Since being named head coach in 2003, coach Gary Blair has guided Texas A&M into the ranks of the elite. The Aggies have won four conference titles and made 12 straight NCAA Tournament appearances that have included five Sweet Sixteen berths, three trips to the Elite Eight, and a National Championship in 2011.
Blair notched his 750th career win last month. Going into the season, he ranked eighth among active Division I coaches for career coaching victories. Blair is one of only three all-time DI women’s basketball coaches to lead two different teams to the Final Four, and is one of eight coaches to lead three different teams to the NCAA Tournament.
A Dallas native, Blair was the head coach at South Oak Cliff High school from 1973-1980. He was an assistant coach at Louisiana Tech from 1980-1985 and head coach at Stephen F. Austin from 1985-1993. From 1993-2003, he was the head coach at Arkansas. Blair’s coaching tree includes Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer and Arkansas coach Mike Neighbors, whose teams Texas A&M faces in Southeastern Conference play. Aggies associate head coach Kelly Bond-White has been with Blair all 15 years in the program, and assistant coach Bob Starkey has been there for six.
Now divorced, Blair has a son and a daughter, and three grandchildren. He published his autobiography, “A Coaching Life,” last year.
You played baseball in college. How did you get into women’s basketball, and where did you get your basketball knowledge?
Baseball was my best sport – I starred – but I was 120 pounds even though I worked out, and I never got a double my whole high school career. In basketball I stayed in shape, but I couldn’t shoot a lick. My all-city friend came to see us play the other day, and he’s the bench warmer now. He’s bald and I’ve got a full head of hair, so I’m loving it. When I go back to reunions I feel good because a lot of those old people don’t nearly look as good.
I was an architecture major at TTU and a walk-on for baseball. I flunked out of architecture, which didn’t make me eligible for baseball. After I completed my failure in architecture, I had to sit out a semester and a summer before I could come back, and by that time baseball was over. I switched my major to kinesiology. I thought I’d be a baseball coach, but after four and a half years of college I quit for a while and went to California to take a summer job as a restaurant manager. Then I joined the Marine Corps. I enrolled in May, 1969 when everyone was trying to stay out. We were in Okinawa when everyone was trying to pull troops back.
They put me into the office to work and I had a great year. I got early outs in December, 1970. So after 18 months and seven days I sprinted back to Texas to finish my last year of school. That’s when I went to South Oak Cliff High School and got one of few jobs that were open. At that time where were no coaching jobs, so I took a PE teacher job, and I volunteered to be the golf coach. Since integration, there were no volunteers. Title IX came in 1972, and schools had to put women’s athletics in larger cities, whereas before they had only existed in small towns. None of the big six major cities in Texas had women’s athletics before Title IX. They asked for volunteers to coach (girl’s) basketball (at South Oak Cliff), and the girls next door asked me if I’d coach. I took the job thinking this will be good for a year or two. All of a sudden it was a power, sort of like Long Beach Poly. It was middle-class and tough, and it had turned 100 percent black in two years.
I was the head coach for basketball, volleyball, track and cross country for eight years, and I loved it. I had a rule for my kids that they had to play all of (the sports). I didn’t want them to go back home because at that time there were a lot of single parents out working, which meant kids had a lot of time between 4 and 7 p.m. to get into trouble. We’d take the kids home after practice – just load up cars take them home.
In 1977 we won our first state championship, and they asked me to be the head boy’s basketball coach and the coordinator of junior varsity football. I turned it down to stay with the women. Back then I felt like the girls needed me. I’m a product of Title XI, as I was the first man to coach women in the city of Dallas. All the other men coached boy’s basketball and football. I actually fell in love with the kids, and to this day it’s still the best job I’ve ever had, because it gave me the confidence to do what I’m doing now.
Can you talk about your experience coaching at Louisiana Tech, at the dawning of women’s collegiate basketball?
Sonja Hogg is the first lady of college basketball: she knew how to dress, how to press, and she knew how to recruit. Leon Barmore was the Bobby Knight of women’s basketball. I was in the middle of that with recruiting. All three of us were six months apart in age. It worked, and I don’t know if it could ever work again with the egos that the three of us had. My job was to massage the egos.
It was back then Old Dominion, Louisiana Tech, Long Beach State, Western Kentucky and Cheney State that were the big dogs. Those were the programs, and then they died out to start the 1980’s. You could get it done at those smaller venues back then. We would pack them in to the old field house, and after two years when we won National Championships, we moved (the venue) to the new assembly center. Karl Malone was playing at Louisiana Tech at that time. We opened that arena in the 1983-84 season and we played Cheryl Miller and USC in the opening round (of the NCAA Tournament) and we got beat at home. You could tell Cheryl was the next coming. She was the first 6-3 kid who could play all five positions. She was ahead of her time.
Can you talk about how you assembled your infamous coaching staff at Arkansas?
When I got to Arkansas I needed a national recruiter, so I hired Tom Collen from Purdue. I brought Sue Donohoe with me, who was a great recruiter and a real people person. I told Sue that two things have to happen: you have to come with me and my wife has to come with me.
