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Heaven Sent

March 23, 2009
March 23, 2009

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March 23, 2009

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Heaven Sent

No player in the nation does as much for her team as Louisville forward Angel McCoughtry, who has driven everyone from teammates to administrators to make the program a force

LOUISVILLEATHLETIC DIRECTOR Tom Jurich hasn't decided yet where he'll put the statue ofAngel McCoughtry, the Cardinals' 6'1" senior All-America forward. Should itgo outside the new 22,000-seat Downtown Arena, due to open in November 2010? Orsomewhere on campus? Perhaps a prominent spot among the array of facilities atthe Cardinal Park sports complex? As he ponders this, Jurich sits in FreedomHall, calling out greetings as a parade of wealthy and well-connected localsfile into his suite to eat, drink and hobnob before the Cardinals women pastePittsburgh 75--51 on Senior Day. "I want to make sure Angel is properlyremembered around here as an icon, as a true pioneer," he says.

This is an article from the March 23, 2009 issue

It's likely thatthe 11,355 fans—including Mayor Jerry Abramson and his wife, Madeline,courtside patrons for the last four years—who have shown up appropriatelydressed for today's white-out game will remember McCoughtry whether she'simmortalized in bronze or not. It's unlikely that any player anywhere does asmuch for her team as McCoughtry does for the seventh-ranked Cardinals, who willcarry a program-best 29--4 record and No. 3 seed into the NCAA tournament. Withher relentless competitiveness ("On a scale of one to 10, I'm a 50,"she says) and her ability to make things happen at both ends of the floor,McCoughtry averages 23.5 points, 9.3 rebounds and a nation's-best 4.6 steals agame. She is the only player in Big East history to lead the conference in allthree categories for three consecutive years. "You have to run your offenseaway from her because she makes so many defensive plays and she's such apassionate rebounder," says DePaul coach Doug Bruno. "Even if she'shaving a tough offensive game, she's still going to get 10 points off stealsand another six on putbacks. She'll have 16 or 18 points before she even getsher offensive stuff cooking."

On Jan. 31,McCoughtry became the most prolific scorer in Louisville history, blowing bythe mark of 2,333 points set by Cardinals legend Darrell Griffith, whocoincidentally wore the same number, 35.

"I was elatedfor her," says Griffith, who is now both a special assistant to universitypresident James Ramsey and an avid Cardinals women's basketball fan. "Youcouldn't write a better story than having a female number 35 break therecord."

Yet there is muchmore to the Cardinals' story. The milestones, the teeming crowds, theascendance of a women's program that even men's coach Rick Pitino brags abouton his weekly radio show: "That all took a village," says seniorassociate athletic director Julie Hermann. But none of it might have happenedhad McCoughtry and Jurich not brought to Louisville—a school McCoughtry hadn'theard of four years ago—their forward thinking and their stubborn persistence."Tom and Angel are two people who both think, If I can dream it, I can doit, and I'm not interested in any counter-opinions to that," says Hermann.This is a story of two people who won't take no for an answer.

WHEN JURICHarrived in Louisville from Colorado State in 1997, he was determined to make afirst-rate, comprehensive athletic department out of what was, he says,"essentially just a men's basketball program." At the time, thatprogram, along with women's volleyball, was under NCAA investigation foraccusations of recruiting misdeeds and a lack of institutional control. (Thebasketball team escaped major sanctions.) Women's athletics in general was aTitle IX lawsuit waiting to happen. Only two women's coaches—for basketball andvolleyball—were full-time employees. Gender proportionality was perilously outof whack (at the time women made up 52% of the student body but only 33% of theathletes), and the facilities, says now retired Title IX consultant LamarDaniel, "were about as poor as existed in the NCAA."

