The 2017-2018 season for coach Vanessa Blair-Lewis – her tenth at Bethune-Cookman – was studded with milestones. The Wildcats won their third straight Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference regular-season championship, notched a program-record 24 wins, and made a third appearance in the WNIT. Blair-Lewis won her 250th career game, and in March, gave birth to a son. By her second season at the helm she had guided the team to its first winning year in the last eight, with its highest win total since 1998.
Blair-Lewis was a standout player for Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland, and was inducted into the Northeastern Conference Hall of Fame in 2013. After college she played professionally in Sweden for two years, and returned to her alma mater as an assistant coach for two seasons before being named head coach. She captained the Mountaineers for nine years before being hired at Bethune-Cookman.
With husband Eric Lewis, an NBA referee, Blair-Lewis has two sons.
You began your coaching career at the helm of your alma mater, Mount St. Mary’s, and not long after you had graduated. What was that like, and how did you grow there?
I left there in 1992, went overseas and payed in Sweden. While there I slightly tore my MCL, and I was told that it could heal on its own, or I could have surgery. I thought, I’m going to come home and let its heal on its own and take a mental break, because I had been playing since I was seven years old. Pretty soon my former coach called and said, “could you help me out?” I said, “with what?” He said, “coaching!” I never wanted to coach. But he said, “you’d have all the resources here for your rehab.” It was around that time that the WNBA was getting ready to start, so I thought it would be a good idea to try out for the Mystics. So I took the job.
Christy Winters Scott is my cousin, and she and I tried out and made it down to the last cut. So at that point I decided that I’d fulfilled all that I’d wanted to in basketball, and it was time for me to try something else. The plan was to go back and finish coaching and then go to law school. It was all set up for me to go to law school at Virginia and become a prosecuting attorney. As I was starting that second year in September, Coach Sheahan said to me one night, “I’m stepping down, and I want you to be my successor. I had just turned 24, and I didn’t know what to do. So I called my dad and he said, “of course you’re taking it.” My dad was my coach at the high school, and for 20 years. He worked in DC and coached when he came home, and he was very successful as a state champion. So I took the job, and I was only a few years older than the players I was trying to recruit.
How did you get from there to Bethune-Cookman?
I stayed at the Mount for two years as an assistant coach and nine years as a head coach, and I got to that point where I’d spent ages 17-34 in one place. Remember, I never wanted to do this at all, and here I am. I felt something in my spirit that there was some place I needed to be, but I didn’t know what that looked like. Then I got a call from Sandra Booker, the former coach there who is now the SWA. She said, “we have an opening and I thought about you, and I’d like you to come interview.” I went down and interviewed, and all I knew was that it felt like family, it felt like home. It was not the Taj Mahal, but it was the Taj Mahal of family.
How did you set out to create the program that you now have? What were your building blocks?
I’m a woman of faith, and I knew when I took this job that I was coming to an institution of faith. I promised the AD that I would turn this program around, and I started praying. We live in a culture where winning at all cost is valued, but I’m not that kind of person. I like to see winning in the lives of student-athletes, so I had to create a culture and mindset that wasn’t here when I got here. I had to start with diving into their lives so they could understand success versus value. Success is what you’re talking about what you see now. It’s the result of putting value in people, whether i recruited them or not. Then I was able to recruit people we could put a value on. Once and athlete feels that they are important, they perform at a level they didn’t know they could achieve, because they feel valuable. Every girl who has played for me has felt valued. To this point I have had girls graduate and come live with me because they didn’t know which way to go. It was never all about basketball; the foundation was valuing human beings.
What are your keys to success in coaching?
I like to get a player that is multi-dimensional. When I got here, I had players who could only do one thing, and when you can only do one thing, you’re limited. I tried to recruit the ones who could do one or two things well. It takes a lot of time to find those kinds who are not playing for UConn or Dawn Staley.
How do you approach goal-setting?
I like to step back and take a holistic approach. Why am i wanting this goal? If it’s benefiting the kids and the university, then success will come. I’m not a selfish person, and I want to make sure my student-athletes are taken care of. What better way to do something than with those who weren’t supposed to do it? Many of our recruits never got recruited. I don’t know what (other schools) didn’t see, but I’m glad I saw it. We were able to turn this program around with players who were thrown out of consideration. We did it with some of the most unusual suspects.
Do you have a particular achievement, moment or season that stands out in your mind? What is your greatest accomplishment in coaching so far?
The first year we were co-champions of the regular season, because it took us seven years to get to that point. It was a tough road, because no one believed we could really do it. I had an administration, long before I began coaching there, that supported us, because to win a championship you have to have an administration that supports. I remember going into living rooms during the recruiting process saying, if you just trust me……and then we did it. With that group, we did it.
What is unique about coaching at an HBCU?
The unique part is that this is where we had our first start, before we were allowed to go to school with other people, because we were in a segregated state. We formed universities in spite if others not wanting us to see us make it and achieve. And to stand on Mary McLeod Bethune’s shoulders – not only a woman but a black woman at that time – I tell my girls, you are not less than, you are greater than your circumstances. In spite of what we don’t have, we are greater because of it. It’s fulfilling.
What is the best thing about coaching?
Touching lives and impacting young people. Also, it’s them impacting me; it’s a two-way street. I love these girls, and at the same time I’m so glad I had two boys. Some coaches become drained, but if you step back, the athletes give to you as well. Every year it’s a new season to bring in a new identity. Every year will have a different dynamic, and if you open yourself up to that space, we learn from each other and create the season.
What are your goals as a coach?
I want to win and break through ceilings that have never been broken through. My goal as a team is to get to the Tournament and win some games in the Tournament, to do things at an HBCU on the women’s side. I want to change history, to continue on the Bethune-Cookman legacy. I tell my players that my children need you to make it. They are watching them make it, becoming lawyers and going to medical school.
You’ve been pregnant with both of your children during basketball season. How did you manage that, and how do you balance work and family life in a demanding job?
There’s no great time to get pregnant when your husband is an NBA referee and you’re a Division I coach. Our offseason is about one month, so it’s never a good time. Our second son came last year right in the middle of the conference tournament after a 15-1 season. I was sitting there with the doctor asking, “can you take him out now, or can we wait a while?”
My husband’s mom is a retired pediatric nurse, and she lives with us. We couldn’t do our jobs without her. In (the recruiting month of) July, we rent a van and pack it up with toys. We’re like the Harlem Globetrotters.
Do you talk with your husband about basketball at home, or not?
Mostly we talk about the kids and trying to stay balanced. The oldest is now playing sports, including soccer, and we make sure they have their balance outside of our craziness. But most of the time our conversations eventually come back to basketball. We enjoy talking about plays.
If you could go back and tell your younger self anything, what would it be?
That you don’t have to know exactly what the next step will be. I used to feel like I did when I was in college, preparing, and that I had to know exactly the next step. Now my steps are ordered by faith. If you leave room for God to talk, he will, and he’s lead me to places where I never could have grown otherwise. As humans, we like to talk. But if you’re still and quiet, and don’t feel like you have to have it all figured out, God speaks.
After your coaching career is over, what will you be doing?
I know I’ll be in a gym following my two jokers around. Eric and I have plans to rent a Winnebago and travel around and watch them. Basketball is our heartbeat, and we both grew up in the gym. Now our kids are growing up in the gym. So we’ll still be out there somewhere in the stands.