After beating Nebraska on Dec. 28, Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico only wanted to talk about her players.
In two postgame interviews, the Michigan women’s basketball coach praised individual efforts from fifth-year senior wing Leigha Brown and sophomore guard Laila Phelia, delving into Brown’s success in games past and acknowledging the challenges of upcoming Big Ten play.
What she spent less time discussing, though, was her own monumental accomplishment: With the win, Barnes Arico earned her 500th career victory — the latest milestone reached by the transformative leader amidst another successful season.
Despite the magnitude of the accolade, Barnes Arico acknowledged her career landmark only briefly.
“It means I’m old,” Barnes Arico joked to Big Ten Network. “That’s what it means. (And) I never thought I would get old or be old. In my mind, I still think I might be 25, but I guess it means that I’ve been in the game for a long period of time.
“It’s a wonderful profession to have, and I get to work with young women every day that keep me young, so it’s pretty awesome.”
For the Wolverines, though, it means much more than the march of time. The win is another milestone in their ascension to the upper echelon of women’s basketball, a process only possible under Barnes Arico’s leadership.
Michigan, off to a red-hot start, is excelling under the veteran coach, who has elevated the program to a new level of prestige since taking over in 2012. Two hundred thirty-one of her now 501 wins have come during her tenure at Michigan. When she joined the program in April 2012, it had made just one NCAA Tournament appearance and three NIT appearances in the previous decade, with that lone tournament trip ending in the Round of 64.
Coming from St. John’s University, Barnes Arico was tasked with righting the ship. Her approach to that monumental task centered around identity, with the goal of establishing a new culture.
“Any time you have a new coach we try to establish our culture,” Barnes Arico told Michigan Athletics Oct. 5 2012, just months after accepting the head coaching job. “I think it’s really important to build those relationships and build our identity. Every day we step on a court we want to be the hardest working team in America. And we have certain things that we want to stand for, certain things that when people watch us play.”
Coaches often express their emphasis on “hard work.” But Barnes Arico has reiterated her commitment to that conviction year-in and year-out, embracing the mantra as her program’s foundation.
She instilled that culture at St. Johns, where she was the winningest head coach in program history until only a season ago. And during the 2018 season, she accomplished the same feat at Michigan.
Since that season, Barnes Arico’s teams have only gotten better.
The Wolverines have made four consecutive NCAA tournament appearances — not including the 2020 season that was canceled due to COVID, which they ended 21-11 and were almost certain to get an invite. They also made the school’s first Elite Eight in 2022.
And so far this season, Barnes Arico has continued to find similar success. Michigan is 13-2, ranked 14th in the country, and beating tough teams despite losing its best player in the draft last season. In a conference that boasts some of the highest-ranked teams in the country, her team currently sits fourth.
Despite the accolades and success — amid the buzz around the 500-win milestone — Barnes Arico’s focus appears directed forward.
The Wolverines, poised to make another postseason run, are embracing that culture she aimed to establish a decade ago. They’re winning games off scrappy defense, three-point shooting and well-rounded basketball. That “hardest working team in America” mantra has been evident most times they’ve stepped on the court this season, as it has since that interview more than 10 years ago.
“I’m excited to be here,” Barnes Arico told the Big Ten Network. “There’s no place I’d rather be.”
And 231 wins later — with a program transformed by her guidance — Michigan seems pretty excited to have her too.