Virginia Commonwealth University’s all-time winningest coach, Beth Cunningham enters her seventh season at the helm and her ninth year overall with the VCU women’s basketball program. A former WNBA player and Notre Dame’s all-time leading scorer, Cunningham spent two years as an assistant with the Rams before taking over the reins at the conclusion of the 2002-03 campaign.
Cunningham has sparked a revival of sort in Richmond. Postseason berths, postseason honors and players moving onto the professional ranks have highlighted recent years for the Rams under Cunningham’s watch.
Cunningham’s appointment in 2003 marked the dawn of a new era in VCU women’s basketball history. For the first time in seven years, the Rams took the court under new management. The former All-American inherited a team that had gone 94-105 under the last regime and boasted only two winning seasons in seven years. She quickly began to restructure the program and reshape her players into hard-working, determined athletes eager to compete and win. Cunningham also spent countless hours on the road, recruiting the right personnel to complete both her staff and her roster.
The coach’s time and effort paid off. In her first season (2003-04), the young coach paced the Rams to an even 14-14 overall record, including a 10-8 mark in the Colonial Athletic Association — tying for fourth-place among conference contenders. Cunningham’s sixth-seeded squad also made quite a splash in the league tournament, upsetting third-seeded Hofstra in the quarterfinals.
During her second season at the helm, Cunningham’s Rams experienced a few growing pains, as the youthful squad boasted six players new to the college game and reeled from the loss of one of the program’s most prolific scorers. VCU finished the season a disappointing 11-18, but gained valuable experience both on and off the court.
In 2005-06 the seeds Cunningham and her staff had planted through unwavering recruiting efforts began to bear fruit.
Despite fielding one of the nation’s youngest teams, including the country’s youngest player, Cunningham steered VCU to a 13-15 mark. Additionally, redshirt freshman Quanitra Hollingsworth, plucked out of Old Dominion’s backyard in Chesapeake, Va., became the first Freshman All-American and CAA Rookie of the Year in school history.
The 2007-08 campaign brought further progress, this time in record-shattering fashion. VCU captured the most victories (26) in the history of the program. The Rams also claimed school records for road wins, home wins, conference wins and winning percentage. In addition, she guided the Rams to their first CAA Championship game and an appearance in the second round of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament.
The winning tradition continued during the 2008-09 season as the Rams matched a school record with 26 victories and produced the first undefeated campaign in Siegel Center history with a perfect 16-0 mark at home. Cunningham’s squad gained the respect of the NCAA Selection Committee as the Rams received an at-large berth and made the program’s first-ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
Under Cunningham’s tutelage, two former players have been drafted into the WNBA. In 2008, Krystal Vaughn became the first player from VCU to be selected in the draft as she was chosen in the third round by the Washington Mystics, one of Cunningham’s former teams. The Minnesota Lynx selected Hollingsworth with the ninth overall pick in 2009 as she became the highest ever selection by a VCU student-athlete in any professional draft. VCU joined 17-time CAA champion Old Dominion as the only schools in league history to have back-to-back WNBA selections.
The success of Cunningham’s teams has helped garner a host of honors for herself. Not only did Cunningham become VCU’s all-time winningest coach in 2009 with her 95th career victory on Jan. 18, she was also named Virginia Coach of the Year by the Richmond Times-Dispatch for the second straight year after leading the Rams to back-to-back postseason appearances, while posting a 52-15 mark since the start of the 2007-08 campaign.
Under the watchful eye of Cunningham, VCU has become one of the premier defensive teams in the nation and a true contender for a league title. During the 2008-09 season, the Rams led the CAA and ranked 11th in the nation in scoring defense, surrendering just 54 points per game.
“To see what Beth’s team has done in her time here is a testament to her, her staff and the level of student-athletes she has brought into this program,” said current VCU athletic director Norwood Teague. “She has increased the level of pride around the program. There is a buzz around this team.”
Cunningham brings both an extensive knowledge of the game and a tremendous will to succeed. She molded herself into an All-American player at her alma mater, Notre Dame, through sheer hard work and determination — qualities that VCU was confident would translate into further success as a head coach.
“My goal is to help make VCU a consistent and respected force in the [CAA] on our way to becoming more of a nationally recognized program,” stated Cunningham. “The players I want to coach are the players who want to maximize their potential.”
Cunningham enjoyed a stellar four-year career at Notre Dame and was instrumental in the Irish’s rise to their current status as one of the nation’s elite teams. The all-time leading scorer in Notre Dame’s women’s basketball history, she compiled an astounding 2,322 career points and earned All-America honors twice during her career.
A four-year starter for the Irish and a member of three NCAA tournament squads, Cunningham was named an Associated Press and Kodak honorable mention All-American in 1995-96 after averaging more than 20 points per game during her junior season.
The following year she led Notre Dame to a 31-win campaign and the program’s first-ever NCAA Final Four appearance, highlighted by a 36-point performance in the Irish’s “Sweet 16” victory over Alabama that still stands as an NCAA East Regional single-game record. She was rewarded following her senior season with a second consecutive appearance on the Kodak and AP All-America honorable mention teams.
After graduating from Notre Dame in 1997 with a bachelor’s degree in marketing, Cunningham was drafted by the Richmond Rage in the second round of that year’s American Basketball League draft.
After spending two seasons with the franchise, which moved to Philadelphia prior to the 1997-98 season, she signed with the WNBA’s Washington Mystics following the ABL’s disbandment. Cunningham played in 21 games with the Mystics in 2000 before embarking on her coaching career with VCU. Eight years later, one of her first recruits suited up in a Mystics uniform when Vaughn made her WNBA debut in 2008.
“Coach Cunningham was a big reason for my success,” Vaughn said. “She always believed in me and she always had faith in me. I couldn’t have made it without someone like Coach Cunningham behind me.”
Cunningham also has a wealth of international playing experience as a former member of several U.S. national teams, including the 1997 U.S. squad that captured the gold medal at the World University Games and the 1999 team that won a bronze at that year’s Pan American Games. Cunningham also helped Team USA to a second-place finish at the 1997 World Championship qualifying tournament in Brazil, which earned the U.S. a spot in the 2000 Summer Olympics. In March 2009, Cunningham was selected to serve on the USA Basketball Committee from 2009-2012 as Athlete Representative for the Junior National Team.
A native of Bloomington, Ind., Cunningham still holds the career scoring record at Bloomington South High School, where she was an all-state performer in both basketball and tennis. Her father, Bob Morgan, was the longtime head baseball coach at Indiana University before stepping down in 2005. Cunningham and her husband, Dan, reside in Richmond.