Coach’s Chair: Sylvia Hatchell, University of North Carolina

Sylvia Hatchell emphasizes a point at a pause in a game. Photo courtesy of UNC Athletic Communications.
Sylvia Hatchell emphasizes a point at a pause in a game. Photo courtesy of UNC Athletic Communications.

Sylvia Hatchell has 988 career wins – third all-time behind former Tennessee coach Pat Summitt and Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer. Hatchell is in her 31st season as North Carolina’s head coach.

She began her coaching career shortly after graduating from Carson-Newman College in 1974. Hatchell coached high school girls basketball before moving on to coach at the AIAW and NAIA levels, where she won National Championships at each. In her time with the Tar Heels, she has guided them to eight ACC Tournament titles and a National Championship, in 1994. Many of Hatchell’s former players have gone on to play in the WNBA, and still others are now coaches themselves.

Hatchell has coached many USA Basketball teams in international competition, in both head and assistant roles and winning both gold and silver medals. She was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2004 and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013.

Weeks after her Naismith honor, Hatchell was diagnosed with leukemia and had to step away from the team to fight the disease. The following spring, four members of her highly-lauded freshman class transferred to other schools as the University was rocked by an academic fraud scandal. Hatchell’s cancer went into remission and she returned to coaching in November, 2014. A year later, the Tar Heels fell out of the top 25 rankings for the first time in many years. This season they are 13-9, which includes an upset win yesterday over No. 18 North Carolina State.

A North Carolina native, Hatchell is the author of two books on coaching and one called “Fight! Fight! Discovering Your Inner Strength When Blindsided by Life,” which was released last year and details her battle with cancer. She and her husband have a blueberry patch on their property, and proceeds from berry sales go to the UNC Lineberger Cancer Center, where she was treated.

When you came to North Carolina, did you have any idea you’d be there this long?

No, and this kind of tenure doesn’t happen much anymore nowadays, especially in the world of athletics. Today it’s the philosophy of, “what are you doing for me now?” There are still a lot of good people in the game doing things for the right reasons. It’s about growing the game and helping the players develop as athletes and as people. One of my pet peeves right now – and not just in women’s basketball – is that former women’s players are not having opportunities to coach in their sport. That’s happening way too much, where the former players have committed their lives to a sport, and once they finish their eligibility and pro career they can’t find opportunities to coach. We’ve got to address this. We need an entry-level position for former players. Even at the AAU level, most coaches are men.

I’m not opposed to men coaching women, but former players should have the opportunity to coach their sport. There’s no training ground for that. I want to propose to the NCAA that they let their DI schools have a graduate assistant position. The requirement would be no previous coaching experience, and then they couldn’t stay more than two years. And it has to be a former player. There, they would have an opportunity to train, learn and be ready.

But during my time here at North Carolina, I’ve seen and been through everything. I’ve been in the valleys and I’ve been to the mountaintop.

What was it like coaching alongside Dean Smith on the men’s side in the hey days of that program? How did you carve out a niche for the women’s program?

I’m from Gastonia, North Carolina and this was my dream job. One of the reasons I wanted to come here was because of Dean Smith and the men’s program. Some would say you can’t have good a women’s program with a good men’s program, but I didn’t believe that. I wanted to come here because of the traditions Dean Smith had. But once I got here we didn’t have lot of interaction because they moved to Smith Center we were at Carmichael. He was very good to me and did anything for us. He set the bar high for all sports, and showed everyone how to do it the right way. He lead by example.

It wasn’t wasn’t always easy, and the first few years here we were bad. For three years we were the last team in the ACC. in 1990-91 we started making a move and went form last in the league to a National Championship in three years. Since then we’ve been up and down, and now we’ve had the NCAA (academic fraud investigation) the last few years and  have had nothing to do with it. It’s an academic issue and we have been penalized for it, but me and my staff have had nothing to do with it.

How has the game changed since you began coaching? How have you changed your coaching methods? How have they remained the same?

I’ve got such a huge staff now. I used to drive the bus, sweep the floors and wash the uniforms, and that was the price you paid for success. I didn’t say that wasn’t my job I did whatever it took to be successful.

The first few years I had no assistant – it was just me, and I had a part time secretary. I did everything, but I loved it. Kids appreciated everything you did for them. They loved you because of what you sacrificed for them. Now I’ve got a staff of 10-12, so my biggest task is managing my staff.

Coaching wise, you can’t be as hard on the kids as we used to be. Coaching in the late 70′,s 80’s and 90’s across from people like Pat Summitt and Kay Yow, we were tough and players did what you said with no questions asked. Now you have to explain and give a reason for everything. We used to run them, but it made them tough, mentally and physically.

Now the game includes four out, dribble drives and three-point shooting because it’s taken on more of an International flavor. We no longer have the positions we used to. Every player has to be more versatile.

