Coach’s Chair: Amaka Agugua-Hamilton, Missouri State University

Bill Sioholm/Missouri State University

Since stepping into her first head coach job at Missouri State in April 2019, Amaka “Mox” Agugua-Hamilton has led the Lady Bears to two of the best seasons in program history. Under her leadership the team is 49-7 overall and 32-2 in Missouri Valley Conference play, with two regular-season MVC titles and a Sweet 16 trip last spring. Agugua-Hamilton has been named conference coach of the year twice, and won the WBCA Maggie Dixon Spalding Rookie Coach of the Year Award in 2020.

A Virginia native, Agugua-Hamilton was a standout at Hofstra University, where she was a four-year captain, guided the team to a postseason berth for the first time, and remains the school’s field goal percentage leader 16 years later. She began her coaching career as an assistant at VCU before taking the same position at Indiana. After another stop at Old Dominion, she spent six years as an assistant coach at Michigan State – the last four as associate head coach. During the 2016-2017 season she filled in as head coach for six games when Suzy Merchant had a medical emergency.

Agugua-Hamilton is the first Black female head coach of any sport at Missouri State.

How did you know you were ready, and that it was time to move into a head coaching position?

I don’t know if anyone knows they’re all the way ready. I was prepared the last few years at Michigan State. And though it was through unfortunate circumstances, it definitely ended up being a blessing in disguise when my coach at Michigan State was ill and I had to take over. I kind of got thrown into the fire and assumed all responsibilities, which included planning practice, game scouts – all that stuff. Managing everyone, taking over her radio show, beat writer interviews, appearances. I was kind of baptized by fire. My head was spinning for the first couple weeks, and then I got a rhythm. That helped prepare me for this position.

At the time I was ready to be a head coach I turned down 4-5 jobs before this came along. I’m a person who walks by faith, and everything I do, I pray about it. I didn’t find the right fit until Missouri State came calling, and it was a beautiful blessing. We operate like a BCS program here, and the media that surrounds us is huge. I have a TV show, a radio show, and press conferences every week. So having that experience at Michigan State prepared me for what I walked into here, and I was ready to handle it all and get my feet on the ground and start going.

We’re a mid-major, but our program has attracted so much national recognition. The media attention that bring in our local market is more so like a Power 5. We’re the best mid-major in the country, in my opinion, and we can compete at a very high level.

What were your first steps when you took the role at Missouri State?

The first thing I wanted to do was to get to know the players. I’m a relationship-driven coach, and my overall coaching philosophy is family, academics and basketball, and the family piece is very important. So getting to know them and to start building those relationships was the first thing I wanted to do. They were coming off of a successful season, and I wanted them to understand that I wanted them to continue to grow on the court, but that I’m also here to help them off the court, and that I’m investing in them. Then, I had to get them on the court; I wanted to see what we had first hand, and I wanted them to get a sense of how I coach, and the philosophy and the system we’d be playing in.

Those things were at the forefront when I got hired, and then as you move along, things come into play: scheduling, learning the budget, recruiting. But the first thing I wanted to do was establish that relationship.

What are the keys to building a program, and how do you measure success?

As a program, we measure success in a variety of ways. We have so many little goals that we check off along the way. I believe in celebrating small victories, so that for us, is spread out over so many areas. It always comes back to those three things: family, academics, basketball. How close are we as a group, are we making strides together. This year we have seven returners and six new kids, and merging those two groups is very important. Academic success is very important for us. We’ve had a very high GPA since we’ve been here, and that’s important, but it’s the small goals we check off. For instance, if someone gets an A in a class, we have something we call the Smarties program. Before practice I’ll shout them out, and give them a pack of Smarties. And they’ll get really competitive: “hey, I got an A!” So just checking off all those goals adds extra motivation and inspiration for them – that’s what I’m about.

And then, obviously, basketball goals. We have a goal of being undefeated at home, and we’ve only lost once at home the past two years. We went to win a conference championship, we want to win a tournament championship, we want to get to the NCAA Tournament, we want to host. There are goals we have, but we don’t necessarily look at the big picture. We want to get to the Sweet 16, but that’s not what we focus on. We focus on, OK, we’re going to a tournament in Puerto Rico and we’re going to play two Power 5 teams, we want to win that tournament. We have five total Power 5 teams on schedule this year, so we want to try and go 5-0 against them. We have goals that we take day by day. We have goals in practice. Success to use is more so getting better every day, and trying to check off those goals. I tell them every day that progress is the process. We just keep trying to take steps forward.

Having a relationship with your kids and your staff – having a very good, genuine connection – that’s one of the keys to being successful. They’re going to know where you coming from if you’ve taken the time to invest in them. If I get on them in practice, they know I’m just trying to make them better. There’s an old Jon Gordon quote that always stuck with me about tough love. I reverse it to “love tough.” You have to have a genuine relationship and come from a place of loyalty and respect to have tough love with anybody.

You’ve had exceptional results in your first two years with the Bears. Did that surprise you, or not?

I’m a confident person, not cocky. I felt like we were going to be good, but I did not foresee rookie coach of year. As the season went on, my first year we played at Minnesota for my very first game against a top 25 team, at their place, and we won. At that moment I knew we were going to be pretty good, but I still didn’t foresee the championship. Now I think we should be at that level every year.

