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Sue Semrau was a program changing basketball coach

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Coach Semrau was 468-252 at Florida State.

Courtesy of Florida State Athletics

Florida State head women’s basketball coach Sue Semrau (60) has retired from Florida State. Semrau took a struggling program and (eventually) transformed it into a successful one that nearly reached elite status nationally.

In April of 1996 Chris Gobrecht took over as the head coach at Florida State replacing Marynell Meadors after four straight losing seasons. The last three years of Meadors’ tenure were particularly painful as the Seminoles stumbled to a combined 22-63 record. Former Athletic Director Dave Hart felt that it was time to move the program in a different direction.

Gobrecht was hired after 11 seasons as the head coach at Washington. She led the Huskies to the NCAA Tournament nine times in those 11 years. In the 1996-97 season Gobrecht led FSU to a 5-22 overall record. The Noles were an embarrassing 0-16 in the ACC.

Gobrecht was hired to rebuild a successful program but her tenure lasted for only that one year. In May of 1997 Gobrecht bolted west to take the head coaching job at her alma mater USC. She let FSU know that she was leaving through a fax from her attorney. Gobrecht was upset with Florida State over a dispute regarding the amount of her contractual buyout. A little over a week later Florida State officially announced the hiring of Susan Paige Semrau.

Semrau was an assistant coach at Wisconsin before taking over in Tallahassee. Semrau was the only assistant coach included in the final five finalists for the job. Hart remarked that Semrau won the job in the interview process. She was taking over a program that had suffered through four straight 20 loss seasons. However, the 35 year old Semrau was up for the challenge. In Semrau’s first recruiting class in 1997 was a 6’1 wing from West Chester, OH named Brooke Wyckoff.

It was a struggle in the first few years. FSU was 9-18 (5-11 ACC) in Semrau’s first year (1997-98). The Noles were 7-20 (2-14 ACC) in 1998-99 and 12-17 (4-11 ACC) in 1999-2000. However, good times were ahead.

In Semrau’s fourth season (2000-01) Florida State went 19-12 (9-7 ACC). FSU finished tied for third in the ACC. The Noles earned a bid to the NCAA Tournament (7th seed) and advanced to the second round. The Seminoles lost to Iowa State in Ames 85-70. Semrau was named the ACC Coach of the Year.

Things were looking up in Tallahassee but the Noles failed to make the Tournament the next three years going 13-15 (4-12 ACC) in 2001-02, 17-13 (8-8 ACC) in 2002-03 and 15-15 (7-9) in 2003-04. That encouraging year in 2001 was looking more and more like fool’s gold.

However, in 2004-05 the Noles surprised everyone by breaking out to a 24-8 (9-5 ACC) season that earned Semrau her second ACC Coach of the Year award. The Seminoles were led by future WNBA player Roneeka Hodges (transfer from LSU) who led the team in scoring (19.2). FSU earned another bid to the NCAAs as a sixth seed falling to UConn in the second round.

The 04-05 season was a major inflection point for the Florida State program because unlike the previous time FSU made the tournament under Semrau, this time the Noles were able to keep it going. Semrau would lead the Seminoles to seven straight NCAA Tournament bids from 2005-2011. FSU made the Sweet 16 in 2006-07 going 24-10 (10-4 ACC).

In the 2009-10 season Florida State made the Elite 8 for the first time under Semrau. Led by Jacinta Monroe, Alysha Harvin and Courtney Ward the Noles went 29-6 (12-2 ACC) and shared the regular season ACC title with Duke. FSU fell to an all-time great UConn team in the Elite 8 led by Maya Moore and Tina Charles. It was UConn’s 76th straight victory.

FSU would miss the tournament in the 2011-12 season but starting with the 2012-13 season until this season the Seminoles have participated in every NCAA Tournament. The Seminoles advanced to the Elite 8 two other times (2014-15 and 2016-17).

We will discuss those seasons in a minute but I went down memory lane in the previous paragraphs to illustrate that Semrau had a reclamation project on her hands in 1997. She began changing the culture immediately but it took a few years for her efforts to bear fruit. It took even more years for those efforts to bear consistent fruit. But eventually they did.

It’s worth examining two recent seasons more closely as these are important milestones in FSU basketball history.