Rather than cutmen's sports, as many programs around the country have done, Jurich added threewomen's sports—golf, softball and rowing—right away and a fourth, lacrosse, in2008. Ignoring the squawking of some old-guard boosters, Jurich embarked on aflurry of fund-raising, building and refurbishing that, by the time thestate-owned Downtown Arena opens next year, will provide each of Louisville's21 sports with state-of-the-art facilities to go with their championshipexpectations. (In all, $135 million in capital improvements will have been madewhen the work is done.) Jurich's plans for women's basketball, a program thathad been good at times but never great, struck some donors as ludicrous. In hissecond year Jurich moved the women from Cardinal Arena, where they rarelyfilled the 1,300 bleacher seats, to 19,000-seat Freedom Hall, which the menpacked for every game. "Some people called it a waste of money," saysJurich, "but even if only 50 people were showing up, playing there meanssomething in this community."

To fill seatsHermann started networking among the city's most powerful women, whether theywere sports fans or not, drawing them to games with the promise of wine andcheese receptions and courtside seats. "It turns out a lot of those womenhave powerful husbands, and they started coming, too," says Hermann."People got hooked. Now women's basketball is a place to see and beseen."

DuringMcCoughtry's career, attendance has more than tripled. The year before shearrived, home attendance averaged 1,774; this year it was 7,111, 12th in thenation. And if every last one of those fans had wanted an autograph after agame, McCoughtry would've made it happen. "I want to give everyone timeeven if it takes all night," she says. "It took me awhile to realizeit, but I affect lives."

Until a few yearsago McCoughtry would have been a long shot for program poster girl. That shehad talent was indisputable, but she also had a stubborn streak that had oftenreduced her mom, Sharon, to tears when Angel was a toddler. Even Angel'simposing 6'5" father, Roi, a self-described "tough dad" who playedforward for Coppin State in the late 1970s, couldn't always withstand her will.When Angel, then 16, asked Roi one day if she could play on his men's team atthe Baltimore church where he has served as pastor for the last 13 years, hesaid no. "These were grown men, and I didn't want her to get hurt,"says Roi. "But this being Angel, that wasn't the end of it. It was, 'Dad,can I play?' No. 'Dad, can I play?' No. 'Dad, can I play?'" Roi sighs atthe memory. "I let her play. She scored, she rebounded, she blocked shots,she even stole the ball from me," he says. "That's when I firstrealized how good she was."

As a senior at St.Francis High, McCoughtry was named Baltimore's metro player of the year, andshe signed with St. John's. But when a low SAT score diverted her to thePatterson School in Lenoir, N.C., for a year, she reopened her recruiting.Florida State was interested, as was a school she couldn't place, Louisville.She took a visit to the Derby City only as an excuse to get off Patterson'scampus. But quite unexpectedly, she says, "I got this intuition that thisis where I needed to be."

Her first year wasa struggle. She was late to meetings, slept through workouts, argued with refs,shot just 55% from the free throw line and regularly tested the patience ofthen coach Tom Collen. McCoughtry didn't mask her emotions, slumping hershoulders and hanging her head when things didn't go her way. "I wanted totransfer, and I'm sure Coach Collen wanted me to, too," she says. (Indeed,Collen told her he had a one-way ticket back to Baltimore on his desk.) Duringone game the coach's frustrations with her exploded. "I hadn't made a shotoutside the paint all night," she recalls. "Coach said, 'I don't wantyou shooting, you can't shoot! Just rebound!'"

But rather thancow her, the words inspired McCoughtry. "I thought, No one is going to tellme I can't do something ever again," she says. That summer she took 500shots a day to develop her jumper and improve her scoring around the basket.And as a sophomore she flourished offensively, averaging 21.5 points (including72% from the free throw line), 10.3 rebounds and 3.2 steals as Louisville went26--8 and cracked the Top 25 for the first time in school history. McCoughtryearned Big East Player of the Year and All-America honors from the women'scoaches association, both firsts for the program. "She was a good, solidfreshman, but you never would have predicted that the next year she would be incontention for national player of the year," says DePaul's Bruno. "Itwas one of the greatest transformations I've seen in my life in coaching. Itwas like watching a different player."

