It started not as a joke, more like a lighthearted conversation piece. Hoops coaches gather at the Final Four for their annual convention, and Philly coaches tend to cluster together. Steph Carideo was at the men’s Final Four in 2017 because she is married to Chris Carideo, Widener men’s coach, but she had standing in the room herself, as former women’s coach at Penn State Abington. She’d brought that program to the NCAA Tournament.
That night, coaches were sitting around, including Philadelphia University legend Herb Magee.
At the time, Becky Hammon was in her first year as a San Antonio Spurs assistant coach working under Gregg Popovich.
“It somehow came up,’’ Steph Carideo said, so she advanced the conversation. “You know what, if any of you guys ever need an assistant, I’m always here.”
Then she dribbled the conversation right at Magee. Carideo had played women’s basketball at Philly U., now Jefferson University. She’d always had a good relationship with Magee.
“You’re like the Gregg Popovich of Division II basketball,’’ she recalled saying to him. “It would be great.”
“That’s actually a good idea, Steph,’’ she remembered Magee saying.
Kay Magee, Herb’s daughter, was in the room. She already is on her father’s staff, a crucial member, director of operations. She’s crucial to this story, too. Earlier this year, Carideo saw online that Magee had a staff opening.
“I texted Kay, jokingly,’’ Carideo said. “I thought I applied for this job two years ago at the Final Four?”
In her memory, there was an LOL-type emoji attached. But Kay Magee ignored that part of it.
“Yes, you did,’’ she remembered typing back. “We have to make this happen.”
Steph Carideo had been out of basketball for 2 1/2 years after having a baby. She’d since had another baby boy. She was itching, she realized, to get back in.
When Kay Magee brings an idea to her father, she said, he tends to say “no” or “I don’t know.” This didn’t get a no.
“Coach Magee called me the next day,’’ Carideo said. “ ‘Are you serious about this?’ ”
Unless you’ve dropped in from Mars, you know why Herb Magee is in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. His school keeps changing its name, but he’s been head coach there since 1967, with 1,078 wins and counting. He’s also considered Philadelphia’s foremost shooting instructor. Thousands have learned his simple “shooting through the guide hand” technique.
Former Magee assistants include the current Penn head coach, the current top 76ers assistant, a current St. Joseph’s assistant and a current Colorado assistant, among a long list.
As you’ve guessed by now, Carideo got the job and joined their ranks. She also is joining a smaller group. Maine has a first-year female coach as a men’s assistant, the only woman coaching Division I men’s basketball. In Division II, it might be just Carideo -- there are no real records for such things.
Stop in at a practice and it’s obvious enough why Carideo got the job. Top Magee assistant Jimmy Reilly is in charge of scouting and recruiting and a million other things, but Carideo and another newcomer, Ryan McGee, are not expected to stand by quietly.
During a water break, Carideo went over to a Jefferson guard for a quick conversation. She came back to a sideline. What had she said to him?
“He keeps thinking he needs a ball screen,’’ she said. “He’s quick enough and crafty enough, he can just go by.”
First play after the break, the guard didn’t signal for a screen. He just went by for a score.
“I’m not always right,’’ she said with a laugh.
A bigger point she’d made to the guard: If he signaled for a screen, “everyone in the gym knows it’s a ball screen.”
During a huddle, she was in the middle of it as Magee talked. But her job, as she sees it, isn’t all about X’s and O’s.
“I feel like from a female perspective -- females see little things,’’ Carideo said. “I see if a kid is dogging it in practice. I’ll go to him, ‘Let’s go, I need more from you right now.’ Whereas someone might be like, he’s going to work through it, I actually go over and have the conversation. A lot of it is talking through the mental aspect of the game, which I think is a crucial piece.”
Chris Carideo backs up his wife’s thoughts, mentioning she’s made him think about different approaches.
“She really challenges her players as people, telling them how this is going to translate later in life,’’ Chris Carideo said.
“Part of my personality, why I’m able to coach males at this time, I am no-BS, but at the same time, I do have a joking side to me,’’ she said. “They realize it can be light, but when I’m being serious, I’m being serious -- this is business; we need to take care of this.”
At home, in addition to the “insanity in general” of the Carideos being parents of young children, hoops talk dominates.
“Even when I wasn’t coaching, it’s basketball 24-7,’’ Steph Carideo said, explaining how a simple "how was practice?” gets a conversation off and running. Last week, both teams lost on the same night. “Everything out of our mouths was literally the same,’’ she said.
Her husband, in his 12th season as Widener’s coach, was a great shooter himself, and a Division III All-American. Was she a shooter? Is that a requirement to be on a Magee staff?
“No, I was more of a driver, a facilitator,’’ Steph Carideo said.
Steph Agger played under Tom Shirley, who merely has 755 wins of his own at the school, in 30 seasons in charge.
Carideo and Magee tell the same story about when they met, her freshman year, 2007. She was playing one-on-one in the back gym with a male student not on the basketball team.
“She buried him,’’ Magee said. “She’s going by him, shooting jumpers, stealing the ball from him.”
“He stopped me. ‘Come over here,’ ‘’ she remembered. “I knew who he was. He didn’t know who I was.”
Magee wanted to know if she was on the basketball team, which Carideo confirmed.
“You’re kicking his butt.”
“Yeah, that’s what I do.”
“I’m going to keep an eye on you.”
She had a nice career playing for Shirley: two-time all-conference, more than 1,000 points and 400 assists, 223 steals. After graduating in 2011 and adding a master’s degree in business administration in 2012 while finishing up her eligibility, she coached the Hallahan High School girls' team for a year before taking over at Penn State Abington.
She’d never been an assistant coach before this season, and jokes about how responsibilities such as ordering pizza on the road, getting the timing of that right, are new to her.
“As a head coach, somebody does those things -- they just show up,’’ she said.
“You sound like me,’’ Magee joked when she told him that.
“No, I’ll get better at it,’’ she told him.
She isn’t doing this necessarily to coach men.
“It was to learn from a Hall of Fame coach, who is extremely successful, a living legend,’’ she said. “I just want to continue to learn. I’m a student of the game. I’m still extremely young in my career.”
She has no idea what might come next. Right now, there’s just a comfort level in this familiar gym on Henry Avenue. Sitting in the bleachers as practice began, Carideo said, “The game of basketball is the game of basketball.”
She walked out on the court.