A conversation with Sherri Coale
This year, March Madness is a milestone for Sherri Coale.…
OKLAHOMA CITY — The COVID-19 pandemic forced many to slow down and reconsider what filled the space in their lives. Sherri Coale was no exception.
Known best for her success as the women’s basketball coach at the University of Oklahoma, Coale retired in 2021 after 25 seasons with the Sooners. During her time at Oklahoma, she won 512 games and 10 Big 12 Conference titles, guided the Sooners to three Final Four appearances and earned induction into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.
Now Coale — who majored in English at Oklahoma Christian University, where she graduated in 1987 — has written her first book, “Rooted to Rise: The Redwood Legacies of Life-Anchoring People.” Built around the metaphor of a majestic redwood tree — one she used often as a coach — the book is a series of short stories about people (some basketball figures, some not) who influenced Coale’s life journey.
Some story subjects will be familiar to those in Churches of Christ, including former Lipscomb University men’s basketball coach Don Meyer, former Oklahoma Christian men’s basketball coach Dan Hays and Darryl Tippens, who held teaching and administrative positions at OC, Abilene Christian University and Pepperdine University. She also mentions Shell Street Church of Christ in her hometown of Healdton, Okla.
Coale also writes about family members, former players at Oklahoma and her experiences at Norman High School, where she taught English and won two Oklahoma state titles in her first head coaching job before she moved across town to OU.
Coale and her husband, Dane, now live in Norman, where they attend Alameda Church of Christ.
She spoke with The Christian Chronicle before a recent book signing. This interview is edited for length and clarity.
After a successful coaching career, why pivot and write?
The first thing I can tell you is there’s not much difference in the two. If you’re an athlete, you get up and go to the gym every single day and you work on your craft. Some days it goes in the basket, and some days it’s square and won’t hardly bounce, and you go back the next day anyway.
When you write, you do the same thing. You get up in the morning, get yourself in a chair and you write. Sometimes it’s fabulous and you’re so excited, and sometimes it’s trash and you just wad it up and throw it and go on. The consistency and the grind of it is very, very similar. So it’s not much of a change in that regard. Every single day I get up and work really, really hard at something I care a great deal about.
Writing is something I always wanted to do when I was a little girl. I fell in love with words. I was this weird kid who would go to the library with my granny, and I would get “Curious George,” and then I would go get Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, like for real. I don’t know why. I don’t know who told me to do that, but I liked that. I liked the poetry, and I was an avid reader and then became an avid writer.
Then I got the best job in the history of ever at the University of Oklahoma, so how are you not going to do that? You do that for as long as you can, as long as you have fire in your belly for it. I did that, and I didn’t have time to write, so it was kind of a passion in my pocket for a lot of years. But I knew at some point I wanted to do that, so during COVID, I thought, “Well, I’m past the 50-yard line, so if I ever want to do anything aside from coaching, I probably ought to get about doing it now.” So I made the decision to carve out space in my second life to write, and that’s what I’ve been doing since I walked away from basketball. It’s been fantastic. I’ve loved every minute of it.
A lot of people thought you were going to join the media after you left coaching, instead of becoming an author.
I know. That seems to be the running thread. I had a woman at a book signing stop and say, “OK. Do you tell us in here what you’re going to do next?” I was like, “No.” She was like, “I know what you’re going to do next.” I was like, “What?” “You’re going to be on ESPN.” “No, I’m not. I’m going to do this.” But it’s like it’s not sexy enough, you know?
Related: A conversation with Sherri Coale
Writing well, every day, can be a challenge.
Right? People think it comes in and descends upon you, and it doesn’t. You dig it out, and you do that by showing up. It’s like priming a pump. You do it long enough and water comes out.
So is writing something you’ve done your entire adult life?
I have always tried to journal — not necessarily diary-type entries. It was never “What did I do today?” But if I was grappling with something, or something significant was occurring, I would write about it because writing is what helped me understand.
If you love language, you love language.
That’s right. And always reading and always finding the time to write somehow, whether it’s just a quick journal entry or a paragraph. That’s when I went back through it all and started putting all this together.
