Faith, Granny help keep coach focused
Sure, the chair is special — a trophy from Sherri Coale’s biggest game in her 10 years as head coach of the University of Oklahoma women’s basketball team.
Is this the hair dryer she used that amazing season, now occupying a special place and seat of honor in her office? Is it an artistic tribute of sorts to the woman with the signature blond, curly hair trying to be both beautiful and commanding on the sideline?
Or is there a deeper meaning?
“Actually,” Coale laughs the morning after an overtime win over defending national champion Baylor University, “I was up until 2 a.m. watching game film, so I overslept and then had to get (daughter) Chandler to school by 8. I came in this morning with soaking wet hair and just tossed it there to cool down.”
IN HER ELEMENT
Here in her office,Coale — whose eighth-ranked Sooners finished a perfect 16-0 in the Big 12Conference and hoped to advance far in the national tournament — can beherself.
She can put off talkof basketball for a moment and joke with fellow Oklahoma Christian University graduates JanRoss and Bill Pink, both members of her staff.
At the WestsideChurch of Christ, exactly three miles from the arena where she paces courtsidein high heels, the three-time Big 12 Coach of the Year is just Sherri. Herhusband, Dane, baseball coach at Purcell High School, is a deaconover the communications ministry. Son Colton,13, is a leader in the youth group, and her 9-year-old daughter, Chandler, enjoys Bibleclass with her friends.
At 41, Coale prefersBible study with people her grandmother’s age to class with her peers. Itreminds her of her small-town roots at the Shell Street church in Healdton, Okla.And it helps her find the wisdom she’s always seeking, whether calling plays orstudying Scripture.
“It’s comfortable tome,” Coale said. “I’ve developed some wonderful relationships with that pieceof the congregation by being in that setting with them.”
Coale’s grandmotherEstella Claxton moved in with the coach’s family a decade ago. Coale had justaccepted the OU position and was charged with turning around a strugglingprogram drawing roughly 65 fans per game. Coale needed the kind of help onlythe family’s matriarch could provide.
At age 90, Claxton“still runs the show,” Coale said. She cooks dinner, does laundry and managesthe household.
“I haven’t turned onthe oven in six years,” Coale quipped. “No kidding.”
Claxton provides thecounterbalance to Coale’s admittedly unorthodox parenting style. Colton and Chandlersometimes indulge in Icees and popcorn for dinner, staying out until 10:30 onschool nights to cheer on the Sooners. But their Granny, along with Coale’smother, who also lives in Norman, makes sure Colton and Chandlereat their vegetables, do their homework and change their socks.
Claxton serves asmatriarch of Coale’s basketball family, too.
“My players call herGranny, my former players still call her Granny,” Coale said. “Pretty mucheverybody calls her Granny.”
Even as a childgrowing up in Healdton, Coale stopped by her grandmother’s house every dayafter school while her mom worked. “And when I was with her, she taught me alot,” Coale said.
When it snowed andwas too slick to drive, the family put on boots and walked to worship. Theyworked at the church food pantry and visited the sick and shut-in. Granny“established the work ethic, the way to treat people, just the standard,” Coalesaid.
As a teenager, Coalediscovered 6-on-6 basketball — the half-court, traditional style of play forgirls in Oklahomaat that time. Her senior year, she captured the attention of Stephanie Findley,then assistant coach at Oklahoma Christian.
Findley, head coachof the OC Lady Eagles for 21 years, remembers the young point guard’sleadership and bubbly personality. “She played hard,” Findley said. “And shehad a nice running lay-up technique I hadn’t seen.”
Coale wanted to playbasketball and attend a Christian university. She did, accepting a fullscholarship with the Lady Eagles and earning NAIA Scholar Athlete honors in1987.
“What makes herspecial? Energy, creativity and surrounding herself with good people,” Findleysaid. “I am a little like a proud parent, I guess, as I watch her and Jan buildsuch a successful program.”
Coale credits OklahomaChristian men’s basketball coach Dan Hays with her development. Hays taught her5-on-5 basketball as she watched his team practice while sitting near his feetwith a jug of water and yellow legal pad after her own full-court workouts.
“Dan is still thestrongest mentor in my collective basketball brain. His is the loudest voice,”she said. “I have stacks and stacks of notebooks with plays in them that Ilearned from him.”
Findley and Hays alsohelped teach her how to coach with priorities, she said.
“My team knows thatunless we have a game, we won’t be practicing on Sunday morning,” she said. “Itwon’t ever be an option. When we’re on the road, we’ll have a chapel service onSunday before a game. We’re going to say a prayer before we play and after weplay. There’s a lifestyle that people sense, hopefully.”
It’s a lifestylethat’s important to her to demonstrate to her children, as well.
“I hear a lot ofsermons these days about what’s going to be left for our kids, but I think it’sactually going to be better,” she said. “I’m an optimist. When I grew up, therewere a lot of unhappy Christians, and to me that just doesn’t go together. Weought to be the happiest people in the world.”
April 1, 2006