McCoughtry wasn'tfinished. That spring Collen left to coach Arkansas, and he was replaced byMaryland assistant Jeff Walz, a Kentucky native whose friendly demeanor beliesa passionate, demanding style that reminded Jurich of Pitino's. One of thefirst things Walz did was show McCoughtry a video of her negative bodylanguage. "I was shocked," says McCoughtry. "Is this really how Ilook? Is this what everyone has been talking about? I had to change that andchannel my energy in a more positive way."

As last year'steam went 21--10 and reached the Sweet 16, McCoughtry felt a new sense ofpurpose. She embraced her role as team leader and face of the program, spendinghours signing autographs and responding to the fan mail she gets every week. InDecember she started writing a book aimed at helping young girls overcome theirobstacles. "I want those girls to look at my story and see that they canchange," she says.

Moreover,McCoughtry started channeling Jurich, urging Hermann to further push theenvelope for the program. When McCoughtry learned that 8,000 of the 19,123 fanswho squeezed into Freedom Hall for last year's Connecticut game got in forfree, she challenged Hermann to do better. "She said, 'Miss Hermann, I wantsold-out attendance, paid, at Freedom Hall, and I'll help you do it,'"recalls Hermann. With every player, coach, friend and relative serving asticket brokers, 16,337 people showed up for the Kentucky game this past Dec.14. A month later 15,323 saw the Rutgers game. Nearly everyone at both gamespaid admission.

McCoughtry alsopersuaded Hermann to get her number 35 jersey onto shelves at local stores—afirst for a female player at Louisville—with the promise that she would makesure they sold out. (Only a handful of the original 300 are still available, tobe used for a fund-raising auction.) "Not only is she willing to hold thegrown-ups accountable, she understands her end of the bargain," saysHermann. "That is to sign autographs, to make appearances, to carry herselfin a way in which no one ever says, 'I don't want to support that.'"

Part of thatbargain is also to win games, and McCoughtry doesn't do that by herself. Fellowsenior Candyce Bingham, a 6'1" forward, contributes 12.3 points and 7.2rebounds a game, as well as a lagoonlike calm that nicely balances McCoughtry'son-court fire, while 5'9" sophomore Desereé Byrd adds 7.6 points and 5.2assists at point guard, a position she never played before this year. Butwithout 6'3" senior center Chauntise Wright, who is sitting out the seasonafter tearing her right ACL in October, the Cards are undersized (no starter istaller than 6'1"), and with just two upperclassmen, they are young."Our margin of error is very thin," says Walz. "Connecticut may beable to have a bad game and still win; we can't." (That point was drivenhome when the Huskies routed Louisville 75--36 in the Big East conference titlegame on March 10.)

Whatever happensin this tournament, Collen, for one, sees big things ahead for McCoughtry."I am more proud of her as a person than a player," he says. "AndI've told every WNBA coach who has called me that they would be crazy not totake her [in the draft]." McCoughtry also sees big things ahead forLouisville, including national titles. "When Candyce and I leave, it's notthe end of an era, it's just the beginning," she says. "I want thisprogram to be the caliber of Tennessee and UConn, and I want Coach Walz to makethe Hall of Fame."

Miss Hermann willget on that right away.

Jurich was determined to make a COMPREHENSIVEdepartment out of what was "essentially just a men's basketballprogram."
"Angel and Tom both think, If I can DREAM IT, I cando it, and I'm not interested in any counter-opinions," says Hermann.

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PHOTOPhotograph by Stephen SladeEYEING A REMATCH UConn's Maya Moore (23) outplayed McCoughtry in early March, but they could meet again in St. Louis.PHOTOBOB STOWELLCOOL HAND The unflappable Bingham (13) balances McCoughtry's fiery temperament and averages 12.3 points and 7.2 boards.PHOTODARRYL BUSH/APLIFT OFF Courtney Paris (3) can carry a team, but she'll need help from Hand (25) and Co. to make good on her guarantee.PHOTODAVE KLOTZ/U OF L SPORTS PHOTOTROPHY LIFE Jurich (right) has handed McCoughtry plenty of hardware and plans to eventually commemorate her with a statue.PHOTODAVE EGGEN/INERTIAHOOP HAVEN Beset by tragedy, Warkenthien found solace on the court.