In 36 years of women's basketball at FIU, Head Coach Cindy Russo has been the driving force for 32 of them. Over that time, she has guided FIU to 22-consecutive winning seasons (1981-2003) and at least 20 victories on 17 occasions. Russo has led her teams to six NCAA Division I Tournament berths, five postseason Women's National Invitation Tournaments (WNIT) and two NCAA Division II Tournaments, in addition to winning eight regular season conference titles and seven tournament crowns.
For her career, Russo has amassed 647 wins, a mark which ranks among the top 15 active Division I head coaches. She comes into the 2011-12 campaign with a record of 607-318 (.656) over 32 years at FIU.
During the 2010-11 season, Russo earned her 600th victory at FIU with a 62-59 victory over Middle Tennessee on Jan. 29. The Panthers finished second in the Sun Belt Conference East Division and third overall, going on to advance to the SBC Tournament semifinals for the first time since the 2005-06 season. FIU finished the campaign with an overall record of 16-16 and a regular season mark of 10-6 in league play, marking the program's first 10-win conference season in nine years.
In 2006-07, Russo joined elite company by becoming the 16th women's basketball head coach (13th active) to win 600 career games after her Panthers defeated Central Connecticut, 73-51, on Dec. 23. Following the season, Russo received the Babe Didrickson Zaharias Award from the Sports Society at the 24th annual Women Athletes Reach for the Stars awards banquet on May 7 in Miami.
The 2005-06 season saw Russo guide the Panthers into the postseason as FIU advanced to the semifinals of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament behind the firepower of First Team All-SBC selection Lasma Jekabsone, FIU then received its fifth invitation to the WNIT and the Panthers hosted their second postseason basketball game, going on to earn a preliminary-round overtime victory over the BIG EAST's Cincinnati before falling at cross-town rival Miami.
In 2001-02, Russo picked up her 500th-career victory with a win over Stephen F. Austin in the Preseason WNIT. After that impressive feat, she went on to lead the Panthers to their first Sun Belt Conference regular season and tournament crowns and sixth NCAA Division I Tournament appearance. FIU went on to defeat Creighton, 73-58, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. That season, Russo picked up her first SBC Coach of the Year accolade and eighth overall coach of the year honor, as FIU finished the regular season ranked in the top 25 in both the Associated Press and USA Today polls.
The Panthers began competition in the Sun Belt Conference in 1998-99 after spending eight years in the Trans America Athletic Conference. FIU finished 23-7 overall and 9-3 in the conference, and was ranked in the top 25 for the third-consecutive season. With victories over Harvard, Washington and WKU, the Panthers made a third-straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament and their first as an at-large selection.
FIU had its greatest season in the program's history in 1997-98 as the Panthers produced a 29-2 record, advancing to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. With a 59-45 victory over Marquette in the first round of NCAA play, Russo earned her 400th victory at FIU.
The women's basketball program first garnered national attention in 1991-92 when Russo guided FIU to a 23-10 mark in the program's first season in the TAAC. That team earned a berth to the postseason WNIT. One year later, she had only nine student-athletes on the roster, yet still managed a 25-6 record. FIU won the TAAC with a 12-0 record and outscored its conference opponents by 29.6 points per game, while making a second trip to the WNIT. Following that season, the team received mention in both the Associated Press and USA Today/CNN polls for the first time in school history.
In 1993-94, Russo led her squad to a 25-4 record and the program's first NCAA Division I Tournament appearance. The following season, the Panthers continued to improve as they were picked as high as No. 16 in the preseason national polls. FIU finished the campaign with a mark of 27-5, winning an unprecedented fourth-straight TAAC regular season and tournament championship, and upsetting Old Dominion, 81-76, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Russo guided her 1996-97 team to an overall record of 21-9 and a conference mark of 12-4 as FIU won the regular season and tournament titles. On Jan. 23, 1997, Russo joined an elite group of coaches when she became the 29th Division I coach in NCAA history to earn 400-career victories.
In 1997-98, the Panthers returned to the national spotlight when they started the season with an 11-0 record. Throughout the year, FIU defeated five NCAA Tournament teams - Purdue, Michigan, Georgia, Miami and Louisville - and the Panthers, who failed to receive a vote in the preseason polls, climbed to No. 11 in the AP Poll and No. 12 in the USA Today/ESPN Coaches Poll.
Russo has coached six All-Americans during her tenure and has had seven players compete professionally: Andrea Nagy (Sacramento Monarchs - WNBA), Dalma Ivanyi (San Antonio Silver Stars - WNBA), Gergana Branzova (Detroit Shock -- WNBA), Albena Branzova (New York Liberty -- WNBA), Gergana Slavtcheva (Phoenix Mercury - WNBA), Jennifer Bell (Colorado Xplosian -- ABL) and Lynette Richardson (Miami Tropics - USBL). Two of those players, Nagy and Albena Branzova, were selected to the TAAC 25th-Anniversary Team.
Russo began coaching at her alma mater, Old Dominion, as an assistant coach, following a successful collegiate career. She spent two years assisting at ODU before taking the head coaching position at FIU as a graduate assistant for the 1977-78 season.
The following fall, Russo accepted the position of head coach at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, where she guided the Lady Cardinals to consecutive 20-11 seasons and AIAW playoff berths. She returned to FIU in 1980 and quickly turned the program around. In 1982, FIU enjoyed its first-ever winning season, compiling 27 wins to mark a 20-win improvement from the previous year, and capturing a ninth-place finish at the AIAW Nationals. For those accomplishments, Russo was selected as Florida's Coach of the Year.
A native of Portsmouth, Va., Russo received her bachelor's degree in health and physical education from Old Dominion in 1975. She was one of the first female student-athletes to receive athletic grant-in-aid at ODU, and garnered honorable mention honors on ODU's All-Time Lady Monarch squad, as voted on by fans on the University's athletic website, in 2006. In 1978, she earned her master's degree in physical education from FIU.