- A year after being selected for the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame, Sherri Coale revamped her recruiting strategy, and it has already begun to show dividends.
NORMAN, Okla. — Just over two years ago, Oklahoma women’s basketball practices were anything but fun for the ladies tasked with getting Sooner basketball back to the top of the Big 12 conference.
Even at just a shade over 5-feet, coach Sherri Coale was always in full command. Aside from the squeak of sneakers and the bouncing of balls, her voice and her whistle were often the only sounds in the 11,000-seat Lloyd Noble Center.
During practices this past season, Coale with that unmistakable, curly blonde hair is stoic and quiet, letting her upperclassmen and assistants do most of the talking while keeping a keen eye on the action. If she needs to step in and teach, she does. If she needs to joke around with her players to lighten the mood, she does that too.
Usher, Kris Kross, Salt-N-Pepa, the Notorious B.I.G. and contemporary artists like Rihanna and Drake blast through the arena speakers in-between drills and free throw shooting.
“Where was that when I was here? We didn't have music that's for sure. We had to use our own voices and energy,” says Morgan Hook, who played guard for the Sooners from 2010–11 through ’13–14. “I would have loved to practice like this, with music playing in the background, lighting a fire under our butts.”
Hook has witnessed Coale’s evolution up close. Not only is she a former player, but she is also engaged to Coale’s son, Colton, a graduate assistant with the Sooners this season.
“I know she's probably struggled with this,” Hook says. “I'm sure she doesn't want to be having to be playing music during practice. But she's had to adjust. She's done great at that. I think it's kind of a generational thing.”
Coale, 52, has coached Oklahoma for 21 seasons, winning 465 games and appearing in three Final Fours. But the Sooners haven’t won a Big 12 regular season or tournament title in 10 years and haven’t reached the Sweet 16 since 2013. After a fourth-place finish in the league in 2015–16, Coale decided to make some wholesale changes.
Although the Sooners went 23–10 this season and again reached the second round of the NCAA tournament, Coale is excited about what lies ahead for her program. She is rediscovering the joys of basketball.
Oklahoma has been to 18 straight NCAA tournaments, a streak bested by only four other schools (Tennessee, Stanford, UConn, and Notre Dame).
That kind of success is uncommon in women's basketball, Coale was not satisfied. So, the search for different kinds of talent began in the spring and summer of 2016.
“I think there's a constant evolution if you're really immersed in what you're doing and you're always growing and changing and searching for new things,” Coale says.
She and her staff began the process of tweaking how they coach and recruit. “Nothing has changed in terms of what we're looking for in a recruit,” she says, “but how we identify [that player] is where we have a chance to learn and grow.”
A complete mindset change was needed.
“A lot of that has to do with generation,” assistant and recruiting coordinator Pam DeCosta says. “This generation of kids, their attention span is five minutes.”
DeCosta says that players still have the perception that Oklahoma is “in the sticks” and the team travels to games on horseback.
“This program isn’t for everyone,” she says. “But it is if you’re about the right stuff, and you want to grow, not only as a player but also as a young woman and become something. If that is you, you come and play for Sherri Coale.”
“It’s how we rate kids, how many of the top level kids you go after, how many of the mid-level kids you go after, and trying to identify those [players] in a different way,” says assistant coach Jan Ross, who has been on Coale’s staff since Day 1 and was her college roommate at Oklahoma Christian University.
Going after the top prospects is important, but no longer a top priority.
Finding specific fits for the program and how they integrate into the Oklahoma culture. The coaching staff now uses a system that grades each recruit from 1 to 10, looking for attributes such as substance and figuring out if players see “the big picture” for the program. The grades will then go on the recruiting board to see if the player fits the team’s need. Eliminations are made based on this information.
The staff now monitors recruits’ social media accounts and they could be eliminated based on what they post, top player or not. Coale also focuses on what players want to do while they are in school and after they graduate. Between home visits and official trips to campus, each recruit will meet every person on Oklahoma’s staff, from the sports information director, to the strength coach, all the way down to the equipment managers.
Before Oklahoma’s new philosophy was put into place, the recruiting mindset was tested in early in 2014 after the staff identified a raw, but gifted 6' 9" talent from Cypress Woods High, outside of Houston.
Nancy Mulkey, who was profiled on TLC's "My Giant LIfe" a show about extremely tall women, didn’t want to go to Oklahoma initially.
Mulkey had been on Oklahoma’s radar, but the word “no” didn’t stop the coaches from an all-out pursuit of the top 20 recruit.
Despite the initial rejection, Coale placed a call to Mulkey’s mother, Dolores. After a brief conversation, Coale invited Mulkey to visit the Norman campus. “I had a feeling that once they came here and she felt the connection of our players that she would know this is not only a safe place but this is a place where she can grow,” Coale said.
After one weekend visit, Mulkey made up her mind. She was going to become a Sooner. The environment, the connection with the coaches and her desire to leave the confines of home were enough to change her mind.
“This is it,” Mulkey told her mother. “Tell everyone else I am not coming.”
