Being hired as the women's basketball coach at Eastern Connecticut State University in 1994, her first head coaching job, Denise Bierly said right then that she planned on staying. “I don't look at this as a stepping stone at all,” Bierly said upon her arrival. “I'm looking to establish something here.”
It's hard to imagine anyone being more established than she is. Denise, just completed her 23rd season at Eastern in 2016-17, she is the program's all-time leader in wins with 436 victories and established herself as the winningest active women's basketball coach in the Little East Conference. The Warriors have been to the postseason 12 times, appearing in the Division III national championship game in 2003 and in the Sweet 16 in 2015.
“I just love the game of basketball. I love that it takes a team to be successful, but at the same time individuals can have such a dramatic effect on the game,” Denise said. “It is so unpredictable and things can change in two seconds. I love it because it is so hard, but yet so rewarding of a sport to play and coach. I knew after my playing days were over that I must stay involved in basketball in some way and that, I realized, was through coaching.”
A native of Lafayette, Ohio, Denise is a 1986 graduate of Allen East High School in Harrod, Ohio, and Defiance (Ohio) College, where she majored in sport management. A member of both programs' halls of fame, Denise set records for points in a career (1,395), points in a single season (475) and points in a game (44) at Allen East. At Defiance, the former point guard still holds the single-game record for assists with 18 and is ranked fifth all-time in assists with 388. Denise went on to serve as an assistant coach at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, from 1991-94, where the Crusaders were NCAA Division III runners-up in 1993 and champions in 1994.
Denise lists her dad, Gary Bierly, and her Defiance College coach Cindy Elliott as having the most influence over her career, her father for getting her started and Elliott for putting her pupil in the best position possible to become a successful coach. Denise's sisters, Debra and Dena, also played for the women's basketball team at Defiance.
Denise's teams have won 20-or-more games 11 times, including a run of four straight seasons from 2000-01 to 2003-04. She is the three time Little East Coach of the Year (1996, 2001, 2009) and was named New England Collegiate Coach of the Year (2003) and New England Women's Basketball Association Coach of the Year (2015). In 2016-17, Eastern won its sixth Little East regular-season title and also has four league tournament titles under Denise. She has coached three E-Club Hall of Famers. She said the players are what keep her “energized and enthusiastic,” but wishes she had written a few more things down over the course of her career.
“Write a book about your experiences,” Denise said, asked what advice she would give an aspiring coach. “I wish when I started, I would have written things down that happened day to day. I remember many of them, but there are so many funny, hard, highs/lows in coaching; it would be great to look back at all of them.”