Sue Semrau entered her 21st season as Florida State’s head coach in 2017-2018 having led the Seminoles to 13 NCAA Tournaments, which included three Elite Eight appearances and five Sweet 16 berths. She is a four-time ACC Coach of the year, and is the University’s all-time wins leader, with 401. Over the last nine years, Florida State has averaged more than 25 wins per season.
Semrau worked for two years as a public relations director in professional soccer before being named head basketball coach and assistant athletic director at Occidental College in 1987. Northern Illinois coach Jane Albright hired her as an assistant coach in 1991, and Semrau followed her to the University of Wisconsin after four years to fill the same position. She took over the Seminoles program in 1996, and by year four was coaching teams with winning records.
A big proponent of community service, Semrau and her student-athletes regularly work with both children and adults to provide a variety of services. Semrau has been a USA Basketball coach three times – most recently at Women’s National Team training camp three months ago. She served a term as president of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association from 2013-2015.
You’ve had such a long record of success in coaching – especially at Florida State. What is the most challenging task in maintaining that level of consistency?
It’s staying fluid with change and not being so set in a certain system in any area. The change could be in the players you have on the court and what they’re able to do. The change could be players you need to recruit, or the needs of the players you have. I learned that from (longtime Seminole football coach Bobby) coach Bowden. He wasn’t a man set in his ways. I don’t believe in handouts; that fosters (feelings of) entitlement. That’s an important in process – understanding what athletes need and want, and having them earn the things they want.
How do you deal with pressure?
I don’t think I feel any pressure that’s greater than the pressure we put on ourselves, the expectation levels we have. I think it’s good for us. I don’t read the newspaper, I don’t listen to what anyone says about us and I don’t care about rankings. If you get caught in that, you could feel people are judging and comparing. The only comparison and evaluation we pay attention to is what we have in our own program.
How do you go about finding players who will fit your program?
We look at our program and make our decisions based on this: they’re a person first, a student second and an athlete third. Athletically, we’re looking at their basketball skill level and their basketball IQ. As students, do they have a desire for lifelong learning? We get to know them very, very well.
When you’ve been somewhere for so long like I have been here, there are certain players you don’t want to coach. I don’t want to coach a player who doesn’t have a motor. They could be the greatest kid and have the greatest skill level, but if don’t have a motor, I don’t want to coach them. I don’t want to coach someone who’s selfish. That’s different from when I first got here, and I had to take some chances on stellar athletes.
How do you motivate players?
I think they really don’t care how much I know until they know how much I care. Philosophically, every player is different, and it’s not about motivating a group as much as individuals. I work that into practice time. With some players it might be on the floor, and with others it might be with me in my office. I used to try to impose my personality on team, but I learned better. Today during our team meeting I told them that going into conference play, this is what I see, but I can’t go in that direction until I know what you guys think. We all have to be on the same page, or there’s no buy-in. And we can’t be on the same page without a relationship.
How are athletes different today from 20 years ago? How have you had to change to be able to effectively coach them?
If you’re talking about athletes, they are stronger and faster, when you’re talking about the physical piece. They have more skill because there is such an emphasis on skill develop at an earlier age for girls. If you’re talking about people and student-athletes themselves, they’re different in that they have a lot of relationships with a lot of people. Their in-depth relationships maybe aren’t as many or as strong. That’s pretty obvious because of the way social media is. They’ll talk three times a day with 20 people instead of once a day with one or two people in a longer conversation.
What they want to do is text or Snap, and it’s performance-based. I want to go beyond performance with the individual student-athlete, and that takes a lot of time and energy because they’re not wired that way.
How has the game changed over the years?
It’s faster. I like the rule changes because the game is now more free-flowing. It allows great athletes to move and make the plays offensively while not being held defensively. The game is more entertaining, the basketball IQ is better individually, but we still have to really work to put it together teaching them as a team. For example, teaching them how to second-cut as a team, and how fun that is. We have to teach them how to do it because if the person delivering the pass doesn’t understand why doing it, it doesn’t work.
How would you describe your coaching style?
My coaching style is about relationship. It’s not about how I’m going to deal with different players differently. I don’t treat them all the same, but I do think I treat them all fairly. That’s the most important thing. I love having good teachers around me; I have two great assistants who are tremendous teachers, and we have the same core values. That’s important for players to see that the coaching staff is in solidarity.
How do you approach personal and team goal-setting?
I don’t spend a lot of time on it. I do talk with them individually about their own goals – I really want them to tell me. We try to – rather than having a goal – we try to talk about the journey to the goal and how important that is. We have to celebrate the little things along the way. Once you do that it makes the goal more achievable.
As a team we really break down the season early, into four different part like four quarters of a basketball game. For the first quarter we look at what we are going to do, which includes talking about specific percentages, rebounding, and what I want from them individually in order to do that. Today we had the third quarter discussion. We’re halfway though our regular season, and we’re looking at home and road games. I told them, “you’re a very good road team.” We ask them when we lay it all out how they think they’ll finish, and we make them be really honest. We add up the (probable) wins and losses, and I ask them, “what do we need to do to take a top four seed?”
Who were your mentors in basketball?
I got the privilege to meet John Wooden a number of times, and he’s the best that’s ever been. Working for Jane Albright was a tremendous influence on my coaching style.
When did you know you wanted to coach?
I never really wanted to coach. Then when I was in grad school I started to coach for some extra income. I started at a high school for a year and went to a DIII school for a while, and I just continued doing it. Eventually I felt like it was the right calling for me, so I tried to learn as much as I could going forward.
What do you want to teach your players by the time they leave your program?
That they are strong, powerful, beautiful women. And as strong, powerful, beautiful women they need to stand up, put their shoulders back and take the world by storm. I want them to be fearless and strong, and know they are part of a bigger family.
What did USA Basketball coaching teach you?
I’ve had that opportunity a couple of times, first with the Under 18 team and then the Under 19 World Championships. Most recently it was with the senior national team, and each experience has been different. In each case, it is hard to practice for 10 days and try to win a gold medal. We’ll have who everyone thinks are the most talented kids, but it’s a really hard thing to do. USA Basketball has done a great job in winning gold medals.
This last opportunity with the National Team showed how much more skilled and talented pro players are than college players. It was fun to coach the best of the best. You have many more options on the court at that level, and those players can do a lot of things on the fly. There are a lot of great women there with huge hearts to be the best they can be, and compete for our country.
What is one fun fact about Coach Semrau that people probably don’t know?
I was born without a hip socket. Until I was two I had to wear a brace in order to walk, with a bar between my legs so my hip socket could form. Unless my mom had told me that I couldnl’t walk, I wouldn’t have known. I’ve come to learn that as a child, you think you can do anything, and you don’t judge yourself based on something that isn’t there. I began to see other people that way. We have a manager here who had a stroke at birth. He has one hand he couldn’t use, but he learned to use it. We can do what we think we can do.