The year before I came in they went to the Sweet 16, but they started out 1-7. There was a lot of work to be done. When I got here we had no one who had been on any preseason team. I’m big on player development, and I work hard on that. So the next fall we had three people on the first team, the defensive player of the year, and an honorable mention. Last year we had the player of the year, the defensive player of the year. So we’ve developed the kids we had; it wasn’t like I just walked into a Sweet 16 team. One of our goals my first year was to reverse our conference schedule record, and we did – we started 7-1.

Bill Sioholm/Missouri State University

What’s the most fun thing about your job? What is the most challenging?

The most fun thing is the time I get to spend with everyone in our program. I’ve been on some really great teams and staffs, but I’ve never been on a staff like the one I have. We literally are family, and we spend time together outside of work. My staff and their kids are close to my kids……we’ll get together on the weekend, we’ll go to each other’s houses, we’ll have date night, double date night. The synergy and camaraderie between us staff wise makes my job more enjoyable, and on top of that, they’re great coaches. They understand the game, they work hard, they’re proactive. I really really genuinely enjoy my staff, and I really enjoy our players. We have fun together.

We had a couple of tough practices last week, but as soon as we brought it in they were jumping on me…’s a real family atmosphere. That’s my favorite part of this job, and watching out kids grow, mature, and get it.

My most challenging is that I have lot of talent. You can only have five on the floor, but I’ve got seven or eight who can start. But that’s a great problem to have.

Coaching your first year, that ended in a pandemic, had to be tough. What did you learn from that experience?

I learned a lot. What I always try to live by is stay present and enjoy the journey, but that hit harder and rang louder this past year. Just seeing how many passed away from this virus, and all the social and racial unrest… a time when we were supposed to be socially distant, we got closer as a family. It’s crazy because…the bonds we created in a time when we were supposed to be separate was really really important. Learning that everyone comes from different walks of life, that everyone has a different story and background, and being able to merge our group. We had a no judgement safe zone where they could express their fears and concerns and continue to grow together. And through all the quarantining and the ups and downs through the course of season, I tried to keep them mentally sharp, engaged and connected with each other. My goal was to keep us connected and focused on blessings, because there so much turmoil going on. You never know when your last day is going to be, so you’ve got to say present.

What does it mean to you to be the first Black female head coach at Missouri State?

It means a lot. I think there’s a reason why, prior to Missouri State calling, that I turned down those other jobs, is I think I’m supposed to be here. When you lead with God and you lead with faith, it makes decisions a lot easier. This was a community I could affect in a positive way, and that could affect me in a positive way. This was a group of players, administration and staff I could affect in a positive way, so I was called here – and I don’t take it lightly. There’s a lot of responsibility that comes with that. No matter what race or nationality, I want people to be inspired by strong woman who walks with confidence, is a great mother and a great wife, who puts God first and treats people right. Everything I do, I try to operate with integrity and come from a genuine place. I want this community to see that we are all equal and it doesn’t matter our skin color. I want to continue to bridge gaps and be a role model for any young woman out there, regardless of color. I definitely do take a lot of pride in being the first, and will hopefully open the door for the next.

How did you get into basketball, and at what age?

My brother got me into basketball. My first sport was soccer, and I was pretty good, but then I grew. I was 5-11 in sixth grade and my coach put me in the goal box, and I didn’t want to be a goalie; I was bored. So my brother contacted an AAU coach and got me into it. I looked up to my brother a lot, so since basketball was all he wanted to do, it was all I wanted to do. He opened the door for me.

When did you realize you wanted to get into coaching?

I honestly just wanted to play. I was a very good player but I was injury prone; I had six knee surgeries. My real senior year in college my coach, Felisha Legette-Jack, put me into a student coaching role taking stats during games, and helping out the younger players. Then I began to see how, when they did something in a game that I’d told them in practice, that it gave me so much joy. I started thinking about it. Then when my knees were shot and my mother, who was a surgeon, took a look at my scans and told me that if I wanted to play with my kids, I better hang it up. So that’s how it happened.

What do you want your student-athletes to take from you when they leave your program?

I want them to be prepared for life. I want them to take from me confidence, that they can attack anything, being able to persevere through adversity, and believing in themselves even if other people don’t. We also do another program call LAB: life after ball – that’s our life skills program. We did a cooking one, we had Clinique come in and do skin care, we did a financial one, we did one on mental health, and body language, self-defense. Any skill we think they need to be successful outside of basketball, we do, and I’m very, very passionate about it. I want them to be ready for the real world, because the real world is crazy. I don’t want them to be love; I want them to have a focus. To have confidence and persevere through adversity.

Do you have any basketball mentors that you still go to at times for some words?

My high school coach has always been very inspirational to me. My post coach from high school, Chris Keston, passed away last year during the pandemic. In the college realms, I have a handful of coaches I talk to. One constant is coach Jack. Also (UCF) coach Abe and (former Missouri State coach) Cheryl Burnett.

What is something about you that many people would be surprised to know?

I dunked the ball in high school; I had hops. I have a 6-4 wing span, and everybody in my family could jump. And I have right around 100 first cousins.