I had a paragraph about (former Oklahoma player) Whitney Hand — just a paragraph — after she had torn her ACL that I wrote probably late that night or in the wee hours that morning when I got home.
When I read the paragraph, I just started thinking about her career and went back and constructed the story. That’s how most of it happened. I had these little bits and pieces — not all of it; I wrote several of them from complete scratch — but most of them, I had a little prompt, a little journal entry or a paragraph or half a page or something.
A lot of people whom others might expect to be mentioned in the book aren’t. How did you whittle the subject list down?
My mother’s not in there. My husband’s not in there. You hear fiction writers say, “I don’t know what’s going to happen in the story. I don’t know yet. I’m writing it, and it will tell me what’s going to happen.”
This obviously wasn’t a fiction book. It was not a thing where I set out to, “Alright, here are the 15 most influential people in my life, and I want to write stories about them.” It was, “What stories are in my head?” and that is what led to who’s in the book.
It was very story-driven, based on a circumstance or a moment or a phrase even, that I would just kind of pick the threads of until I came up with a story. It would be impossible for me to write a story about everybody whose life has impacted mine.
So it’s really more based on a circumstance or an incident or a phrase that turned into a story that could maybe — maybe — reflect the essence of that person.
Even though you didn’t write overtly about spirituality, you pick up on that thread throughout the book.
It was important for me for people to see that spirituality in real life. It’s just woven into the grocery store and basketball practice and real life.
I hope so. I sure hope so. I’ve always been a big believer that if it’s in you, it comes out of you. I had one publisher ask if I could just add a Scripture to each story and make it like a devotion book.
That’s not really what it is. It was important for me for people to see that spirituality in real life. It’s just woven into the grocery store and basketball practice and real life. There’s the loaves-and-fishes metaphor and things you can’t escape because they’re in you.
What did Dan Hays say when you showed him the chapter about him?
I was very touched by his response to it because he was taken aback and flattered. It’s not easy to flatter coach Hays. It really meant something to him.
Not that I didn’t think it would, but I don’t know that I expected him to have the reaction he did. That meant a lot to me. He taught me how to coach — no question. It was more than the plays and diagrams, for sure.
Knowing you, and then reading the book, it seems obvious you feel a sense of serendipity surrounding your life and coaching career.
What I hope when people read it is that they’re able to look back at the people that sort of nudged their path along the way, people that were ready for them and people that they were ready for. If there’s any secret juju, that’s it — for the student to be ready when the teacher appears. I was very, very fortunate for the timing of it to run into the people I ran into along the way. I was ready for what they were doling out.
This book makes a person think about people who have touched his or her life.
We all have them. We just don’t always stop long enough to pay attention to think about it. But we all have them. That’s my hope, that when people read this, it makes them think about their people.
This book makes a person think about people who have touched his or her life. We all have them. We just don’t always stop long enough to pay attention to think about it.
What does the future hold? Do you want to be a professional writer?
There’s a lot more books rolling around in my head. I love doing my blog weekly. It keeps my feet to the fire. I have enough expectation and pressure myself to show up every week and write.
That’s really what writing is — showing up every single day and giving it all you’ve got. That is much like what it takes to be a good athlete — the same thing. You show up every day and do work. That’s sort of the way I’m wound, or the way life wound me — I don’t know which came first.
I love it, and I’ll do it until I don’t love it, if that ever occurs.
Will any of these future books be about more than just basketball, like this one?
People really expected this to be a basketball book, and it’s not a basketball book at all. There’s a lot of basketball in it, but it’s not a basketball book. I don’t know.
There are a lot of books in my head, and we’ll see what actually comes out, but coaching is such a universal theme.
You can write about basketball and it be about 400 other things in addition to basketball. It’s a nice, easy metaphor to wrap life around. There are lots of ways it could go.
What subjects interest you, that you eventually may write about?
It’s more what life shows me every day. It’s observations. Somebody says something, and it makes me go, “Hmm,” and I write it at the top of the page and follow where my brain takes me.
Or I see something happen and follow it. It’s really just paying attention and noticing things and following my own curiosity in relation to them.
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