Ah to be in the right place at the right time…blessed, I continue to be! In 1996, I was coaching ball in a black and orange sweatbox at Norman High School. In the spring of that year, about two miles across town as the crow flies, the University of Oklahoma began its search for a head women’s basketball coach.
We were still tired jawed from smiling about our second state championship when a group of folks from the community showed up at the tacky precipice of my Lady Tiger Locker room to tell me they thought I ought to throw my hat in the ring at the University.
I laughed at them and asked them if they had been drinking or if they were just flat crazy. I remember how they didn’t laugh back. And I vividly recall starting to sweat. I was eight months pregnant with my second child, I loved my life and my work, and, God, I loved my girls. People think I’m joking when I say even considering the possibility was difficult, but it was.
Strangely enough, it wasn’t a stretch for all the reasons it should have been (mainly that I had ZERO collegiate coaching experience), but the prospect of it all was cause for consternation because I couldn’t quite fathom leaving all those things I loved, and I think I somehow knew innately that though it wouldn’t take long to drive there, the leap across town would be seismic.
I was in the right place at the right time, doing the right things, and I got the job.
I didn’t know it then, but spacing and timing was in my favor in ways other than my professional residence at 911 W. Main in Norman. I entered the collegiate coaching profession at a time when women’s basketball was just about to explode.
My first year in the league was the inaugural year of the Big 12 Conference, a league formed by combining the Southwestern Conference’s women’s basketball legacy with the prowess of the Big 8. Connecticut had just won their first NCAA Championship. ESPN was the new vehicle of collegiate sports … and women’s college basketball was their Title IX baby of choice. Our sport was taking off like a rocket.
Our first Big 12 television contract promised two televised games — one at home and one on the road. We all marketed and coached toward those games knowing those were unique opportunities to showcase our programs to recruits and to potential fans outside of our respective regions. The new avenue for visibility had us all a bit giddy.
Fast forward to 2014-15: every game we played last year except for our tournament in the Virgin Islands was televised. Today, if we’re not on ESPN, “2”, “U”, or “3”--we’re on FOX national, regional, Sooner Sports TV, or live streamed on the internet. You can watch a women’s basketball game on TV almost every night of the week if you want. The dilemma is no longer, “is there a game on?”, but now it’s instead, “Which game do I want to watch?”.
In 1996, we took vans to the airport so we could take commercial planes to games. We wore whatever uniforms we could afford (i.e, Nike had way better things to do), and we chalked the sidewalks on campus to let people know when we had a game.Today, we regularly take charter buses to climb onto charter planes to travel for competition. We have an elite Nike contract that provides us with more amazing gear than we or anybody else ever deserved, and people stop our players at Target to ask for pictures and autographs.
That old Virginia Slims commercial was spot on in some ways, I suppose: “We have come a long way, baby.” I’m not sure anybody had any idea in 1996 that women’s basketball 2015 would look like it does today.
The world surrounding our sport is not the only thing that has changed in the last twenty years; our game has undergone a metamorphosis as well. Women’s basketball players are bigger and faster and generally way more athletic than they were two decades ago.
Summer ball has exploded giving more players opportunities to play and more opportunities to be seen playing. There are more, better players and with them have come more, not always better recruiting antics.
More players plus more institutional visibility, in theory, equals greater parity. In reality, unfortunately, what it often creates is an arms race. With the good, sometimes, there comes a little bit of bad.
Massive growth sometimes leaves stretch marks. Women’s basketball certainly has its share. But, I prefer to look at them as victory scars. They tell an amazing story that can illuminate our future, if we allow it to. So much has changed over the last two decades and yet the core is exactly as it has always been.
Coaching is about using the vehicle of sport to help people become their best selves. Dr. Jim Loehr says, “Who you become as a result of the chase is the most important thing.” And that will never change.