksonville's Daniel Murphy

In today's collegiate sports environment, coaches can feel fortunate if they stay at one institution for five or more years. Not many will enjoy the type of success and longevity with one school such as Cindy Russo's run with Florida International University. 

The Portsmouth, Va., native played at Old Dominion University and moved straight to the bench as an assistant following her playing career with the Lady Monarchs. In 1977, Russo moved to Miami, Fla., for her first stint with FIU. After her initial season, Russo took the Lamar head coaching job and was an instant success. She went 36-22 with the Lady Cardinals and returned to the FIU sidelines in 1980, this time for good.

As an Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) independent and later NCAA Division II independent, Russo began making a name for herself in the coaching ranks as she guided the Panthers to 130 wins from 1981-87. FIU played in the NCAA Division II postseason in back-to-back years and advanced to the Second Round in 1987. However, a new challenge awaited the young coach and her blossoming program.

The Panthers joined the New South Women's Athletic Conference (NSWAC) for the 1987-88 academic year and Russo's squad made an immediate impact in the conference. FIU finished second in its first season, then earned the first of nine regular season titles the following year. Russo was voted NSWAC Coach of the Year following a fifth consecutive 20-win season.

Russo recalled in an interview with the Miami Herald the early days of coaching at FIU. "We played at Miami Christian High School," Russo said. "We practiced in a hangar, 'The Tin Gym.' Plastic floor, no A/C.

Florida International was a school that continued to grow in the early 1990's and slowly began to attract students from all over the world to its Miami campus. Russo and her coaching staff were one of the first pioneers in women's basketball to actively recruit overseas and bring international players to FIU. The fruits of those efforts began to blossom in the 1991-92 season. 

Andrea Nagy, born in Budapest, Hungary, became one of the top players in the league and one of seven All-Americans that Russo coached during her tenure with the Panthers. FIU led the conference in scoring during all four of Nagy's seasons, scoring 79.0 PPG in each of those four years. The 91-92 season began a run of seven consecutive regular season titles for Russo and FIU, an achievement that remains a conference record. Under her tutelage, Nagy became the only four-time Tournament MVP and the only women's basketball player in league history to record 1,000 career assists. 

The international pipeline to Miami, Fla., continued as Albena Branzova was named Player of the Year in 1995 and Dalma Ivanyi taking the honor in 1998. Russo's teams became a dominant force in the league, while also making strides in the postseason. When the NSWAC transitioned into the Trans America Athletic Conference (TAAC), FIU won a game in the WNIT in 1992, then finished third in the 1993 WNIT postseason tournament.

Russo achieved another breakthrough the following season as her women's basketball team became the first team in FIU history to participate in the NCAA Tournament. They earned an eighth seed in 1994 and narrowly lost to Clemson, 65-64. The defeat provided fuel for the next year when Russo's squad became the first TAAC women's basketball team to claim a victory in the NCAA Tournament, 81-76 over her alma mater Old Dominion. FIU would win one more NCAA Tournament game in 1998 and the Panthers remain the only TAAC/ASUN school to have two NCAA wins in women's basketball. 

The seven-time Coach of the Year concluded her career in the ASUN with a 250-77 mark (128-14 in NWSAC/TAAC), while finishing with 667 wins in 36 years at FIU. The Panthers posted 22 consecutive winning seasons between 1981-2003 and a total of 17 postseason appearances under Russo's guidance. Her 707 total wins rank her 15th on the all-time Division I women's basketball wins list. 

Throughout all the years coaching on the FIU sideline, Russo never lost her love for the game, her student-athletes or for her school. "I love FIU. I'm proud to say I was head coach here for 36 years."

- Quotes taken from Miami Herald article "Longtime FIU women's basketball coach Cindy Russo retires" - by David Neal, January 22, 2015

 

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