The 52-year-old Women’s Basketball Hall of Famer on knowing how to win, the best player she ever coached at Texas Tech (guess who?), and why rabid fans are a recruiter’s secret weapon.
Evan Smith: You’ve racked up more than 540 wins at Texas Tech over 23 years, and the only consistent element in that time has been you. The key to success in college basketball must be the coach.
Marsh Sharp: Recruiting is the single most important thing you do from the standpoint of trying to win games. You have to have a plan, and our plan was to put as many West Texas players in the program as we felt could help us.
ES: Why does that matter? Ability and geography don’t necessarily go hand in hand.
MS: In West Texas, people have been attracted to the chance to watch West Texas kids play. Our fans will go out and watch kids in high school gyms all over West Texas whether they are from that community or not, or whether they know those kids or not, because they want to see the players they think are going to be the next Lady Raiders. On some Saturday afternoons, caravans of cars come from the Amarillo area to see the players we’ve recruited.
ES: Somebody who doesn’t know much about basketball might think that if you have one hundred fans or one thousand fans, you’re still going to be as good as you are.
MS: When you’re trying to recruit great players, one of the things in women’s basketball that can separate you from other teams is a great crowd. We’re able to put close to 13,000 people in the [United Spirit] arena most every time we play. We were third in the country in attendance the past three years, behind Connecticut and Tennessee. That’s a great selling point for our program. Also, because we’re in Lubbock, where there are no pro sports, this is one of the biggest games in town. You’re the lead story on local TV. You’re the headline of the local paper. You get a lot of statewide coverage, and some nationally too.
ES: Every coach has his or her strategy for identifying the best recruits. What are you looking for?
MS: The more success you have, the greater the opportunity you have to talk to more players—doors open a little bit easier than they did a decade or two ago—but at the same time, there’s a more limited group of players you’re trying to convince to come, because they have to have a certain talent level to play. There are only a small number of players you see each year who can come in and make a significant difference, and those are the ones you go after. You have to make a decision about them, hoping that they can continue to grow as a player or that they’re good enough to come into your program and fit in. The other side to that is, sometimes you’re not even sure what you need. And I feel like nobody but me can walk into a gym and watch a great player play and get a sense of whether I can coach her. Sometimes you feel like you can, and sometimes you feel like you can’t.
ES: What does it mean for someone to be coachable?
MS: It has to do with her demeanor, the way she handles her teammates, the way she reacts to a coach, the way she reacts to winning, to losing. You have to decide now—if this person comes into your program and happens not to be the star, can she accept being a role player? That’s where you really begin to develop the chemistry of your team four or five years down the road.
ES: You might actually prefer to have a less talented but more coachable player.
MS: No question. You might take a person below a certain talent level to get someone who’s coachable, who will do all of the blue-collar work, who can come to practice every day with the same mentality, who is going to do all the things off the court from the academic side and continue the traditions of Lady Raider basketball with our fans and interact with people well and have the skills that we think are important. In some cases, you want to get the best person, but I think there’s magic in creating a team. You’re never gonna win big with ten individuals; they have to be ten individuals who form a great team.
ES: You have next year’s recruiting class already set. Who’s the star? Who’s your big “get”?
MS: We have a guard with great skills, Lavonda Henderson, from Estacado High School, in Lubbock, who we feel will be able to immediately replace Erin Grant [one of the top five point guards in the country]. She’s a terrific make-all-the-hard-plays kind of player. I have another player, from a small school outside Weatherford, who’s averaging twentysomething points a game. Her name is Krystal Cole, and I love her attitude. I watched her all summer. She might not have been the most talented player on the floor, but she did everything she needed to do to make her team win.
ES: Are there specific high schools you recruit at regularly?
MS: Absolutely. Canyon High School. Plainview High School. One that I have so much respect for now is Summit High School, in Mansfield. Samantha Morrow has done a great job there; she’s a big-time coach. I always go by Summit High because I know there are going to be players who can make a team better. We’ve recruited some kids there who we didn’t get, but we recruited Erin, who was a big, big find for us. She knew how to win when she came into this program, and I credit Samantha with a lot of that.