Then had Amber Nichols Shirey, who ended up staying there – she is still the director of basketball operations there. In 1997 Collen went to Colorado State. Kit Lyle was with me at Stephen F., and more recently he was Chennedy Carter’s coach for her last two years of high school Mike Neighbors was a high school coach at Cabbot making $72,000 a year. I had to play the Title IX card to get a director of basketball operations. That allowed me to hire Mike, and it was the best hire I’ve ever had. I hired him from $72,000 to $14,000, and he had kept up with everything through his high school, and he knew so much about recruiting nationally through AAU. He knew all the kids and traveled to see them. It wasn’t long before we saw he was a money-making machine. He was with me two or three years. He would drive me to ball games and couldn’t come in and watch (due to NCAA rules), so he would sit in the parking lot and work with what whatever Internet we had around 2000.
Vic Schaefer came with me when Tom took the Colorado job. I had to have someone with me who could build the program up and I needed someone I could trust. I knew him from Sam Houston State when I was at Stephen F. He was making $44,000 at Sam Houston and I brought him in at $55,000. The first year we were a Cinderella team and went to the Final Four. He handled the defense, and it was the first time I’d really turned over the defense to an assistant coach. It was very good. We stayed another five years. Then Arkansas made the mistake of not hiring him when I left. He was also interviewing for the New Mexico State job, which he didn’t want to take. Vic turned it down and came with me to Texas A&M, and Amber stayed. We hired assistant Amy Sheridan, who played at Sam Houston State with Vic. That’s when we brought in Johnnie Harris, who did a wonderful job for me.
I usually ask experienced coaches how young people have changed since you first began coaching, but you have 45 years of experience. What can you say about it?
Social media is now as important as the three-point line. I don’t know what’s more important to them. There is the good, the bad and the ugly of social media. Unfortunately, these kids today, before they get finished with a practice they’re talking to their supporters, their friends or their mama about their bad practice.
Not too many players transfer from Texas A&M. What is the foundation for building a good team culture?
We can’t get separation on teams, no one plays us close, our defense is solid but we’re not stopping people – they’re scoring on us. Every possession is a game in itself. We keep starters in (for enough time) and develop everyone. I’m very honest with the kids and their parents: when you earn your playing time, you will get your playing time. I’m not playing kids just to keep them from transferring. When they’re young we do a lot of individual practices to keep improving their skill level. We’ve done a good job of bringing in the right kids with the right parents.
It’s also important to get kids involved in other things on campus besides basketball. A&M is all about leadership. Our student body is 62,000 strong, and there are other things in life just as important as basketball.
Did you envision coaching this long?
No way did I think I would still be coaching now. I left the high school game in 1980 when Barmore and Hogg called me up. We were just coming off of a state championship team and I had just got married. It took me two weeks to make up my mind. Only the last five years in high school we were allowed to go to state. We finished third, first, first, second and first. The first five years at Tech we were national champs, national champs, second, third, and Elite Eight.
How will you know when it’s time to retire?
I almost found out (against Georgia earlier this month) when we got beat in overtime. We were up five in OT and we struggled so much, but Georgia played great. Chennedy (Carter) hit a three and I thought we would pull it off, but Georgia controlled the OT. I’m 72, but a young 72. All of my 750 wins have happened after I turned 40, because I was a late bloomer. I didn’t start coaching until I was 27. I took the job at Stephen F and I was smart enough not to replace (longtime Louisiana State coach) Sue Gunter or Leon Barmore when he wanted out (of Louisiana Tech). I wait for people to screw up and then go in on the white horse and resurrect the program. I’ve been at basketball schools all the way, to (A&M). I’m a builder, so I had to build that Stephen F team. I had to rebuild Arkansas, but A&M was the hardest rebuild because when I got here, they were horrible.
What is the best thing about your job?
I’ve got a saying: today I gave all I had, and what I kept I’ve lost forever. What I’m trying to do is max out every day. When I max out, I’m juggling lot of hats. I’m around all the other events; I’m the only coach that’s in a civic club. I want to be known in this community as more than just a basketball coach, and people appreciate that. I have a lot of responsibility, a lot of flexibility, and I argue with my assistants all the time. Sometimes, we can agree to disagree. I don’t hire bobblehead dolls. The only friend I’ve ever hired is Vic; everyone else I hire for their strengths. I’ve never fired a person in my life, back to restaurant manager days. I get people to work with me, find out about them and get to know their strengths. Then I give them responsibility and let them work. That’s my strength. My weakness is I’m not hard enough to fire someone.
I don’t want kids to transfer, I want them to realize when they come back to a reunion like the one we had (earlier this month). In the 1970s the kids had to wash their own clothes. I had to put silk flowers in the urinals at away games because we always had to use the boy’s locker room as visitors. It makes you appreciate the road of women in sports. They used to ride in vans and wear tube socks.
Today’s kids live in the moment. Whatever social media tells them to do, they live it in that moment.
The one thing I want to be able to do is that I want to leave on good terms. I want to be the first coach at A&M to leave since Bear Bryant, on his own terms. When I can’t compete for championships anymore, it’s time to leave. I don’t want to just win ball games; I want to make a difference and be in every game. We’ve lost recent games to South Carolina and Tennessee, but we were right there until the last possession.
In other sports I’m pulling for the veteran coaches. As older coaches, we have to change with today’s kids. Bobby Knight would have a hard time coaching today, and Barmore. You can’t (raise your voice at young people) anymore. But you don’t change your values and your principles, and when those kids were sitting there with their parents, I had respect from them with their family. I’m not like Bush 41, but like Bush 43. I have respect, and people appreciate what I gave back to the game.