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A conversation with Sherri Coale

This year, March Madness is a milestone for Sherri Coale. Considered one of the best basketball coaches in the nation, she celebrates 15 years as head coach of the University of Oklahoma’s women’s program.
Coale fell in love with basketball growing up in Healdton, Okla. She graduated summa cum laude from Oklahoma Christian University in Oklahoma City, where she played basketball and was named an Academic All-American.
In 1990, she became coach for the girls team at Norman High School in Oklahoma. In seven years with the Tigers, she chalked up a 147-40 record. Her teams won two state championships.
In 1996, she took on the challenge of rebuilding a women’s basketball program in turmoil at OU. Her teams soon became national contenders. In 2002, OU became the first Big 12 Conference team to advance to the NCAA Final Four, appearing in the national championship game.
Since then, her Sooners have won six regular-season Big 12 titles and four Big 12 tournament titles. They’ve made 11 straight appearances in the NCAA tournament.
A woman of deep Christian faith, Coale and her husband, Dane, have been married 24 years and have two children — Colton, 19, and Chandler,14. They are longtime members of the Westside Church of Christ in Norman.

What attracted you to coach collegiate women’s basketball?

I fell in love with basketball as a fifth-grader and could not imagine it not being a part of my life as an adult. I’m a very goal-oriented person and yet being a Division I coach was never a goal of mine.
I was extremely happy coaching basketball at Norman High School and probably would not have left that position to coach collegiately had the opportunity here at Oklahoma not presented itself.  
I was enamored with everything that college basketball was except for the nomadic lifestyle. The position at the University of Oklahoma gave me all the attractive parts without the personal stretch of moving my family incessantly across the country. It was just a magical opportunity — the right place at the right time.  

How do you relate your coaching career to your Christian faith?

Both require diligence, and both produce rewards unparalleled. Christian principles clarify situations and speed up decision making. And you can’t coach effectively in a way that is counteractive to who you are. The two are inseparable.
I find constantly that the concepts we drive toward on the court are concepts that are biblical in nature. Just last week we were talking in our film room about playing halfway, about “sort of” pressuring the basketball and about running a token basket cut as opposed to running a basket cut like you really want the ball. I couldn’t help but immediately think of our Lord’s disdain for the lukewarm.
It’s amazing how many concepts jump seamlessly from the Good Book inside the 94-foot lines of a basketball court.
What is your coaching high point to date?
It is so hard to choose one instance. Obviously, taking three teams to the Final Four and competing in the National Championship game in 2002 — those were special, special seasons. I have three favorite moments, though, which are not necessarily of a championship snapshot but are personal high points of this crazy, marvelous, ever-intriguing profession:
• In 2003, after graduating six special seniors and competing for the national championship, we lost two starters to season-ending knee injuries which left our roster thin and our experience even thinner. We played in a Thanksgiving tournament in Hawaii and drew the short straw to play North Carolina. In warm-ups they looked like the Globetrotters — finger rolling layups, throwing behind-the-back passes. We looked like a high school team — with a 5-foot, 10-inch post player! But once the official tossed the ball up, our team simply refused to be denied and I have never had so much fun on a sideline. We outworked and outsmarted our way to a 66-63 win with two walk-ons and a revolving roster of nine. I’m not sure it gets any better than that.
• In 2009, we fell behind in a “take all our Cali kids back home” game against Cal on their home floor. We began the game lethargically, Cal post players were making three-point shots in transition, and by halftime we were down 27. We weren’t just losing, we were getting embarrassed. At halftime I made the executive decision not to convince them that we couldn’t win. (Trust me, there’s not a better way to say that.) I asked for each player to commit to every possession as though it were the one that determined the national championship. And they did. We chipped away, got it to 17 by the 16 minute mark, then to 12 at 8, and finally tied it with 3 minutes and change to play.  We ran the same play eight times in a row and scored all eight times in different ways. It was absolutely one of those experiences that lives in your personal well house where you can draw from it over and over and over again throughout your life.
• In 2002, there were eight minutes and 33 seconds left on the clock in the second half of our regional final game versus Colorado when I knew we were going to the Final Four. Someone once told me that would be the best moment of the ride. Indeed it was.
How do you maintain Christian values in view of the pressure you face on the national stage?
Honestly, I can’t imagine facing the pressures of this high-profile job without the humility anchor of Christian faith. It’s actually pretty easy to handle the expectations and challenges of this position — and to sleep at night — knowing that winning basketball games is not the most important thing on the planet. Christianity supplies constant perspective. 
Unfortunately, as the exposure in women’s basketball has increased, so have the salaries, and with that comes intensive pressure to win more and more and more. Seeping into our game are the predictable maladies of a pressurized environment — such as outright cheating and the more subtle manipulation of the rules. 
But at Oklahoma, we are so insulated from that culture because of the decisions we made 15 years ago when we began building this program.  We decided we were going to do it the right way with the right kind of people, and our formula has worked. We’re not for everyone. Some great players are not drawn to our program because of the things we stand for, but many, many are.
Additionally, I have the support of a tremendous athletic director, Joe Castiglione, and an amazing president in David L. Boren. Both believe in excellence even more than they believe in success. The slippery slope of succumbing to pressure often begins when success is the singular carrot. 
What is your philosophy of working with young women?
If I answered this one completely, it would be a position paper, and I’ve written my last of those for Oklahoma Christian!
Seriously, I suppose the most succinct answer I could provide would be encompassed by our team’s purpose statement: “Our aim is to produce people literate about the full array of human achievement so that they might know what it means to do anything well.”

What obstacles have you overcome to be where you are today?
Changing perception was the toughest hurdle. Perception of the Oklahoma women’s basketball program was poor. We had to change the way people viewed our players and our product. And we had to do that the only way it can be done — one sincere act at a time performed over and over and over again.
What advice do you have for young women who are involved in sports?
Be competitive. Set goals and strive to reach your potential.
Know that within team sports lie so many opportunities to grow and stretch yourself in ways that will make you a better spouse, a better parent, a better professional one day.
Compete with the physical and mental toughness of an athlete on the playing field, but never forget that when you step off the field, you are a female.
Be proud of that. Understand the unique strength that enables you to be exquisite in both arenas.

  • Feedback
    No one could say it better. Thank you, Sherri Coale, for your amazing insight.
    Joan Sikes
    A&M Church of Christ
    College Station, TX
    March, 11 2011

Filed under: Dialogue

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