Coach’s Chair: Sherri Coale, University of Oklahoma

Sherri Coale begins her 22nd season with Oklahoma this fall. Photo courtesy of Oklahoma Athletics.
Sherri Coale begins her 22nd season with Oklahoma this fall. Photo courtesy of Oklahoma Athletics.

Sherri Coale took the reins of Oklahoma basketball in 1996, shortly after giving birth to her second child. She rebuilt the program for two years and has not had a losing season since. In 2002, 2009 and 2010, Coale guided the Sooners to the Final Four. The team has been to the NCAA Tournament for 18 straight years.

An Oklahoma native, Coale played for Oklahoma Christian College and graduated summa cum laude. She was a winning high school basketball coach for eight years before taking the Sooners position. Coale’s teams have notched a 3.0 GPA or better for 33 of the last 40 semesters under her guidance. Each player she has worked with has participated in the “Sooner Big Sis” program, volunteering as mentors or teacher’s aides in Norman public schools.

How has your coaching style evolved from what it was when you first began to your approach today?

I’m a much better asker of questions because I’ve learned to listen to players and not talk so much. In general, coaches are tellers, but that’s not the way we learn best or help kids.

What are the factors that contribute to the increased transfer rate the last few years?

I think there are all kinds of reasons, but the best question is what are we as coaches doing to make better decisions at the onset? Whatever the outside forces are, it’s on us as coaches to choose well and to choose for the right reasons. Maybe the crisis is an important reason to pause and look at own methodologies and why we do what we do. We have to prepare to thrive.

What are the coaching principles that you have retained? What tenants are essential to coaching?

Commitment to the process – it doesn’t matter what level you’re coaching at. Fundamentals, because you have to be able to dribble or you can’t win games. My emphasis has remained steady. Communication is a vital part of this game. One of the things makes it so beautiful is that you have to orchestrate both your five and the opposing five. If you’re not an aware individual and if you can’t pay extreme attention, you’ll struggle. Teaching kids to look and see and hear and listen remains the lifeblood of this game. Basketball, in essence, is really simple: you want to go where the opponent is not, and stay away from the bad guys. It’s about personal awareness.

Your holistic approach to coaching has been written about in the past. How do you approach coaching the entire athlete, both on and off the court? What is the best way to facilitate great student-athlete performance in the classroom?

It’s really incredibly simple and exciting if you look at the opportunities sports gives you to teach the lessons that you want your kids to learn. It is incredibly transferable, that way they conduct themselves when playing is the same way they should conduct themselves in a hotel. It’s pretty seamless. I want them to be disciplined, focused and accountable, and those things transfer, regardless of whether they’re in a gym or classroom. We keep it pretty fluid.

What are the most important principles you want to make sure to convey to student-athletes during their time with you?

One of our goals is to make sure they become lifeline learners. We want them to develop not only a capacity but a hunger to grow that will last way past college. We want to help people in our program find their voices so they know who they are and what they want. They should have clarity to hear their own voice and follow their heart. That’s really important in our world today.

If you could go back and tell your first or second-year college coaching self anything, what would it be?

I would say, ask more questions. I had a great, great teacher in college – my English professor – who didn’t tell us much; he facilitated the process for us. And I learned more from him than anyone else. It was because he lead us through the journey of discovery. I would tell myself: talk less and ask more.

How did you develop your basketball knowledge?

I grew up in southern Oklahoma, which was one of the last holdouts for the six-on-six game for women, so when I played I had to stop at half court. In college I had to learn how to play five-on-five, and it was exciting. I had a great base of fundamental skills, which is a big emphasis in Oklahoma, and I took that base into my college career. Dan Hays was the (men’s) coach at Oklahoma Christian, and at that time he was rebuilding the program. I went to his summer clinic and learned how to play man-to-man. I didn’t know how to play defense. So when I finished our practice, I sat on the floor with a jug of water and took notes while he coached the men. It was the best opportunity in the world.

Don Mayer was a tremendous influence on me. As I began my career, Geno and Pat were very impactful. I have always looked at the best and what they’re doing and tried to model them. I was always very fortunate to have some great basketball minds around.

What was it like raising young children at the same time you were in your first head coaching job?

Chaos, mass chaos. I was incredibly fortunate to have a great husband and a great support system. My grandmother moved in with us and lived with us for 12 years before she passed, and during that time she gave us the stability to allow me to travel while the kids slept in their own beds. She was there when they got home from school, so they had a very normal life with an abnormal mother. I learned that your children can’t be loved by enough people. The way they were raised is why my kids have grown up and adapted to a lot of different people and situations. It’s because of the environments they’ve been in

Why do you think there are fewer women in coaching right now than there used to be?

There are a number of reasons. The jobs are being competed for more heavily because the salaries are good, the exposure is good and it’s a fun brand of basketball to coach. So there are a lot of people trying to get jobs.

For many moms, they choose to not have the stresses of travel and the crazy hours this job has. That’s terrific. Everyone’s an individual, and opportunity means you get to say yes or no. Opportunity means you get to decide. A lot of females who are capable sometimes decide they want something else.

What is the biggest change in young people from when you first began coaching to now?

The absence of bedrock reality. Everything now is a little bit fake, a little bit tainted. Bedrock reality is real – real conversations, real relationships, real identities – and they’re not there. It’s hard to hook and anchor to another individual if they don’t have a bedrock.

What are your goals for your program?

That we grow as people and as performers in our pursuit of championships.  From the time you played in it anything else feels dumb. Our goal was ncaa hen sweet 16, then final 4. Seems dumb to get to the elite 8. When we made it to that, the goal was to win the final game. The graeter goal to get better as players. If we’re doing that, will have opp to win that last game.

How is it seeing former players achieving after they leave the Sooner program?

It’s the best part of the job. There is a banner in the gym and players in my heart and mind all the time. To see Dionnah Jackson coaching on the sidelines for Mississippi State in the Final Four last year when she played for me in the Final Four – I cried when they ran out on the floor and she walked out. To see Courtney Paris’s long and extended career. There are doctors, like Caton Hale, broadcasters like Stacey Dales. Danielle Robinson is having a successful WNBA career. They all go off and become incredible, and that’s the banner you don’t hang.

Who are your favorite musical artists?

If I were stranded on an island, I’d take the Eagles. That’s my all-time favorite group. I’m a big country music fan and I love REO Speedwagon.