Sherri Coale, now in her 24th season as Oklahoma’s head coach, has a career-accolade list that runs longer than many coaches’ careers.
Since Coale took the job in 1996, she has won six Big 12 regular-season titles and four Big 12 postseason titles. She has been named Big 12 Coach of the Year four times and has made 19 NCAA Tournament appearances, advancing to the Sweet 16 nine times, the Final Four three times and the NCAA final once.
In 2016, Coale was inducted into the Women’s College Basketball Hall of Fame.
When she was hired from her previous position as the girls’ basketball coach at Norman High School, she inherited an OU program with two all-time tournament appearances in its 22-year history, a far cry from its current status among the sport’s elite.
“She is Oklahoma basketball,” said Maddie Manning, who played under Coale from 2012 to 2018. “She made that program what it is. That's why I went to the University of Oklahoma. That's why kids go there: to play for Sherri Coale. She's a Hall of Fame coach and has an unbelievable way of motivating people. I couldn't say enough good things about her.”
Despite all her accolades, there is one thing Coale is still chasing, perhaps now more than ever: a national championship.
“From the first moment I met her, I felt that passion to win a championship,” said Amanda Thompson, who played for Coale from 2006 to 2010 and currently serves as a graduate assistant for the team. “That's one of the reasons why I came here. She really wants to win. Her players and her coaching staff are all on the same mission.”
The last few years have been a bit of a bump in the road for Coale’s program. Last season, OU finished 8-22 and missed the tournament for the first time since 1999.
That’s not to say Coale has lost her touch. If anything, those working close to her say her intensity may just be at an all-time high.
“Last year didn’t sit well with her,” said associate head coach Coquese Washington, who joined the program after the 2018-19 season. “I definitely think that her intensity, in some respects, is up. She wants to get back to playing in the NCAA Tournament. There’s a lot of desire and motivation on her part to make sure this program has everything it needs to be able to do that.”
Coale’s work ethic and undeniable passion for her players make the Sooners a force to be reckoned with every year. This season, her increased intensity and new coaching staff, as well as the meteoric rise of young stars like sophomore guard Taylor Robertson, have the future of the program looking very bright.
“You can just feel it, the energy. Great things are happening,” said assistant coach Jackie Stiles, who also joined the Sooners after the 2018-19 season. “I love coming to the gym and being around these players, and that’s just a credit to (Coale). You can just feel good things are gonna happen. There’s a lot of positive energy around this program right now.”
‘I learn from them daily’
Of the 12 players on last year’s squad, 10 were underclassmen — seven of those being freshmen. But Coale’s young team is rapidly maturing, and one reason why is the new faces on the coaching staff.
This past offseason, Coale shook up her staff and brought in a pair of new assistants with WNBA experience and plenty of expertise to offer.
On April 17, Coale hired Washington, who played under Muffet McGraw at Notre Dame and served as head coach at Penn State from 2007 to 2019. Her stint at Penn State included four tournament appearances and a Big Ten Coach of the Year award in 2011.
“I think it’s the new energy and new exuberance that we’ve brought into the gym that’s made a difference,” Washington said. “I also think it’s the desire on the players’ parts to get better. They had a great offseason. They were really focused on improving their skills and improving as a team.”
On April 24, Coale hired Stiles, who played at Missouri State from 1997 to 2001 and served as an assistant coach there from 2013 to 2019.
In 2001, Stiles won the Wade Trophy, which honors the best women’s college basketball player in the country. She also held the NCAA career scoring title until her record was eclipsed in 2017.
“It was definitely a hard move because I have such love for Missouri State,” Stiles said. “But I told my mom when I got into coaching, if I could hand-pick any coach to work for, it would be Coach Coale. She told me in my interview that she wants to stay here to win the one game that she’s never won, and I was like, ‘I’m in.’”
The two coaches’ impact is already being felt, not only by the players but by the entire staff.
“They know the game extremely well,” Thompson said. “I learn from them daily. Just from being around them, just rubbing off of everything they bring to the game. I just appreciate their hard work and how dedicated they are to making our girls better.”
With the help of Stiles and Washington, Coale’s squad is beginning to put things together, and the college basketball world is taking notice.
Even in a blowout loss to TCU on Jan. 19, the Sooners’ potential has been made perfectly clear. OU sits just one game above .500, but this team is far from middle-of-the-road.
“I really think this is one of the best OU teams that they've had in a while,” said TCU head coach Raegan Pebley after her team’s 82-63 victory over the Sooners. “They're a team that's growing and maturing, and we definitely knew we were going to have to play really well to come here on their floor and win today.”