ES: How do you recognize when a player “knows how to win”?
MS: She understands work ethic, and she understands preparation. We talk a lot here about how the will to prepare to win is much more important than the will to win. It’s not showing up one day against your biggest rival and playing well; it’s getting ready every single day of the year to do that. It’s being willing to take the responsibility to make the big play. Some people run from that. Sometimes you make mistakes in recruiting—you have folks in your program who don’t want the responsibility of being great. But when you have someone who has the talent and who will also assume that responsibility, you’ve found a gem. You’ve found someone who can take you to a different level.
ES: Given how much the university has gotten out of the program, I wonder if you’ve received the resources you need to recruit, keep good players, pay coaches.
MS: No question. I’ve said many times that the program has become much bigger than an individual or even a small group of individuals. They call our fans Lady Raider Nation for good reason. The university has been an incredibly big part of that. Great administrators. A board of regents that believed twenty years ago in supporting women’s athletics.
ES: Not because they had to? Not because of Title IX?
MS: Not because the law was passed but because it was the right thing to do. I’ve been on the fortunate end of that, and I hope we’ve given back in a great way. We were able to win a national title in 1993. And Tech has given us every opportunity to remain a top-ten program.
ES: Why haven’t more schools taken the point of view that women’s athletics are a) important or b) as important as men’s athletics?
MS: It comes down to revenue. For a while people saw women’s athletics as a revenue drain, and it was. But as athletic directors and presidents of universities have realized that there are revenue-producing opportunities in women’s basketball, the mind-set has changed. They’ve financed programs at a higher level than ever before, and programs have gotten better. Oklahoma is a great example of that. Baylor invested in Kim Mulkey-Robinson—they paid her a competitive salary and gave her some resources, and you see what’s happened: Baylor is now top ten.
ES: Let’s talk about you. How did you get into coaching?
MS: I was born in the state of Washington. My dad was in the Navy, so we moved around a little bit. I spent some of my primary school years here in Lubbock and some in New Mexico, but we lived in Tulia from the time I was a seventh-grader on. That was great for me, because none of the other communities had athletics for girls. Only small schools in the state of Texas during the sixties and early seventies had programs that girls could participate in. Tulia’s was one of the best.
ES: What made Tulia so exceptional?
MS: We had a coach named Bud Roberts. He was a little guy, about five foot three, and he wore his hair in a crew cut all the time, like a sergeant. He was terrific. We were fortunate to have some good athletes there, but he taught us that you not only had to have talent, you had to put skills with it. And in order to put skills with talent, you had to work at it. I got to be around a lot of girls who were pretty passionate about having a good basketball team, and together we learned to love the sport. We loved the competition but also being able to represent our school and the camaraderie you develop within a team setting. Those things I’ve carried with me forever.
ES: You went on to play at Wayland Baptist in Plainview.
MS: I absolutely loved basketball, and I worked really hard at it. I think I had a great work ethic. But let me say right off the bat that I was not a great player.
ES: So you played just one year?
MS: Yeah, on the freshman team. I hung around my sophomore year and began to coach the freshman team as a junior. I was devastated that I wasn’t good enough to play. I thought, you know, that the worst thing had happened to me, that it was an end-of-the-world kind of a thing, because I just loved playing so much. When I look back at it now, it was the greatest thing that ever happened to me, because I was able to coach in an environment with great coaches who are both now in the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, Harley Redin and Dean Weese. At a very young age I was able to begin that process of learning not only how to master the x’s and o’s of what’s important on the court but also team-building and handling individuals and the psychology you have to have to motivate players to get to a certain level. I was only twenty years old trying to do that with eighteen-year-olds. I was only two years removed from them.
ES: At the same time, you probably understood a little bit better what was going through their minds.
