Turn back the clock to April 1996 and the landscape of women’s basketball looks much different than it does today.
Tennessee was just beginning a run of three straight NCAA titles. The WNBA was starting its inaugural season. Oklahoma was looking for its third head coach in six years, and the Big 12 Conference was just coming into existence.
How times have changed.
That same month, OU hired Sherri Coale to become the program’s eighth head coach. Since that day, the Sooners have not looked back and a program that was once left for dead now ranks among the nation’s elite.
At the time, two giant pillars in coaching took notice of the hire made by OU senior administrator Marita Hynes and former athletics director Donnie Duncan. Texas’ Jody Conradt and Texas Tech’s Marsha Sharp, both national title winners and members of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, were not shocked at the move.
They both believed it was the best thing that could happen to OU women’s basketball and in Sherri Coale they found an ally to help advance the new league they all would be joining to start the 1996-97 season.
“No one had reservations about the hire. Her record in high school was excellent,” Conradt said. “Marita made the right hire and matched the job with the right person. She matched the program to what it needed and it made sense because of Sherri’s stature in the state of Oklahoma when it comes to women’s basketball. If you rolled your eyes, you didn’t understand the role she could have in building the program that needed to be rebuilt. I’m sure no one rolls her eyes now.”
All three coaches found a plenty of opportunities to advance the game through the newly-formed Big 12 Conference.
“We knew when the conferences merged there was great possibility for the league,” Sharp explained. “We were in the middle part of the country that people appreciate basketball. Our fanbases were strong and really supportive. When we merged, there was more money to fund the programs.”
The teams from the Southwest Conference brought an athletic, guard-oriented style of play with championship tradition, while the schools from the Big 8 relied on strong offense from post players and were poised to breakthrough in a new conference.
“All of that came at that right now and made it the top conference in my mind for women’s basketball,” Sharp explained. “We became an attractive TV option as well, which wasn’t the case before. Sherri made the most of those opportunities when the league began. She built it from the ground up and if you haven’t done that before you have a lot of respect for her coaching job.”
Coale quickly began a turnaround in Norman, transforming a program that won just one conference game in her first year to taking home the league’s regular-season title in 2000. Players like LaNeisha Caufield, Stacey Dales, Rosalind Ross and Phylesha Whaley transformed the Sooners into a tournament contender. Conradt and Sharp took notice of the success.
“There hasn’t been a better coaching ever done in America to turn a program around than what Sherri did at OU,” Sharp said. “She brought special passion and energy to the program. Just a few years before they almost canceled the program and the way she rebuilt the program amazing. Now it’s one of the most respected programs in the country and her vision and passion for the game has not only done great things for women’s basketball and but as well as the University of Oklahoma.”
Under Coale’s guidance, the Sooners flourished in the national spotlight making the 2002 national championship game, winning five more Big 12 regular season titles and the Big 12 postseason tournament four times. Not to mention the back-to-back Final Four appearances in 2009 and 2010 as well as nine Sweet 16 appearances under her watch. Stars like Caton Hill, Dionnah Jackson, Courtney Paris and Danielle Robinson emerged to lead the Sooners.
Now, two legends of the game get to welcome the Sooners’ head coach into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame this weekend. But even through battles on the court, they developed great friendships away from the game.
“Sherri epitomizes class, expertise and ability that one should strive for,” Conradt stated. “She probably has one of the most unique journeys with University of Oklahoma. I don’t think anyone has ever stepped into that situation before and succeeded the way she has. She was the right person at the right time. The success she’s had, you have to amplify it with how she has built the program.”
When the Sooners visited Austin this past season, Conradt and current Texas head coach Karen Aston honored Coale during pregame ceremonies with a standing ovation and a brand-new putter to add to her golf bay.
For Sharp, she reflects back to her final game in Lubbock in 2006 when OU honored her by wearing special pregame warmup shirts recognizing her accomplishments with the Lady Raiders. A moment the 24-year head coach called “one of the classiest gestures she has ever seen.”
“We had some wars during those days. The last game I coached at Texas Tech was against OU and it was difficult matchup for us. We talked the day I retired and Sherri was the first person to call me. They had gone and gotten shirts for the players to warm up in. She bought a golf putter for me for my golf game. They were so gracious to me and the fact that they won, it didn’t matter. They handled it the right way and showed tons of respect. That’s what you get when you program is coached by Sherri Coale, pure class.”
Sharp had the chance to return the favor to her longtime friend. Once she learned of Coale’s Hall of Fame induction, she was the first to call to the newest inductee.
“It’s been so fun to watch the program grow and she’s been a national leader for the game. It was us against the world when the Big 12 started. We wanted the game to be strong, the league to be strong. We saw Sherri as an ally. She was a superstar. I wanted her to have all the information she could get to move her career along. Now, we’re on the Kay Yow Board and we want to raise lots of money for women’s cancer research. She’s passionate about so many causes and she’s also passionate about giving back. Now our relationship is more about those things, but I admire her for everything she has done off and on the court.”
The impact all three have made on women’s basketball is immeasurable. Now they all three will be recognized where the game’s greats are honored.
“If she’s not Hall of Fame worthy,” Conradt stated. “Then they should close the doors.”