(Club ball) has changed the game some as far as recruiting, because now kids play games all the time. A lot of kids just play and don’t compete. There is so much to do, and we don’t have that many kids anymore who are just gym rats and who are obsessed with the game. It used to be that kids played 24/7 and had a passion and love for the game. They didn’t have attitude of, “what are you going to give me?” and “I deserve that.”

I have three books out, I do ton of speaking engagements and a lot of work for the University. I do lot for our cancer center, and I like that.

What are the most important qualities to impart to your athletes?

I want to teach them life skills, and the principles of hard work, having a great attitude, treating others the way they should be treated. I want my players to learn a lot of life lessons. And more than anything, I want them to do what they have a passion for and what makes them happy. I’d hope that they would give, because it’s not about getting. I have a shirt that says “Givers Gain,” and another that says “Winners Train, Losers Complain.” I believe that.

You’ve got to get out there and work. Things don’t just come to you.

What was it like to see the WNBA come about, and what is it like to see so many of your former players in the league?

I was in original meeting with (former NBA commissioner) David Stern. I flew into New York in the mid 90’s and we had a meeting. I sat next to him and he said, this is the right thing to do. David was committed. Many years later he came to my Hall of Fame induction ceremony and I thanked him. He gave our players an opportunity to play beyond college.

I have always emphasized them finishing their degrees, and the only two who didn’t are only a few credits short of completion.

Is there an achievement you’d consider your greatest?

My coaching tree. I had no idea until (assistant coach) Sylvia Crawley handed me a sheet of paper with my coaching tree all laid out. We’ve had so many in the program, and to want to go out and coach tells me they had a pretty good experience here. Them going into coaching helps grow the sport, and give back to the sport.

Talk about your friendship with Pat Summitt. What do you do to remember her?

I think about Pat all the time, and I have a lot of things in my office that remind me of Pat. I knew her from college and we played against each other, then went to grad school together. I was the first one on her coaching tree. I be here if it wasn’t for Pat. When this job came up she knew I wanted it, and she called the AD twice on my behalf. She had USA Basketball call, she had Kay Yow call – she had all the big dogs at the time calling for me. Pat was always growing the game, helping other coaches and giving back. It’s hard to realize she’s not here, as she was the face of women’s basketball for such a long time. We lost a great one.

When you were diagnosed with cancer, what was your first thought? How did you come to make your resolve to fight, as you wrote about in your book, “Fight Fight” ?

It had been an unbelievable year. I’d picked up my 900th career win, was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, and we’d signed the No. one recruiting class. Then I was diagnosed with cancer. I had been looking forward to the year, and then life was on hold and it was a matter of life and death. Once I got diagnosed, Pat called me almost every day. After several months, she called me at least once a week. An unbelievable number of people from the women’s basketball world reached out to me.

Coaching helped me beat leukemia. Not many people survive what I had. The mentality, the attitude – all the things I got from basketball helped me beat it. So much is mental; it’s a mentality you choose to have.

You mentioned in a story that you focus on your purpose and not your problems. Would you consider yourself driven, positive or both?

Both. I’m very very positive – I don’t see the glass as half empty or half full – I see it as running over as to the potential that can be fulfilled.

I’m not a good loser; I do have tremendous drive, and I love to work. The year I was out with leukemia, I realized how much I love my sports and the opportunities I have. My job is my platform, and kids need me now more than ever. I realized how much a part of me it is and how much I love it. It renewed my spirit and determination.

Life is not always fair, so you deal with it. You put your big girl pants on and deal with it.

From player transfers to academic scandals to fighting leukemia, you’ve had a lot going on the last few years. How do you deal with stress?

Each and every day, I let nothing and no one take my joy. I look every day for opportunities. I’m fond of an old saying, “a Godly woman in the center of God’s will is immortal until God is done with her.” I beat leukemia, so there’s a purpose for me.

What do you want your legacy to be?

I want to get this team back into the top 10 and competing for a Final Four. I want my legacy to be that I stayed the course, and no matter whether we had a Final Four team or something less than that, that it was all about the players and never about me. I want to make them champions on and off the court.

When you retire, what will you do next?

Not one place in the Bible does it talk about retirement; that’s something we came up with. I may not be the coach at UNC, but I will never retire. I will always be doing something, staying involved with lots of projects and keeping women in women’s basketball. Whatever I can do to help grow the game, I will do. And I do a lot to help fight cancer; I do a lot of work for the cancer center at UNC.

When I had cancer there was nowhere to work out – no bikes, no nothing. I had to go out and walk the hall at the cancer center. Since then, from the money out of the blueberry patch, I have put in two workout rooms in the cancer center and marrow area. All the money from my blueberry patch goes to the cancer center.

Exercise is really important in getting well. My treatment was brutal, and there were days I felt like a Mac Truck had hit me. When I finally did get out of bed, I did some form of exercise.