The surprise for many at FIU was that Cindy Russo returned for the 2014-15 season.
Since the start of the 2012-13 season, the standard prediction around the athletic department had Russo's retirement dovetailing with the end of star guard Jerica Coley's eligibility in 2014.
Last season's ineligiblity of 6-3 Marita Davydova infuriated Russo just as much at the end of the season as the beginning. She never flat said it, but she had to know that dropped the ceiling for Coley's last team and her last team with postseason potential. With some semblance of an inside/outside game, FIU could put together a winning season and would hold a puncher's chance in the Conference USA tournament. Without it, you get what happened -- FIU rising only to the level of Coley's superpowers. Once those ran out like a power ring's charge in the 25th hour against eventual champ Middle Tennessee State in the conference tournament semis, that was it.
Russo returned for one more year, I think, almost out of reflex. This is what she's done every fall since 1977. Routines beget full body muscle memory. But fatigue strikes earlier and earlier as the years pass until the time the remembering muscle tells the mind, "Forget this, I'm tired."
All college coaches essay the role of parent on some level. For years, Russo had been the caretaker for her elderly mother. That's not a Wikipedia example of "sandwich generation" but it's still "sandwich generation." Most "sandwich generation" folks don't go on bi-weekly business trips to places like Bowling Green, Kentucky or Huntington, West Virginia (in January).
Soon after Russo's mother died in late December, rumors began around FIU athletics that she'd retire. Worn down even before being weakened by the flu that refuses to leave her -- I almost wanted to pour chicken soup through the cell phone when we spoke Thursday afternoon, she sounded so bad -- she saw the rest of the season looming like K2.
The vastness of Russo's career can't be overstated, both as far as FIU and women's basketball.
When she began as an assistant coach at 1970s powerhouse Old Dominion, many families actively discouraged their girls from participating in team sports. Heck, many girls actively discouraged girls from participating in team sports. Not feminine enough, you know. Many states didn't have high school girls basketball tournaments. Indiana, home of the most storied boys high school tournament, didn't start a girls counterpart until 1976, the same year the Summer Olympics first included women's basketball. Pro leagues? Please. The NCAA didn't sanction college women's basketball, but rather the AIAW (Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women) did. The first AIAW national championship game to be nationally televised ended the 1977-78 season, Russo's first at FIU, where a few structures dotted a lot of space. Parking not a problem back then.
Now, well, look around. Despite the roles sexism and homophobia still play in college women's basketball, if you don't see the vast differences from 37-plus years ago, you're too obtuse to read this blog. FIU continues to grow an inexorably as The Blob.
Of course, Cindy Russo would've liked to finish this season, though it looks headed for a C-USA tournament one-and-done. No woman in sports Russo's age with any stature got there by leaving anything unfinished. All those women fought more battles than Patton just to get to the game time fight.
Russo's earned the right to say she's too tired to keep fighting.