Felisha Legette-Jack has led a basketball life.
As a standout at Syracuse, she left the program in 1989 as its all-time scorer and rebounder, while at the same time graduating with a double major. She was later named to three Syracuse halls of fame, as well as the the Big East Conference silver anniversary team in 2004.
Legette-Jack began her coaching career at Hofstra University, where she successfully guided the Pride for seven seasons. She was then head coach at Indiana University. During her six years there, the Hoosiers won 18 or more games three times and made postseason appearances in each of those years. After a six-win season, however, Legette-Jack was let go – a move that devastated her. But after a recommendation from friend Anucha Browne, who was the NCAA’s vice president of women’s basketball championships at the time, Legette-Jack interviewed at Buffalo. She was hired the spring of 2012.
By her third year the Bulls were invited to the WNIT, and the next season the team earned its first-ever MAC championship and NCAA Tournament berth. In 2016-2017, Buffalo notched 22 wins. The following season they advanced to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament en route to a 29-win year. In 2018-2019, the Bulls won another MAC title and upset Rutgers in the first round of the Tournament.
Legette-Jack has become well-known for her honesty and candidness in discussing her triumphs and mistakes. Her passion for the game and for her athletes has become her calling card, whether it is on or off the court, on the sidelines or in a press conference.
She and her husband have a son.
You’ve received your share of press the last three years. What do you think it is about your story and your character that resonates with so many people?
Sometimes I think it’s my authenticity, but maybe it’s too much and it doesn’t fit the protocol. In eight years coaching at Buffalo, I can only be me. I’m as real as I can be, and I’m open to being wrong if I am, with apologies coming afterwards. But I am who I am with no apologies.
Describe yourself as a player in college, i.e., if I went to one of your games, what would I have seen?
Passion. When coach called time out I was the first one on the bench looking into her eyes not knowing what she was talking about. I was so engrossed in what I was doing. I was going crazy diving for loose balls.
This game has taught me so much about life. I walked with my head down until the tenth grade; I was the shyest person you’d ever meet. I owe this game everything. It gave me confidence, courage, and the ability to look people in the eye. When I coach the game I respect the game go much; I give it everything I have.
How did you approach coaching when you first began? How is that different from your approach now?
When I first started I thought that everyone had to be as passionate and crazy as I was, and they had to go hard. But people can be cerebral and not look like they’re going hard, but they’re locked in differently. Coach Freeman at Syracuse reminded me there are different ways to skin the cat, and it’s my job to meet people where they are and move them to their next step. You can’t always move it the way you see it; it has to be through their eyes. Someone’s heart rate may be up, but it doesn’t look like it. I am learning to take this game seriously, but not as much.
The beauty of this game is that you never know what it will bring. When you work a 9-5 you know exactly what’s going to take place during the day. When you wake up in the morning when you’re coaching basketball, anything can show its face, and you have to be prepared for it all. Seven-eighths of it is dealing with stress, sadness and other issues. It’s so much. Before your feet hit the ground in the morning you ask God to honor you and help grow these kids the way He sees fit. Sometimes you have to hug them. You don’t know what his plan is, so hopefully you’re centered.
You’re known for your “tough love” philosophy with athletes. Where did that come from?
You can be tough on them if you love them. My mom was very tough on us, but there was never a time where we didn’t believe she didn’t love us. She made us understand that everyone can be a success, but you’ve got to earn it. If we didn’t do a job in academics, she jumped on us hard. Then the quiet times came and she shared stories of how she was raised, and I and realized where she was coming from. She was someone who wanted to grow her kids bigger then her. When I recruit kids I’m doing live lunches and dinners in the summer, and I let them know that when we’re in that 90 feet of court, I’m going hard. So sometimes during practice someone will push me out of bounds on purpose.
What has life taught you about coaching? What has coaching taught you about life?
Life has taught me about coaching that you can give it your best effort and fail. But you’ve got two choices: you can stay down, or you can get back up and try not to make the same mistakes. To realize there was something you did to create this failure.
Coaching has taught me about life: don’t take it so seriously. Do your best and work your tail off, but don’t forget about God and your family. Take some time off. And in life, you can take possessions off, meaning that if you need to go out and have a glass of wine with one of your best friends, do it. At the end of thee day, if you don’t live life, what did you do with it?
What is your goal-setting process like?
I live today. My mom has Alzheimer’s, and if I talk about five years from now, I don’t know if she’s in this world. I live by moments, and I get blessed if she wakes up tomorrow. I stay centered like that and stay where my feet are. I give 100 percent on that particular day. I used to do that five-year plan, that 10-year plan. Now I live for today.
What qualities do you look for in players you recruit?
Passion. Someone that has a story to tell. Not necessarily a basketball story, but a story. Something that would make you think, ‘I wish people knew this about me and that they cared enough to take this time to get to know me.’ They could come from a single parent homeless shelter, maybe their house cause on fire. I love those kinds of things. You’ve got to plan for something bigger than yourself, and make everyone a part of your story by cutting nets down. I had top 20 recruiting class at Indiana and was fired. They were talented, but I never knew what they stood for.
What do you want to impart to your athletes during their time with you?
I hope they know I tried to grow them and grow their character, their academics and their game through life lessons. I tell them, I bring in 17-year-old girls that I hope to grow into young women when it’s all over, because the brain develops at 25. Hopefully they can look back and say, ‘she was passionate and drove me crazy, but she cared.’ I’ve been getting calls from people I haven’t spoken to for 3-4 years. They’ve told me, ‘you helped me grow.’
Do you feel any responsibilities as an African-American female Division I coach when there aren’t many such others in head coaching positions?
I feel a responsibility for women first. I really believe that how I go, we all go. We are at a stage now after 31 years that women are demanding equal pay for equal play. I believe we work hard enough that we are willing to demand to be paid for our value. I’m a Hall-of-Famer knowing how my mom was raised in the South, and how she worked her whole life to make $36,000. I feel a responsibility to help people be better than me. I have a former player (from Hofstra) who is now the head coach at Missouri State. She calls me once a week. Anybody that needs me for anything that looks like me – I’m available. All women know I’m available to them. It’s a responsibility. If I can help someone along the way, life won’t be in vain.
What is one thing coaching has taught you that you didn’t anticipate?
I do believe that through this game of basketball, winning is easy. What I think is very difficult is the process. The process is keeping going when it’s tough and you lost four games and you don’t remember your joy. Most people don’t want to go through that process, but what about ‘He woke you up this morning’? If you can stand in it when it’s tough, you can stand in it when it’s going great. I didn’t feel that when I was a younger coach. I really hope I can continue to win the process. God is asking us to go through the process, and that’s what I struggle with at times. I certainly want to get it right, so I have to do the work. I know that you win every time you give something better – even in a drill or a game. If we can fight through that loneliness, because the job is lonely.
What are the most important things in life?
My faith – during good times and bad times – my family, my Jack family, and my friends. My ability to grow young people, to grow phenomenal people. Sometimes the Buffalo men’s team lives in my office just as much as the women’s. My expectation is 100 percent from every student athlete that walks through our door. I want them to realize their value. I know my love is sincere, and God sees that I’m trying to do His work. My try is 100 percent.
If you had one weekend where you could go anywhere in the world and do anything you wanted, where would you go and what would you do?
I’d go to Jamaica with my family and hang out and say, ‘yeah mon, no problem!’ I’d want to chill out at a beach and say, ‘one more.’