Back in the day, Dan Nielson was an assistant coach for the women’s basketball team at BYU, and one of his star pupils was Morgan Bailey.
“We used to joke when she’d get mad at me,” Nielson said. “I told her, ‘You’re going to laugh with me someday when you’re coaching players and they get mad at you. One day you and I are going to coach together.’”
That day came a few weeks ago when Nielson – who was hired as the new women’s basketball coach at Utah Valley University on May 13 – brought in three former Cougars to fill out his staff, including Ashley Garfield, Keilani Unga and Bailey.
“I never wanted to coach, ever, when I was playing,” Bailey said. “But I’m excited to build something here.”
Bailey starred at Timpanogos High School in Orem, earning all-state honors before choosing to play for Jeff Judkins at BYU. The 6-foot-2 forward steadily improved and as a junior in 2013-14 helped lead the Cougars to the Sweet 16. As a senior, Bailey averaged 17.2 points and 10.5 rebounds per game, earning the West Coast Conference Player of the Year award.
Bailey graduated in exercise wellness with a minor in nutrition but opted to take advantage of opportunities to play professionally overseas. She played in Portugal, Australia and Finland before a back injury forced her to come home and consider her options. The coaching bug actually bit while she was a professional.
“We were doing camps with little kids and I started to understand what the fuss was about in coaching,” Bailey said.
She took advantage of an opportunity to become an assistant coach at Snow College in Ephraim, which led to another job with Southern Utah in 2018. When she got the phone call from Nielson after he got the job at UVU, the move seemed the natural thing to do.
“He’s going to kill me for saying this, but I used to call him ‘JJ’ for ‘Juddy Jr.’ when he was coaching me at BYU,” Bailey said. “They have different personalities but they are similar in that they are both very smart when it comes to basketball.”
Nielson coached all three of his assistants at BYU and coached with Garfield for four seasons, so the level of comfort was a big factor in his decision to bring them on board.
“The biggest thing I found when talking to other coaches was they said you need to finding people you trust,” Nielson said. “You need to find people that understand you. I coached with Ashley for four years so that was a no-brainer. Morgan would always say she was never going to coach, but she’s going to be great. Keilani has been involved with high school basketball but she always wanted to get into college coaching. I trust her and she’s been fantastic so far.”
Nielson pointed out that down the hall, new UVU men’s coach Mark Madsen has a whiteboard with terms and phrases he wants his new coaching staff to use as they get to know each other. With Bailey, Garfield and Unga, that isn’t necessary on the women’s side.
“All three of them are on the same page with me,” Nielson said. “We know what to expect from each other. We all use the same terminology and understand our goals.”
The first order of business for Nielson and his staff was running a two week basketball camp with over 130 teams invading the UCCU Center.
“That would have been really hard if we didn’t all know each other,” Bailey said. “Everything went really well.”
The coaching staff finally got to work with the UVU players the past couple of weeks. Leading scorer Jordan Holland (13.8 points per game) left the program at the conclusion of the season but Eve Braslis (10.7), Alexis Cortez (10.2) and Maria Carvalho (7.4, 4.3 assists per game) return to form a solid core. The Wolverines finished last season 14-16 overall but at one point were 8-4 in WAC play.
Right after he was hired Nielson was in his office talking to 6-5 sophomore Josie Williams, who had been in the transfer portal.
“She had some offers from some pretty good schools, but she chose to come back,” Neilson said. “It’s been exciting to see the level of interest players we are recruiting have in UVU and what we have to offer.”
Neilson said he feels the Wolverines can compete well in the Western Athletic Conference and said the goal would be to create something similar to what good friend Kelly Graves built at Gonzaga before leaving three years ago for Oregon.
“No one would think anybody could win like they did in Spokane,” Nielson said. “I think they didn’t win a game for two years before he got there. They are a non-football, regional school like we are. It took time but Kelly built it up. That part is really intriguing to me.”
Nielson and his coaching staff left on Friday for recruiting and will likely run into Judkins as they start to go after some of the same players. UVU and the Cougars will meet in Provo in November for what should be an interesting reunion.
“I’m not going to lie, it was hard to leave all the great relationships I had at BYU,” Nielson said. “I wish them nothing but the best. I hope they win every game but take it easy on us when we go over there to play because they are a really talented group. But UVU is a place where if it is done right, there’s no reason we can’t build something special.”