Tianna Kirkland Feels At Home At Illinois
by Mike Koon, Illinois Sports Information
Tianna Kirkland's life changed three years ago with the birth of her son, Gabriel, so when searching for her next job, Tianna had to consider what was right for both she and Gabriel. She found that at Illinois, where she begins her first year as an assistant coach for the Fighting Illini women's basketball team after five years at the University of Michigan.
"It's the most amazing thing ever to be a mom," Kirkland said. "To have him around the team is such a blessing. It makes it more of a family unit. The players take him on as their little brother and have read books at his school (Chesterbrook Academy). They have taught him how to shoot baskets. It has been special for everyone."
Tianna had to commute back and forth for two months. Her mom, Linda, was there to carry the load in the transition and offered to come down and be with Gabriel during the heavy recruiting month of July.
"The transition has been a lot smoother than I thought it would have been," Kirkland said. "Everyone on our staff helps. (Coach Divilbiss') daughter, Chantel, offered to baby-sit. Coach Bollant's daughters baby-sat during camp. (Assistant coach) LaKale (Malone) is on his emergency card as a secondary person that can pick him up from school. When he comes to the office and I'm on the phone, there are plenty of people around the office he feels comfortable around. It's not just me anymore. There are six of us who have our arms around him."
Not only has Illinois been a great fit from a family perspective, but also from a basketball perspective. Kirkland was familiar with assistant coach Mike Divilbiss from his time coming to Michigan to teach the "Buzz" system and met head coach Matt Bollant at the Final Four this year.
"Being at Michigan for five years and watching the talent at Illinois was really attractive to me," Kirkland said. "We have the potential to do really well right away. Coach Bollant and Coach D are very well thought of in this profession. I knew they were great coaches, but I discovered on my interview that they were also great people too. They have a big heart for the kids. They are great at breaking things down and teaching them step-by-step. We already have the talent and the athleticism. We just need to get a system going that works for us."
Basketball and hard work are in Kirkland's blood. Her uncle, Grover Kirkland, was a legendary coach in her hometown of Flint, Mich., guiding Flint Northwestern to back-to-back state titles in 1984 and 1985 and Tianna spent many nights at the gym following his successful teams. Her father, Nelson, participated in football, basketball and track in college and was a successful AA semi-pro ball basketball player in Flint in the 1970s.
The second of three children, Tianna, along with her older sister, Tiffany, and younger brother, Keenan, had some competitive games in the driveway of their home just outside of Flint. Nelson got into the action from time-to-time.
"I remember my dad coming out in his flip-flops and hitting a shot from way out and commenting how we were practicing all afternoon and he could come right out and hit shots like that."
Basketball wasn't the only thing engrained into the Kirkland children. For Nelson, who grew up on a farm in Mississippi, there would be no staying in the house, not with work to do on the family's 14-acre property.
"While my friends were at the mall, we were lifting bricks and railroad ties and cutting down trees," Kirkland remembered. "We would play in the woods, play basketball, ride our bikes and work. We loved it."
Keenan went on to play football in college. Tiffany was the captain of the high school track team and is now a successful track coach in Grand Rapids, Mich., and Tianna earned a scholarship to play basketball at Ferris State University.
Tianna was naturally strong (You can't haul bricks and railroad ties and not be) and led Ferris State in both scoring and rebounding her final two seasons. Kirkland helped the Bulldogs to the program's first NCAA Division II Tournament appearance in 2000. As a senior, she averaged 15.2 points and 9.7 rebounds per game. She was the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (GLIAC) Player of the Year and had her jersey retired by the school.
After her freshman year of college, Kirkland approached the track coach about the prospect of walking on. Competing mainly during the outdoor season, she finished her career as the school record holder in the discus and shot put, and following ankle surgery, earned a track scholarship for her fifth year. Kirkland proceeded to earn All-America honors both indoors and outdoors that season.
"Those things I had no idea I could accomplish," Kirkland said of her time at Ferris State.
Kirkland wasn't looking to get into coaching, but accepted a job as a graduate assistant at Central Michigan and immediately loved it.
After two years at CMU, Butler coach Beth Couture hired Kirkland as the third assistant there sight unseen, and she began to learn the ropes of recruiting from people such as Gene Hill, now the director of basketball operations at Georgia Tech. Suzy Merchant, now a successful coach at Michigan State, gave Kirkland a chance to cut her teeth on the recruiting trail, hiring her for the position at Eastern Michigan.
"That's the direction my career has grown," Kirkland said. "(Coach Merchant) was the first to see that side of me."
In two years at EMU and five more under Kevin Borseth at Michigan, Kirkland has gained a strong reputation when it comes to recruiting. She has also learned how important it is to be a mentor to the players. As far as basketball is concerned, she's been exposed to coaches that have a deep playbook (Couture and Merchant) and one that succeeds using basically a motion offense and teaching it well (Borseth).
After a successful summer recruiting for the Illini, the start of practice is less than two months away and Kirkland is excited about what the future holds.
"The sky's the limit for this program," she said. "If the players put the time in, which they have already shown they are going to do, I think we could be great in this league."
Family, hard work and basketball continue to be the driving force for Tianna Kirkland. She is in the process of passing on that love to both her son and the dozens of players coming through the door.