Uncommon Connection, as defined by OU head coach Sherri Coale
“One of the things that makes our program unique is not just the number of relationships that we have with both current and past players, but the depths of those relationships. I think our guys do an extraordinary job of winding themselves around one another while they’re participating here, and so those relationships continue long after their eligibility is over and they’ve graduated from the university. They really become a part of one another’s lives, and the coaching staff is a part of those players’ lives as well.”
Name: Ijeoma Odimgbe, or "EJ"
Hometown: Born in Portland, Ore., Raised in Canton, Ohio
High School: Johnson High School
Three Words That Describe Me: Goofy, fun, ambitious
Hobbies and Interests: Fishing, watching Netflix, baking
Favorite Food: I don't really have a favorite food because I just absolutely love eating, but if I had to choose one, I would have to say buffalo wings.
Favorite Pizza Toppings: Pepperoni and bacon
Favorite Movie: Avatar
Favorite Song: "One and Only" by Adele
Favorite Artist or Band: J. Cole
Favorite TV Show: Spongebob
Go-to Karaoke Song: Any song by Sam Smith
Celebrity Crush: Channing Tatum
Biggest Fear: Spiders
Pre-game Superstition/Ritual: Before every game I have to completely isolate myself from everybody and I listen to music really loudly all the way up to the point where we have to stretch. Then I pray right after we stretch.
Favorite Professional Athlete: Kevin Durant
Favorite Sports to Watch Other than Basketball: Volleyball (she also played) and football
Best Advice I've Ever Received: "Don't be afraid to make mistakes."
If I Could Trade Places With Anyone for a Day, It Would Be: Beyonce
If I Could Meet Anyone, It Would Be: Barack Obama
I Don't Know What I Would Do Without: My Family
When the Sooners travel to play in California, a familiar face often greets them – that of Denise Carr-Robinson, the mother of former OU great Danielle Robinson.
Danielle wore the Crimson and Cream from 2007-11, and even though she now plays for the WNBA’s San Antonio Stars, Denise says it is important for her and her family to support the program that means so much to them.
“The OU women basketball program was very special to our family because this program displays and continues to instill the values that we taught our children of love and respecting people, the purpose of getting an education and making this world a better place,” Denise shares. “My daughter was able to mature into a young adult in a community that was safe and secure. That means a lot to parents. The students come to college and have to learn how to develop sound decision making skills. That environment is fostered in the women's program.”
OU head coach Sherri Coale says Denise is still so connected to and invested in the program that she knows each team as if she were present at the Lloyd Noble Center every game.
“We say sometimes that our program collects people, and once you become a part of our family, you’re always a part of our family,” Coale says. “Some parents stay connected more so than others for whatever reason, but Denise has been one of those that doesn’t matter how many cycles of kids pass through after Danielle’s eligibility, she knows them all.
“She’s the type of person that just walks right into your life, and you feel like you’ve known her forever, and I think our current players feel that,” Coale continues. “She introduces herself and she’s just Miss Denise, Danielle’s mom Miss Denise, and that’s a really special relationship and one that we treasure.”
For Denise, taking the time to learn about each player and connecting with them at games is a simple decision, one that values them as individuals.
“I learn names and faces because everyone is his or her own person and has his or her own life story,” Denise explains. “Everyone needs a love and sometimes a friendly smile in a different place is encouraging. I just want the young ladies to know that someone care about them. This is not just basketball game, but a tool to help them navigate life journeys."
Even after their time in Norman is complete, former Sooner players maintain an uncommon connection with the program.
OU head coach Sherri Coale receives countless Christmas cards, birth announcements, wedding pictures and other life milestone memories from her former players each year. She stored all of these in a huge basket on the side of her desk, and finally, she decided to display them in her office on a ribbon bulletin board.
“I just started putting a few in a bulletin board to the side of my desk and found that it’s not nearly big enough – there are layers upon layers,” Coale says. “But I know where almost every picture is, so if somebody comes in and asks about somebody, I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, she just had a baby last year!’ and I can thumb through and find the announcement. I actually know where it is on that board. But it’s just a neat reminder to me of the cycle of life and the big, fabulous lives that our guys are leading once they complete their time here at the University of Oklahoma.”
For Coale, the fact her former players want to stay connected and keep the OU family updated on what is happening in their lives is “the greatest reward.”
“Banners fade. Rings get tarnished. Trophies get dust on them or get pushed into a back corner, and you forget what you did, but you never forget how people make you feel, and those connections are the greatest reward of this job that we do,” Coale explains. “As I watch our players grow and become amazing people, having the opportunity to share in their lives in the ultimate honor and the ultimate reward.”
One can look at the Oklahoma women’s basketball staff to see just how strong the connection is within the program. Each member of the Sooner coaching staff has been in Norman for at least six seasons, which has contributed to the program sometimes being called the Hotel California, OU head coach Sherri Coale shares.
Assistant coach Jan Ross was the first person Coale hired for her staff, and both are entering their 20th seasons at OU. Chad Thrailkill, or TK, is starting his 14th season with the program, while Pam DeCosta is going into her seventh, having been in Norman for a total of six years, two at the beginning of Coale’s tenure then each of the last four. Director of Operations Guy Austin is set to begin his 10th season with the Sooners.
“We joke sometimes that we’re the Hotel California – once you come, you can never leave,” Coale explains. “Years ago actually my assistant coaches got me a sign that says ‘Hotel California’ that still hangs proudly in my office. It’s one of those things where we try to find good people and keep good people. There’s a sense of loyalty and investment that runs really deep. These people really, our entire staff, we work from our heart, and I think that’s one of the things that enables that connection to continue with all these players.”