The 2014-15 season was magical for the Seminoles. Florida State earned a gaudy 32-5 (14-2 ACC) record. FSU had a solid group of players coming back (Brittany Brown, Ivey Slaughter) but several newcomers joined the team (Adut Bulgak, Shakayla Thomas, Meagan Conwright and later Leticia Romero) and that powered the Noles to the unexpectedly great season. This team had excellent talent but even better chemistry. The pieces fit together perfectly and Semrau and her staff knew just what to do with them.

In 2015, Florida State met South Carolina in the Elite 8. FSU was seeded second and South Carolina was the first seed. Florida State basically controlled the entire game but due to some crucial buckets from Alaina Coates the Noles were never able to put the Gamecocks away. Then All-American guard Tiffany Mitchell put her team on her back in the fourth quarter and she powered South Carolina to the Final Four.

That 2015 FSU team was Final Four good and they will tell you that they should have won that Elite 8 game. It was a missed opportunity. We will never know but I firmly believe that had the Noles been able to hold on to the lead that they had for most of the game we would be viewing the entire program in a different light. With a boost like that Semrau might have been able to lift the program to even greater heights.

Two years later the Seminoles were again on the doorstep of the Final Four. Romero, Brown, Slaughter and Thomas led the Noles to a 28-7 (13-3 ACC) record. The Noles again met the Gamecocks in the Elite 8. This time FSU was seeded third and USC was again the top seed. The Seminoles fell despite a furious fourth quarter attempted comeback.

This brings us to the only demerit on Semrau’s record at Florida State. She was never able to guide the Seminoles to the Final Four. The first time Semrau’s Seminoles made the Elite 8 they didn’t get close to winning as UConn pasted them by 40 points. However, as we just chronicled, the other two times were different.

Semrau clearly elevated the program from where it was in 1997 but she couldn’t quite get the program to elite status.

It is fair to ask the question. Why wasn’t she able to break through to the Final Four?

Well, in the micro sense it is because FSU couldn’t close the deal in 2015 when the team was talented and connected enough to make the Final Four.

However, in the macro sense (which is more relevant) it is primarily because the Seminoles could never quite recruit well enough to give themselves repeated chances to get to the Final Four. FSU absolutely recruited well under Sue Semrau. Especially in the later years there were plenty of five-stars and McDonald’s All-Americans to be found on the roster.

Unfortunately, there weren’t many top 10 players that made their way to Tallahassee. The last top 10 player that Semrau reeled in was Natasha Howard (#2 overall) in the 2010 class. In order to have sustained success in college basketball it is critical to be able to recruit the best players. This is true in both the men’s and women’s game but it is more critical in the women’s game because almost all of the players stay for four years.

The 2015 team was the exception to this rule. FSU had top talent because Semrau and her staff was able to reel in top transfers Bulgak and Romero. Bulgak was a late bloomer who blossomed into the 12th pick in the WNBA draft. Romero came over from Spain and transferred to FSU after one season at Kansas State. Because Romero was an international player she didn’t get evaluated by most talent evaluators but if she had been American she would have been a no doubt top 20 player and could have very possibly been in the top 10. The Noles also brought in Thomas that year and she was just outside the top 10 at eleventh overall in the 2014 class.

In women’s college basketball most of the top 10 players go to the bluebloods. For the Seminoles to elevate to elite program status the Noles either had to find a way to recruit these players so that they could become bluebloods themselves or they had to find a work around. The 2015 team was an example of such a work-around. FSU was able to acquire top 10 talent without recruiting top 10 players. The 2015 team was good enough to put FSU in position for the Final Four but they weren’t quite able to close the deal.

Other than the disappointment of not making it to the Final Four, Semrau’s tenure at FSU has to be considered a smashing success. She was able to reinvigorate a moribund program and eventually elevate it to almost the highest reaches of the sport.

These last few years have been a challenge to say the least with Covid and Semrau’s leave of absence to care for her mother. This last year especially didn’t go quite the way that many fans wanted or expected. However, that should not color what Semrau has done in her tenure at Florida State. She built the program to a place where it is reasonable to have such high expectations.

Now Semrau departs.

A new era of Seminole basketball is about to begin. But let’s not forget that the program that the new coach will inherit is in a lot better shape due to the 24 year tenure of Coach Sue Semrau.