Former Ohio State players recall Nancy Darsch as caring, generous and loyal coach

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
OSU coach Nancy Darsch and her seniors ham it up before their official portrait is taken on Nov. 1, 1995. From left are Lisa Negri, Gigi Jackson, Darsch, Adrienne Johnson and Katie Smith.

The Ohio State women’s basketball program no longer had any formal obligation to Kristin Watt. A senior captain on the 1984-85 team, she ended her collegiate career on a team that went 23-8 in what would be the final year of Tara VanDerveer’s five-year tenure as head coach.

VanDerveer was Watt’s coach, and when she left to become coach at Stanford, Ohio State replaced her with Tennessee assistant Nancy Darsch. Watt had two quarters of school remaining and was still on campus preparing for law school when she received an invitation to be part of Darsch’s first team meeting.

It was a gesture that meant the world to Watt, who would go on to become a radio analyst for the program, a position she has held for 33 years running.

“I thought that was really special of her,” Watt told The Dispatch on Tuesday. “When your coach leaves, sometimes your connection to the program leaves. She was always very generous with including me.”

On Monday, Darsch passed away at age 68 after a fight with Parkinson’s disease, 23 years after her tenure at Ohio State came to an end. She led the Buckeyes for 12 years, bringing them to their only appearance in the national-title game when they lost a two-point game to Texas Tech in 1993.

When she was fired following the 1997 season, however, it didn’t end her affiliation or bond with the school.

That stood out to Watt, who was one of many who maintained relationships with Darsch as she went on to coach in the WNBA and continued her work with USA Basketball.

“She was always loyal to the program,” Watt said. “She was loyal to her athletes and even when she left, she never harbored ill will toward Columbus or the fans or Ohio State. We’ve had other coaches that have done that, that have left, and that was not Nancy.”

That loyalty extended to the likes of in-game public-address announcer Wendy Craver, who has since moved to Florida. When the Buckeyes participated in the West Palm Beach Invitational during the 2018-19 season, Craver came to the games.

It also extended to star Katie Smith, a critical component of the 1993 team and the first female athlete to have her jersey retired at Ohio State. In addition to Smith’s four years at OSU, she and Darsch would continue to cross paths in the basketball world and remain close.

Their relationship went back to Smith's days in junior high, she said, one that saw Darsch attend her track meets and volleyball games at Logan High School.

“She genuinely, really loved the Buckeyes even though she was an East Coaster through and through,” Smith said of Darsch, who died in her hometown of Plymouth, Massachusetts. “The friendships that she had were lifelong for many of the people she met at Ohio State until the end. Even when she was fighting the good fight, they were there for her.”

Like Watt, Toni Roesch did not come to Ohio State to play for Darsch. She was recruited by and played three seasons for VanDerveer before playing her senior 1985-86 season for her new coach. In their first meeting, Roesch said Darsch asked for feedback from the players and immediately began to build bonds that helped carry the program to new on-court heights.

Two years later, she was back on the bench as a graduate assistant under Darsch, a position she would hold for two years.

“She gave you responsibility, and it was up to you to follow through with it,” Roesch said. “She had her expectations. She was just a great mentor, but for her to be able to get that across to the players and instill it was great. She would listen to you. She meant what she said, and I can’t say that enough.”

On the court, Darsch’s style of play and coaching acumen caught the eye of a young assistant coach at Miami University. Kevin McGuff was getting started down the path that would lead him to become the eighth head coach in program history in 2013, but he kept his eye on the Buckeyes as much as possible.

That would continue into his tenure as an assistant at Notre Dame, when the two programs would face each other.

“All the young coaches looked up to her a lot because she was so successful here and had such a great reputation,” McGuff said of his early days. “She had a great reputation as being a master of the game and the X’s and O’s. We played Ohio State and she really impressed me with just how well her teams executed, how hard they played. I had a lot of respect for how her teams played.”

What McGuff saw, Watt said, was a coach helping put Ohio State permanently on the national radar. As a radio analyst, she has gotten to watch that unfold on a game-by-game basis. Watt landed the position, she said, because Darsch suggested her as a possible candidate when the games started being broadcast.

Those memories will stick with Watt, as will quieter ones from life on the road.

“We’d travel with the team and share a beer sometimes after a game down in the lobby bar,” Watt said. “She always had really exciting stories with the Olympics and Pat Summitt, working with her. She wasn’t my coach, but I felt pretty close to her because I worked with her for every year she was here and she immediately included me.”

Smith said, “She loved the game and she loved the people who were in it. She was in it, and she was a pioneer for the game and somebody who continued to push women’s basketball forward by helping us do the things we wanted to do. She was a class act.”