POSTED ON OCTOBER 21, 2009:
Queen of the Court
Brains, charisma and a level-headed approach to coaching basketball are all trademarks registered by Sherri Coale
Phylesha Whaley, whether she knows it or not, aided not only this story but, according to Sherri Coale, greatly shaped OU women's basketball and her career. That's for later in the story, though.
What fans really want to know is if Coale is the future of women's sports in the state of Oklahoma and beyond?
"I think there is a tremendous responsibility associated with (being the face of women's sports in Oklahoma)," Coale said. "We are the university of this state. We get more media coverage. Women's basketball is the highest profile women's sport on most college campuses.
"It's just a given. You don't think about it though. You don't have time to think about it and what good would it do you if you did. You try to do everything you can everyday to the best of your ability."
Her position affords her many opportunities. The Special Olympics, Heart Association and the Kay Yow fund are just a few of the organizations she tries to help.
Sadly, she is forced to turn down requests as well. "You feel a responsibility to do them all but you can't and still do your job," she said.
Are we getting ahead of ourselves? Of course. First things first, how did a little girl from Healdton, Oklahoma reach such a lofty status in the highest profile women's collegiate sport at a premier university?
Healdton to OU
Healdton (the "D" is silent) is located in Carter County just west of Ardmore. The 2000 census revealed a population of 2,786.
"It was an awesome place to grow up," she assures. The oil boom in the '70s and '80s injected life into the rural area. The high school served as the hub for the small town.
Her team made the state tournament her senior year. The small town closed for the day, and fans lined the streets as a parade rolled through the proud town. It was a scene reminiscent of Friday Night Lights, she described.
She shuffled off to Oklahoma Christian College in Oklahoma City. A passion for English made her choice of degree easy.
"I'm one of those rare birds who didn't change my major one time. I went to college and said I want to teach English and coach basketball so I got a double major: a Physical Education degree and an English Education degree. Never changed my mind -- full speed ahead," she recalled.
She played guard for the Lady Eagles basketball team. Five-foot, five-inch players have little say in the position they will play. She was a "bossy little point guard." Of course when Coale patrols the sidelines at the Lloyd Noble Center these days, her heels add height and a flair for fashion.
The prospect of teaching young ladies the game she loved to play, coupled with her enthusiasm for English led her to teach and coach at a high school in Edmond for two years. A stint at the head high school in Norman followed.
"I built the Norman program up. We were a perennial at the state tournament. We had won a state championship and were in pursuit of our second when the (OU job) opened," Coale said.
Imagine ascending from secretary in a law firm to lead prosecutor for the state. This is the type of transcendent leap Coale made in 1996. One day she was coaching high school girls, and the next she led a high-profile Division I program from the brink.
While Coale immersed herself in the high school game, people in Norman were taking note. The University of Oklahoma's women's basketball team had been struggling to stay afloat and actually was dropped from competitive play for a time.
Marita Hynes has a softball field named after her in Norman. As important as she was earlier on, she was instrumental in Coale getting the Lady Sooners gig.
Approached several times by community leaders, Coale dismissed the overtures at first. No chance a university viewed a high school basketball coach as a serious candidate for the head coaching position. Wrong. She was introduced to Sooner Nation as head coach on April 7, 1996.
"You envision what a press conference might be like to be named the head coach at the University of Oklahoma. I never thought I would be a round ball," Coale chuckled. She gave birth to her daughter, Chandler a few weeks later. "I had one outfit that fit, and it was red and black of all things."
Believe it or not, she had experience with pregnancy and pressure-packed situations. Her son, Colton, was born a week after she coached her high school team to a state championship.
"It's just what you do. I was running three miles a day," she said, and she still does today. "It was a little harder when I was pregnant."
When not breaking down tape or running practice, she can be seen in the local gyms. Her first-born, Colton, has been the starting point guard at Norman High for the past two years. Meanwhile, Chandler is a budding eighth grade point guard.
Both have handled mom's success extremely well as they make their own marks in the sport.
"In big games the opposing student body always has the chants. The more they chant the better (Colton) plays. He's always just handled it really, really well," she said
She can probably teach her kids a thing or two about handling pressure. And who better to learn the game from than an elite coach and former point guard?
Coale once thrived at dribbling left or right. "It's amazing," she said. "I'm so right-handed now, and it used to be my forte to go left. These things just dissipate without use." Today, Coach Coale's game is reduced to an elite rebounding passer for the kids, and she loves it.
Sexism or Flattery
Have you ever discussed the latest haircut of TU coaches Todd Graham or Doug Wojcik? What about Bob Stoops, you know, if he didn't wear the visor? So, what is the fascination with Sherri Coale's hairstyle of choice? Is it sexist? Even worse, how about the message boards asking if Sherri Coale is "Hot or Not?"