‘The kids mean more to her’
Besides her revamped intensity and retooled coaching staff, there’s another factor that’s keeping Coale’s squad in close contention for her seventh Big 12 title, and it’s the same thing that has set Coale apart for her entire career: her unprecedented commitment to her players.
“The kids mean more to her than those wins,” said Colton Coale, who works as an assistant coach under his mom. “In her mind, those aren't her wins — they're her players' wins. I think the wins are just kind of a validation of how she's touched so many people. She does this thing every day to impact kids and help them figure out who they are. That's just the lens that she looks through every day, and she does a damn good job of it.”
Whether Coale captures that elusive championship during her career or not, those who know her say her run in Norman will be considered a massive success — not because of the wins or the conference titles or the Final Four appearances, but because of the lives she’s touched.
“She's chasing that championship, but she's on a mission to change people's lives,” Manning said. “That's her biggest thing: affecting anybody that walks through that door in a positive way, and then chasing that championship.”
“I've seen a lot of people do successful things besides basketball going through her program,” Thompson said. “I think that's what separates her from many other coaches.”
Coale’s commitment to molding her players into successful women has given her an edge from the very beginning.
“I was her first recruit when she first got the job here,” Stiles said. “She was so amazing that she made my final four, even though she started recruiting me very late in the process.”
Though Coale wasn’t able to win over Stiles in 1997, her recruiting ability shined as her career progressed.
By 2006, Coale had fine-tuned her recruiting talents, which allowed her to land Thompson, a budding star from Whitney Young Magnet High School in Chicago.
“When I got here, it was just different,” Thompson said. “I felt a lot of love. I knew that during my four years here, I would be well taken care of.”
High school stars like Thompson and Manning hardly scratch the surface of the talent Coale has brought to Norman.
She has coached 13 All-Americans and six Big 12 Players of the Year. Some of her most notable recruits include Phylesha Whaley, Stacey Dales, and Courtney and Ashley Paris.
“She was the first big-time coach I talked to,” Manning said. “The thing that stuck out to me was that we talked about basketball, but we talked about my family, we talked about my teammates. Any other coach that came in after that, if they didn't match that, they were automatically out. Because I already had that high standard of talking to Coach Coale.”
‘It's anybody's game to win’
As for this year’s team, OU is 10-9, and the Sooners are riding a three-game losing streak while they await the return of junior guard Ana Llanusa, who has missed the last five games due to back spasms.
The team has looked lost at times. At others, it has looked every bit like the Coale teams of old, as seen by the Sooners’ 73-49 stomping of then-No. 17 West Virginia on the road in early January and a win over then-No. 25 LSU in December.
“We started the season and everybody was kind of in panic mode,” Thompson said. “But we just grow. The more you practice, the more you play together, the more successful you are.”
That growth has been well documented. Robertson and sophomore guard Madi Williams are each scoring 6 more points per game this season.
Llanusa’s field-goal percentage has increased from 38 percent last season to 43 percent this year, and she’s averaging two more assists. And freshman Gabby Gregory is averaging 10 points and four rebounds right out of the gate.
Oklahoma is beginning to reap the benefits of fielding such a young squad a year ago, including a pronounced sense of depth. OU’s rotation features three elite scorers in Llanusa, Robertson and Williams, alongside a handful of talented playmakers.
Seven Sooners average double-digit minutes. Four average double figures in scoring.
Of the ones who don’t, junior forward Mandy Simpson and sophomore forward Nydia Lampkin are each shooting at least 44 percent from the field. Simpsonalso averages six rebounds per game.
That leaves sophomore guard Tatum Veitenheimer to fill out the rotation. Veitenheimer adds 3 points, three rebounds and three assists per game.
Robertson, OU’s resident sharpshooter, leads the country with 5.3 3-pointers per game. In second place is UAB’s Rachel Childress with 3.9.
“She's a special player,” Colton said. “She's one of the best offensive players I've ever seen. It makes it really easy to put the defense in a bind.”
And when it comes to that elusive championship, those closest to Coale say they can see it in her future. OU is a young team with a Hall of Fame coach, an experienced new staff, one of the most explosive offenses in the country and still plenty of potential for growth.
Oklahoma has looked promising at times this season, though it’s likely not quite championship-caliber.
Still, the foundation that Coale has laid is clear. Her team is full of freshmen and sophomores scoring 20 or more points night in and night out. It’s not all there yet, but that’s to be expected.
With the way things are looking, there’s every reason to believe this young team has a championship in their future.
“I think, especially with the way women's basketball is going right now, there aren’t too many completely dominant teams,” Manning said. “It's anybody's game to win. (OU) has the best shooter in the country. They have playmakers around her.
“I think it'll be exciting.”