Linked road for Oklahoma, UConn

Coale, with Sooners, stands in mentor Auriemma's way

March 25, 2000|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

RICHMOND, Va. -- In person, an autograph will do.

But over the phone, you need a little more when your hero calls.

There was no such luck for Sherri Coale, Norman (Okla.) High School's girls basketball coach in 1995.

"I'm looking around, trying to find anyone who will pay attention, so I can tell them that I'm talking to Geno Auriemma," Coale said about a call she received from the Connecticut coach, who was coming off an undefeated season and national championship.

"I could hardly breathe, and there was no one in the office."

In a scenario that may have seemed fantastic after Auriemma called about one of her players, Stacy Hansmeyer (now a senior at UConn), the coach offered her an assistant's job later that year, then recommended the 35-year-old for the head-coaching job minutes away at the University of Oklahoma, which she got.

Four years later -- and 10 years after the program almost died -- the Big 12 co-champion Sooners (25-7) are two games from the Final Four, led by a player Coale recruited sight unseen.

"I knew that [Coale] would take the team to the NCAAs, but I didn't know if this would happen while I was here," said Phylesha Whaley, Player of the Year in the Big 12 and the first recruit of the current regime. "Now that it's happening, it's exciting."

The Sooners' opponent in today's 2 p.m. East Regional semifinal is the 32-1 Huskies, led by Coale's idol, mentor and benefactor.

"She's making more out of it than there really is," Auriemma said.

Coale feels differently. "Without Geno," she said, "I would not be the coach at Oklahoma, and without him, I'm not sure I would have been able to do the job that I've done."

While the rematch of an earlier game in Norman -- an 84-68 UConn win -- should be interesting, top 25 mainstays LSU and Duke square off in the first game at the Siegel Center, at 11: 30 a.m.

While Connecticut has had an elite program over the past decade, Tuesday will be the 10th anniversary of Oklahoma's decision to end its women's basketball program.

Player dissatisfaction with the coach at the time, increasing costs and lack of interest spurred the 1990 move, which was rescinded eight days later because of a torrent of bad publicity for the school.

But despite a 22-9 season and an NCAA tournament appearance in 1995, there was still a need for rehabilitation when Burl Plunkett left after the 1996 season.

With Oklahoma interested in hiring someone local, Coale impressed the search committee with a plan she'd drawn up, as much to convince herself she could do the job as anything else.

"She walked out of the room, and all of our mouths were wide-open," Oklahoma senior women's administrator Marita Hynes told the Dallas Morning News. "We felt like we wanted to put on our tennis shoes and go play for her right now."

Coale would have been just as happy teaching high school English, but she took over what she described as an abandoned, rusted-out car, "with no engine. It was starting over."

Recruiting was the area in which Coale had the most trouble. But, two days after her hiring date and two days before the national signing date, she struck gold by finding Whaley, a 5-10 center who only knew about Oklahoma football and was otherwise headed for South Plains Junior College in Levelland, Texas.

Whaley has averaged 18.8 points in her Oklahoma career. And the team now draws an average 2,500 fans for a home game.

"All I can say is that in my freshman year, we were 5-22," Whaley said. "I can't tell you what the turning point was, but I'm happy about it."

What happened was that Whaley got help. Canadian national team member Stacy Dales entered the picture at point guard, as did backcourt player LaNeishea Caulfield, who has averaged 24.5 points in the Sooners' two tournament wins.

With all that, though, Connecticut's main concern with Oklahoma is its resilience, shown in the previous meeting between the teams and in overcoming a 17-point first-half deficit on the road to beat defending national champion Purdue.

"You can coach an entire life and not have the moment that we had," Coale said. "So, we're going to bank that one and enjoy it for a while. But we're not satisfied, and we're hoping that we can go in and pull another upset."

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