"Is it sexist? Yes. Do I roll with it? Yes," Coale said. She is quick to point out women change their appearance more often than men in all walks of life. Perhaps this is why females get the "appearance" coverage that eludes their male counterparts. Guys look the same unless they have a massive weight gain or loss.
She was not familiar with the opposing teams tasteless "Hot or Not" poll but is well aware of the coverage her hairdo receives. "I do know people talk about my hair but who cares," she said taking it in stride.
While downplaying her physical beauty, she is quick to embrace femininity. Baseball coaches wear uniforms, which she opposes. Football coaches' attire does not stray far from the Polo shirt look.
"Basketball is perhaps the only sport where coaches of men's and women's teams don't have a uniform," she said. That would include ice hockey and soccer. Men tend to stick with the suit and tie look. Some are flashy while most stick to the basics.
Women do not have this luxury. "Women have this vast array of things that we can wear: pants suits, skirts, high heels, flat heels, jewelry, no jewelry, hair up and hair down -- there are all kinds of things you can do," she explained.
Fashion is a multibillion dollar industry. Without researching too much, the guess here is that women's apparel and accessories drive the business. It would seem natural to take notice of what our female icons wear, at least more so than the guys.
Coale does not fret over her wardrobe but does take it into consideration. It would be foolish to wear the same outfit three games in a row when you have 95 pictures taken of you each night.
Besides, she coaches girls. Why not set a shining example for young women?
"It would be ridiculous to think that my players don't pay attention to what I'm wearing or how I look. The whole thing we're trying to teach people is that you need to be who you are."
She maintains a classy look while remaining professional. Her fashion statement? You don't have to be a cookie-cutter.
"In a male-oriented world of sports it's OK to be a woman. It's alright to look like a lady and to enjoy dressing nice," she said.
She hopes to send a strong message to the young women, not only those on her team, but the millions watching around the country.
"You can push yourself in any profession you chose and you can still be you. You can still express yourself. In that regard, I think it's pretty important that I pay attention to it," she said.
"I love Tulsa. Honestly if I weren't living in Norman, Oklahoma being the coach of the University of Oklahoma, I would love to live in Tulsa." The landscape, old trees, undulations and shopping (of course) are a few of the reasons. She was knowledgeable about our city. She competed in the LPGA's SemGroup Pro Am, too.
High school basketball tournaments used to be a fixture in Tulsa. She routinely coached her kids at the Mabee Center during the post season.
When Sugarland played the BOK Center in August, she was there. Of course, she managed to swing by Utica Square before the show for a little shopping and cuisine.
The Bertha Teague Classic once featured competition between the four in-state women's programs. Oklahoma relishes the opportunity to rekindle the tournament, but Oral Roberts appears to be the one school blocking the tournament.
Bedlam ensures OU battles OSU twice a year. The University of Tulsa agreed to a series with the Lady Sooners as well. ORU? Again, no such luck.
"I thought it was a great thing to swing back and forth. We envisioned it going to BOK Center and then back to the Ford Center every other year and we couldn't get everyone to agree. I hate that but we strive to play in Tulsa every year if we can," Coale said.
Boom Boom Boom
In 1996 when Coale took the job, women's college basketball was followed by several thousand people in Tennessee. Today the sport earns top billing on networks and ESPN on a regular basis.
There is no denying that Pat Summitt and Geno Auriemma along with their respective universities have catapulted the women's game to new heights. Riding shotgun on this juggernaut? You guessed it -- Sherri Coale.
A couple of shifts changed the coverage at OU and women's basketball in general. Around 1998 the dominance of Tennessee and UConn grabbed the media's attention. In 2002, the Lady Sooners earned their first trip to the NCAA Final Four. "That really started it and has not slowed since," said Coale.
Does Coach Coale and her team receive the same coverage OU football and basketball get? Absolutely not. However, compared to the attention her program received 14 years ago, she'll take it.
She is not concerned with a potential scandal derailing the progress she has built. There are countless ways to suffer from foot-in-mouth disease in 2009. Twitter, Facebook, nosey reporters and camera phones are abound.
A quick Googling of Sherri Coale yields 230,000 matches. Nary a one hinted at a salacious story. She credits her family and job.
"You try to live as true to your values as you possibly can. I do a lot of stuff with my kids. You can snap me at a high school basketball game. That's were I am. I'm always in a gym or on a softball field or in this office," she said sitting behind a mountain of a desk for such a petite woman.
The university activated a Twitter account for her. "I issue an apology to all 739 followers for the massive disappointment they will face when they receive no tweets from me," she said in jest.
A hobby of hers is writing. She has penned pieces for ESPN's Page 2 as well as a few local magazines in the Oklahoma City area. She believes in a beginning, middle and end when writing. Twitter's limited 140-character count provides no exploratory space.
"I don't like it. Just say no to tweeting," she laughed.
Is she worried her players will wind up in trouble from exercising their freedom of speech? Not really, and definitely not due to in-game tweets.
