7 minute read

500 Wins

In the history of Division I women’s basketball, less than 100 coaches have won 500 games. Sherri Coale surpassed the 500 win mark on Feb. 2.

But it was more than a historic win. It was a critical road victory against an opponent that had the Sooners down by 22 points at halftime. The Sooners roared out of the locker room and outscored Kansas 29-13 in the third quarter, eventually forcing overtime, when they outscored the Jayhawks to break a four-game losing streak.

“In the great scheme of things, our team needed to win a basketball game today and we did,” Coale said.

But there’s no doubt that the win was also an important highlight to a legendary career. Coach Coale took a women’s basketball program from the brink of extinction to a Final Four appearance, and then on to compete for a national championship.

She has elevated the Sooners to a level of consistent success that is good enough to land her in the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame before her coaching career is even finished.

Leave your story better than you found it. That is the foundation of Oklahoma Women’s Basketball under Coale’s leadership.

“When a head coach gets recognition, it’s a result of a bunch of great players and a wide array of great staff members through the years. But it’s not just the guys on the floor. It’s the people that get us where we’re going: our office manager, equipment managers, trainer, strength staff,” Coale said. “That recognition goes to a lot of people. Five hundred reflects a lot of great players and a lot of committed staff members.

“I’ve been very, very fortunate to be surrounded by amazing people and that’s the only way that happens.”

While this historic win meant a lot to the 2019-2020 Sooners, it continues to add to one of the great stories in college basketball history.

In the spring of 1990, OU was coming off another losing season. The Sooners had finished 7-22 and had an average of 65 fans at home games. OU President Richard Van Horn and Athletic Director Donnie Duncan made the decision to drop the program, saying they wanted to use the funds to bolster other women’s sports.

boydstreet.com Coale was a coach at nearby Norman High School when she heard the news. There was no way they could shutter the program, she thought, but the university seemed set on its plan.

The reaction was swift and included a campus rally to condemn the decision. A national group prepared to file a lawsuit, advocating for women’s rights as part of a movement focusing on sports as a key element to achieving across-theboard gender equity. The State Senate even passed a resolution, condemning the decision.

Threatened with legal action and battered by a national outcry, officials announced one week later that the program would be restored. As the 1996 season approached, it was clear that the OU women’s hoops program was still struggling.

In the meantime, Coale had won two state titles at Norman High, which got OU’s attention. So, OU administrators took a chance and made a rare move, hiring a high school coach to run a college program. Onlookers wondered if the job would be too steep of a challenge for Coale.

“Everybody had to be convinced,” Coale said. “People inside the program, people you wanted to bring into your program, people outside the program… we just continued acts of sincerity over and over and over to change the way people saw who we were.”

“Coale came in with a plan,” said Marita Hynes, who was OU’s associate athletic director at the time. “She was very specific and effective in showing how she could do it.”

Former President David Boren said he was proud of the fact that Sherri Coale was the first coach hired on his watch.

“Here we were, about to do away with women’s basketball, and along came Sherri Coale,” Boren said. “It’s the only coaching decision my wife got involved in, as well. The discussion didn’t go on for long before we realized we wanted and needed to sign her up.”

Coale gave birth to her second child, her first daughter, Chandler, just two weeks after she got the job.

“When you have a job like this, your family has to be a part of your job,” she said. “It’s not, ‘leave it at the office and come home.’ To me that’s impossible, because, with this job, I’m never off.”

“If we go to Target to buy school supplies, when people see me, I am still the head women’s basketball coach for the University of Oklahoma, so family has to understand that.”

While her family continued to grow, so did the women’s basketball program, but many questioned whether it could ever be changed enough.

“It’s really, really challenging to stay at the top,” Coale said. “But I don’t know that there’s anything harder than truly changing a damaged perception.” Through years of hard work and determination, Coale has done that, and her record of success speaks for itself.

Since taking the job, Coale’s teams have won six Big 12 regular-season titles and four Big 12 post-season titles. She has been named the Big 12 Coach of the Year on four occasions, and she has made the NCAA Tournament 19 times. In those 19 trips to the Big Dance, Coale has advanced to the Sweet 16 nine times, the Final Four three teams and the NCAA Finals once. However, her former players, those who helped leave the story better than they found it, best tell Coale’s impact. Take Amanda Thompson, a former Sooner standout who played from 2006 to 2010 and is currently a graduate assistant.

“From the first moment I met her, I felt that passion to win a championship,” Thompson said. “That’s one of the reasons why I came here. She really wants to win. Her players and her coaching staff are all on the same mission.”

made two tournament appearances in 22 years. The move from irrelevance to elite was not an easy climb, though.

“She is Oklahoma basketball,” former Sooner Maddie Manning said. “She made the program what it is. That’s why I went to the University of Oklahoma. That’s why kids go there, to play for Sherri Coale. She’s a Hall of Fame coach and has an unbelievable way of motivating people. I can’t say enough good things about her.”

Success and championships helped push the program, but the journey is more than just wins and losses. For Coale, it’s about changing lives.

“She’s chasing that championship, but she’s on a mission to change people’s lives,” Manning added. “That’s her biggest thing, affecting anybody that walks through that door in a positive way, and then chasing that championship.”

Colton Coale, Sherri Coale’s son and assistant coach the last two seasons, says their players are the top priority.

“The kids mean more to her than those wins,” he said. “In her mind, those aren’t her wins… they’re her players wins. I think the wins are just kind of a validation of how she’s touched so many people. She does this thing every day to impact kids and help them figure out who they are. That’s just the lens that she looks through every day and she does a heck of a job of it.”

It is amazing to think that a program which was viewed as an afterthought has become such an integral part of OU’s athletic department. Coale is now one of only 33 coaches with 500 wins who are currently active, and only 15 achieved the mark while coaching at a single school for their full career.

She has coached 14 WNBA draft picks (six of those were first round picks), 13 All-Americans, seven Big 12 Freshmen of the Year and six Big 12 Players of the Year. She was inducted into the Women’s College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2016.

While 500 career wins serves as an important milestone that represents Coale’s on-the-court success, she believes the impact she’s made on her players, coaches and the sport of women’s basketball is even more meaningful. – BSM


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