Nearly 10 years ago, Kim Barnes Arico left the East Coast and her home of 40 years to become head coach of the University of Michigan women’s basketball team. Her mother sobbed in the middle of Chipotle when she broke the news. Why, she asked, was her daughter taking her three grandchildren hundreds of miles away?
For Barnes Arico, it was a no-brainer.
“I said, ‘Mom, the University of Michigan is the greatest university in the world, and I have the opportunity to work there and be surrounded by excellence,’” Barnes Arico says. “I knew I’d be learning from other coaches, administrators, and professors who were the best in their professions. I knew when I made that decision that I’d never want to go anywhere else.”
A decade later, as Barnes Arico sits on the cusp of becoming the first coach in U-M women’s basketball history to win 200 games, that choice seems prescient. As the 2021-22 season — her 10th — dawned in November, her U-M record stood at 193-102, so she’ll probably pass that milestone as soon as December. If so, it will cap a record-breaking 2021, during which she took the team to the NCAA Sweet 16 for the first time in program history and coached forward Naz Hillmon, now a senior, to the program’s first Big Ten Player of the Year honor.
“One word I’d use is demanding,” Hillmon says. “She wants the most out of her players because she knows what we’re capable of.”
In January, Hillmon broke a school record with 50 points and 16 rebounds against Ohio State, in an 81-77 loss. The feat drew acclaim on Instagram, from NBA legend and Buckeye fan LeBron James, but Barnes Arico focuses instead on what could have been better. “I think both Naz and I would say that we wish it was a victory,” she says.
That tenacity and focus drive Barnes Arico, who has taken the Wolverines to four NCAA Tournament appearances and coached 13 players to 24 All-Big Ten citations. The team had appeared in the tournament just five other times in the previous four decades it existed. Before arriving in Ann Arbor, Barnes Arico spent 10 seasons at St. John’s University in Queens, New York, where she led the women’s basketball team to five 20-win seasons and four NCAA Tournament appearances.
Barnes Arico says she believes her coaching is effective because she connects on a personal level with her players and colleagues. “You have to be able to build relationships — with coaching staff, student athletes, administration. Everyone needs to know you care about them, and you care about them as people first,” she says. “They’re so much more than basketball players.”
That became ever clearer in 2020, after Minneapolis police officers killed George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, and sparked nationwide outrage. Barnes Arico called Hillmon to ask how she could best support her and other Black members of the team. “She said, ‘You can speak up – you should speak up, and I’ll be right there behind you, next to you, wherever you need me to be,’” Hillmon says.
Barnes Arico is a mother figure to many players, in addition to being a mom to three of her own children: Trevor, 20; Emma, 16; and Cece, 13. That motherly instinct helped Barnes Arico to recruit all-time leading scorer and three-time All-Big Ten first-teamer Katelynn Flaherty, who graduated in 2018 and is now a sales consultant for the insurance firm Unum. Flaherty, 25, only felt comfortable moving away from her parents in New Jersey because Barnes Arico could help fill that void.
“My parents were nervous about me going so far; I’m an only child,” Flaherty says. “Her role as a mom translates into how she coaches. She always tries to tie life lessons into everything, and she’s always there for you.”
Still, it’s the coach’s basketball acumen that led to some unlikely victories, says Melanie Moore, who coached alongside Barnes Arico until 2019, before becoming head coach of women’s basketball at Xavier University in Cincinnati. Moore recalls a squeaker of a win over Iowa, on the road in 2012, following some key in-game adjustments — one of Barnes Arico’s strengths. “She got those kids to believe,” Moore says. “When we first started coaching together, we sat down, and she went over her vision for the program. To see today that it’s hitting every goal is amazing.”
There’s often chatter about Barnes Arico being recruited by another college program or even WNBA teams. She says she’s a U-M lifer now. “When you’re successful as a coach, sometimes people call,” she says. “But I haven’t entertained any of those phone calls, and I don’t plan to.”
This story is featured in the December 2021 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more stories in our digital edition.