MS: No question. I was there for four years as an undergraduate and for one year as a graduate assistant. Wayland didn’t have a graduate school, so I drove back and forth to West Texas State, in Canyon, which is now West Texas A&M, to get my master’s in education. I did that in the mornings and came back in the afternoons to coach.
ES: At what point did you peel off and go to Tech?
MS: Well, first I was a high school coach for six years at Lockney, which is fifteen miles east of Plainview.
ES: Did it remind you of Tulia?
MS: A lot. We were in the same district with them. I’m a small-town West Texas girl, you know? So I understand the mentality of the farming community. I could sit and talk with the players’ dads about the cotton crop. My dad and grandparents farmed, so I understood how to run an irrigation ditch and chop cotton and drive a tractor. It connected me with the community, and it still does. I’m so fired up this year, because the cotton crop in Lubbock County and in all the surrounding counties is awesome. You know what that translates into? Everything is better. Every business in Lubbock is better when the cotton crop is good, because there’s money generated. The crowds are better. Our basketball camps are better. Everything changes.
ES: Nobody would think that if the high-tech economy goes to heck in Austin, the UT basketball program is going to be in trouble. The connection between Tech and Lubbock is much greater.
MS: I think it’s our strength. You know, there’s not another Division I university from here to Fort Worth, to Albuquerque, to El Paso. We have that entire range, and we really perceive it as Tech country.
ES: So tell me how you got to Tech country. You were an assistant for a year before you got the head coaching job.
MS: A lot of people are perfect fits for universities. Jody Conradt is a perfect fit for the University of Texas. Spike Dykes was a perfect fit as a football coach for Texas Tech. Pat Summitt, at Tennessee—she’s Tennessee-born and -raised. I’m a perfect fit for Texas Tech. I understand West Texas. I am West Texas. It’s my home. My dad was a Tech graduate. I can remember being a five-, six-, seven-year-old sitting in the living room with him, listening to Jack Dale calling Texas Tech basketball games on the radio. Or watching Donny Anderson play football. For me it was the ultimate compliment to get to coach at Tech.
ES: Who’s the best player you’ve ever coached?
MS: Sheryl Swoopes.
ES: You didn’t hesitate for a second. Did she come to you great or did she leave you great?
MS: She came to us great, though I think she got better while she was here. She didn’t know how to shoot a jump shot very well when she came to Tech, and we got that done. I can remember sitting in the bleachers with her at practice, saying, “You know, there’s one thing I can do for you to take you from great to maybe the greatest. It’s your choice. You need to learn how to shoot a jump shot.” And she looked at me and said, “Let’s go.” We walked out on the floor and started that process. Of course, she didn’t need it. She didn’t have to shoot anything in the middle because she was so much better than anyone around her. She could attack the rim whenever she wanted, or she could sink a three-point shot, or she could shoot a free throw. The other thing that happened to her while she was here is that her mental toughness became so much better. It’s something she needed in order to approach every big moment well. She did it.
ES: Is there one game of the many you’ve won that you look back on and think, “That was the high point”?
MS: When you win a national championship, you can never duplicate that feeling. But I’ll tell you about another game that stands out in my mind. The season after we won the national championship, the first game we played was against Vanderbilt. They were ranked number one in the country. We were in a Hall of Fame tip-off in Jackson, Tennessee. We didn’t have three of our starting seniors from the previous year—they had graduated. I think a lot of people thought that our program was a flash in the pan, a one-year scenario. We walked in and were able to win that game. I felt that at that moment we had defined Texas Tech as a program and not just a team.
ES: Is there anything else left for you to do? Have you looked down the road and thought, “If I achieve this, I’ll go out on top”? Or has the end of your coaching career not even occurred to you?
MS: You always think, “When’s the right time?” As long as I’m healthy and I enjoy what I’m doing, then this is what I’m supposed to be about. That could change tomorrow, and if it does, I hope I’ll have the courage to make the change. I really can’t see myself sitting at my house reading, and I’m such a bad golfer that nobody in Lubbock will want me on the course. But there will be something next.