By reaching the Final Four, Sherri Coale finishes a turnaround.
By ANTONYA ENGLISH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 27, 2002
Twelve years ago, the powers that be at Oklahoma decided to dismantle the women's basketball team because of dismal attendance and lack of interest.
Amid an outcry from prominent coaches of other schools, and the threat of a Title IX violation, the school's administrators reconsidered eight days later.
But that's not where the good part of this story begins.
That didn't come until six years ago when senior associate athletic director Marita Hynes took a chance on a high school coach named Sherri Coale.
Coale was a 31-year-old who had won two state championships in seven years at Norman High but never had a collegiate coaching job.
"When Sherri interviewed in front of the entire committee, she actually handed us all a copy of a plan on what she could do to rebuild the University of Oklahoma women's program," Hynes said. "It was like: Here's what I can do for you and she never asked what the salary was. She had such a vision and a lot of high energy, enthusiasm and passion for the game itself. I knew it was going to take somebody like that to get the job done."
The decisions to keep the sport and hire Coale now can be looked upon as defining moments in the program.
Both have led to this: The Sooners are going to the Final Four this week, the first Big 12 team to make the trip into the upper echelon of women's college basketball.
Oklahoma (31-3) will play Duke (31-3) at 7 p.m. Friday in the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas.
"I'm speechless," Coale said after the Sooners defeated Colorado on Monday to earn the national semifinal berth. "I've been thinking about this moment for six years. I'm extremely proud of these kids. The opportunity to be associated with them was worth it beyond compare. I think what makes me the most proud is the fact that these guys came and bought into the vision and did an extraordinary thing."
Since taking over, Coale has led the Sooners to three consecutive Big 12 titles, two NCAA Sweet 16 appearances and this Final Four. But those who know Coale, a 5-foot-5 former Academic All-American at Oklahoma Christian University, know it hasn't been easy. It has taken hard work, dedication and perseverance.
"She's a special person," said Dan Quinn, principal at Norman North High and former athletic director and principal at Norman High when Coale was hired.
"She's well-organized and she is a true believer in her program. She is just a great salesperson. She sold herself extremely well and accurately. She was probably ahead of her time. You don't normally think of somebody stepping out of the high school ranks and going right into coaching at the Division I level. But (Oklahoma) saw in her what we saw in her."
In the early days at OU, what Hynes saw in Coale wasn't so evident to outsiders. She went 5-22 in her first season with the Sooners, a season she characterizes as a "struggle."
Hynes got dozens of letters from people criticizing her decision to hire Coale and accusing her of ultimately trying to destroy the program. Some were signed "an ex-OU fan."
Then a funny thing happened along the recruiting trail. While scouting another player, an OU assistant stumbled upon a 6-foot guard from Ontario named Stacey Dales.
Dales didn't know where Oklahoma was, but Coale sold her on a dream. And now Dales is the first two-time All-American in OU history. She was the 2002 Big 12 tournament MVP and averages 16.9 points.
Dales, a senior, has nothing but admiration for Coale and what she has done at OU.
"She's taken a program that was nearly null and made it into a national power, and that's not easy to do in such a high division of basketball and athletics," Dales said. "She has a fire that you rarely see and I feel that there are good coaches that come along and she's one of those coaches that took something over with the confidence in the division that was necessary to make a team a national contender."
After Dales, the recruits kept getting better. This season, the veteran squad includes senior guard LaNeishea Caufield (17.4 ppg, five rpg) and junior forward Caton Hill (12.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg).
"She (Coale) is intense, up-tempo and relentless," Caufield said. "We reflect everything that she's taught us."
Before Coale arrived in Norman, the fan base was limited to a few diehard supporters. Success has changed all of that. In 1995-96, the Sooners were 12-15 and won four games in the then-Big 8 conference.
The past three years have produced 20-win seasons. Last year, OU played in front of 61,142 home fans compared to 39,880 in 2000 and 20,257 in 1999. Oklahoma's average home attendance nearly doubled and ranked in the nation's top 30 this past season.
"In the past, sometimes you could go in the arena and instead of having to ask for a ticket-office count, you could count for yourself from the top of the stands," Hynes said. "In a 10,000-seat arena, sometimes you would have 60-100 people. We used to be totally excited when we had 500. Now I'm so disappointed if we don't have 4,000 or 5,000. Today, we have about 14-15 phones going as fast as they can with people wanting to buy Final Four tickets."
Oklahoma has an invitation to a party this weekend that includes perennial powerhouses Connecticut, Tennessee and Duke. But the Sooners are no crashers. After years of strife, they have earned the right to be among the finalists playing for a national title.
Coale has made sure of that. And she has done it her way.
"The best advice that I could give anyone who's trying to rebuild or build a program, I'm still not sure which we've done ... but for anybody trying to turn things around, is follow your gut and recruit great kids," Coale said. "Because it's not always about the most talented player, it's about the player that fits best.
"When I say get the kid I want, I'm talking about the intangible things. An unselfish kid who has exhibited commitment and respect for authority. A kid who is going to be committed and passionate about coming to the University of Oklahoma and being a part of our family, not just our basketball family, but our collective family. All those things are what has allowed us to so rapidly ascend on the national scene."
-- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.