Freshman Chelsea Dungee has a similar story. The 5’11” guard from Sapulpa High originally committed to Oklahoma State back in the eighth grade and re-opened her commitment after the tragic plane crash death of OSU head coach Kurt Budke and assistant basketball coach and recruiting coordinator Miranda Sernain November 2011.
Coale went to Texas to scout one of Dungee’s AAU games and again, after just one conversation, Dungee was sold on Oklahoma’s future.
“There’s just something about her and the coaching staff and something about the players that I knew I would grow,” Dungee says. “I need to be pushed to help my game, and Coach Coale sold me not only on basketball, but being vulnerable and being allowed to grow.”
Mulkey, who finished fifth in the Big 12 with 62 blocked shots and Dungee, who averaged 7.4 points in 18 starts are expected to be part of the Sooners future success. Oklahoma will bring in another Top 40 recruit in Ana Llanusa, a 6-foot guard from nearby Choctaw, Okla<., next season.
The other 2017 signees are Mandy Simpson, a 6’1” small forward from Boise, Idaho, and point guard Shaina Pellington from Pickering, Ontario and the program has verbal commitments for the 2018 class from point guard Tatum Veithenheimer, a top 25 recruit from Windthorst, Texas, and guard Jessi Murcer from nearby Westmoore.
This is a remarkable improvement in recruiting, considering Oklahoma didn’t have a single top 50 national recruit in the 2015 class.
That youth movement is needed as Oklahoma is expected to lose six seniors from this season’s squad.
“I would say the change has worked so far," Coale admits. “I have to do more than sell them on Oklahoma and the basketball program. The change had to come in the way we view how these ladies can become successful people.”
In 1996, at age 31 and eight months pregnant with her second child, Coalewas hired away from Norman High to take over a Sooners program that was in dire need of direction.
Just six years earlier, in March 1990, the school had announced it would shut down the basketball program. The administration had decided not to support a team that had averaged fewer than 100 fans per game in 1989–90. Officials at the time cited an increasing rise in costs and a chance to save money so the school could put together a women’s soccer team.
Amid outcry over the decision and threats of a sex-discrimination lawsuit, university officials reversed course and reinstated the program.
The shut down only lasted a week, but the damage to the team was profound.
Over the next five seasons, the Sooners won just over half of its games, and the year before Coale arrived (1995–96), the team went 15–18. Her first three seasons were rough. Those teams won only 28 out 83 games, but increased their win total every season. The breakthrough came in the 1999-2000 season, when the Sooners cracked the AP Top 25 for the first time under Coale won the conference title and reached the Sweet 16. “I told them I don't want them getting fat and sassy, but I knew we had something special,” she says.
Under Coale, Oklahoma has six regular season Big 12 championships and four tournament titles. But Baylor has had a stranglehold on the conference, winning the Big 12 tournament in six of the last seven years. Baylor is also the last team not named Connecticut or South Carolina to win the national title.
But Coale and her team feel that with the experience they have coming back combined with the influx of new talent, the Sooners will be in position to challenge for Big 12 titles again. “I think if you watch some of the quarters that we put together or some possessions, even, it's as good as it gets,” says guard Maddie Manning, who averaged almost 13 points and 5.5 rebounds per game before a late-season knee injury. “We can play with anybody in the country. It's just finding that that fine line between believing it and execution.”
One day last summer, Coale was sweeping out her pool cabana at her home when her cell phone rang. She noticed the call was from Marsha Sharp, the Women's Basketball Hall of Famer and former Texas Tech coach who led the Lady Techsters to the 1993 NCAA title. Also on the call was Doug Bruno, currently DePaul’s head coach and an assistant on the USA Women's National Team, which won gold at the Rio Summer Olympics.
The two icons were calling to tell Coale that she would be inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. (Jackie Stiles, Natalie Williams, June Courteau, Bill Tipps, and Joe Lombard were the others inducted with Coale.
After the call, Coale sat for 25 minutes trying to process the information she had just received. “It was a surreal,” she says. “It’s just not anything that I'd ever thought about and it completely caught me off guard.
“Then the honor of hearing it from those two guys. I just think the world of both of us as people and as basketball coaches. You know, hearing your heroes give you information like that is incredibly cool.”
When Coale’s former players heard the news, they were thrilled. All-America guard Stacey Dales, who played five seasons in the WNBA before becoming a reporter for ESPN and now for the NFL network, says Coale is a teacher in every sense of the word.
“She taught me how to play the game, and how to play the game with unbridled passion like it’s supposed to be played. She also is a genius in telling you how to handle your business off the court,” says Dales, who is the only female player whose jersey hangs from the arena rafters. “I am now a professional because of her and I learned how to be a part of something bigger than myself.”
Adds Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly, “I think when the story of the Big 12 is written, there will be a huge chapter about her and what’s she’s meant not to Oklahoma women’s basketball, but to our league because of the work that she’s done, the commitment she’s made, the kind of person she is. She has put the Big 12 on the national map.”
Coale doesn’t see what she does as special. “I believe that’s our job,” she says. “It's teaching people how to handle pressure and how to expect great things from themselves and how to discipline themselves and manage their time and how to connect with people. That’s what I do. End of story.”
Thanks to her ability to keep adapting and evolving her program, Coale’s basketball story is far from over.