"It would be really hard for our players to tweet during halftime since all their cell phones have to be off before we enter the gymnasium and stay that way until we leave," she said.
The OU sports information department monitors and trains them on appropriate conduct. "It's frightening because people can take things and misconstrue them. The innocence of a player talking about something could inadvertently be a violation -- that's what we worry about more than anything," she said.
Stacey or Courtney
Every coach owes a great deal of their success to a transcendent player. Summitt had Chamique Holdsclaw and Candace Parker. Auriemma had Rebecca Lobo and Diana Taurasi. Phil Jackson would be sitting cross-legged on a mountain peak toking reefer if not for MJ and Kobe.
Coale has Stacey Dales and Courtney Paris. However, the real credit goes to Phylesha Whaley, according to Coale.
"Your story should start with Phylesha Whaley. She's the first kid I ever signed here," said Coale of the 5'10'' post player.
Whaley became an Academic All-American Honorable Mention. She flew under the radar of major programs and was still available in the spring of her senior year which is unheard of.
"She had grown up outside of Lubbock, Texas in a little town called Slaton. She thought that she'd go to Texas Tech. She had always dreamed of it," she said.
When Texas Tech ran out of scholarships, Coach Coale scooped her up. The rest really is history.
"I signed her because I thought she had that special something. Maybe that she'd run through a wall for me. That was probably the most important thing I could recruit at that time. Just the toughest, hardest working gutsiest kid I have ever come across in 14 years of doing this," she said.
The program was established and everything was built on Whaley's shoulders. The Lady Sooners fought their way into the Sweet Sixteen during Whaley's senior season.
In 2002, two years after Whaley played for OU, the buzzer sounded solidifying the Sooners' first foray into the Final Four. Once the immediate family was contacted, Whaley's digits were the first dialed by Coach Coale.
"I said you make sure you find your way to San Antonio, and we'll make sure you have a ticket. I wanted her to be a part of that. She sat front row, right behind the bench and was a part of that event," said Coale with an emotional crack in her voice. "She's the greatest."
Coach Coale does not hoist 10 Big 12 titles without Phylesha Whaley. Without Whaley, there is no Stacey Dales. With no Stacey Dales, perhaps Bubba Paris steers his daughters elsewhere.
By the way, Bubba Paris and Tommy Griffin have no daughters ready to enter college. Coach Coale will have to find a new pipeline for talented Sooners ballers.
The clock is winding down. No more time outs. The players are exhausted. Here are a few high-flying slam dunk facts you need to know before the buzzer sounds. Keep up.
Coale is honored that Bill Cameron and David Box would put their money behind the Tulsa WNBA franchise. "I think it's courageous on their behalf especially in the economic times we're facing right now. It's a tough sell. If anybody could pull it off, they probably can."
She has no interest in coaching a WNBA franchise in Tulsa or any other city. "I think you have a tremendous opportunity to make a difference in the lives of kids at (the college) level. I'm definitely a teacher at heart."
She used to keep a journal on Soonersports.com. She wrote a chapter in the book "Leader of the Pack -- the Legacy of Legendary Coach Kay Yow."
She plans to write a book of her own one day. Don't expect it to be about winning basketball games. "That's been done and done and done and done and done again. Mine will be a little different."
Gardening is a passion of hers. Not a fruits and vegetable garden, a tranquil flower garden. Hostas, ferns, hydrangeas and Japanese Maples shape her woodland garden.
Her landscaper is an old basketball shooting buddy out of Lawton. He comes to town once or twice a year and does the manual labor. Planting trees, moving rocks -- you know, the heavy lifting. She takes care of it the rest of the year.
"It's incredibly therapeutic to watch things (grow). The thing about a garden is it's never the same from one year to the next. Just like people. Never the same.
"Elements change, surroundings change, the plants themselves change. Sometimes they are great when they are young and then they mature and they are too much and have to go somewhere else. There are just so many metaphors there. I love it. I sense a great peace from digging in the dirt."
Being a head basketball coach at a perennial powerhouse in women's hoops limits her vacation time. However, the team travels abroad enough to quench her travel thirst.
The most gratifying team she coached was neither the '02 or '09 Final Four team. The 2003 squad has a special place in her heart. The loss of six seniors hurt, but worse, three players went down with season-ending injuries. But the team dug down deep and made the tournament, playing mostly walk-ons.
For the record, she finds Auriemma slightly less annoying than Summitt. She blames "Rocky Top."
What's in store for the women's team this year? Losing the Paris sisters will hurt.
Having a Roethlisberger and an Olajuwon on the roster should intimidate a few opponents. Can Coach Coale bring the team to the promise land once again?
Find out when the season tips off on November 4. Visit soonersports.com for schedule and ticket information.
"I couldn't imagine a day in which I didn't get to be around basketball all the time," Coach Coale said.
Suffice it to say, basketball fans across the state agree.
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