Sherri Coale has an obsession.
That’s what she called her passion for developing young women and teaching basketball, which steadily grew after the Oklahoma native fell in love with the sport during the fifth grade. After 25 years at OU, she’s gone from small-town Healdton to the Hall of Fame and is now closing the book on her storied career.
Coale, 56, announced Wednesday she’s retiring from coaching, a move that comes after the last years of her career were fundamentally different from the past two decades. In an, at times, emotional Zoom press conference, called on little more than an hour’s notice, alongside OU President Joseph Harroz and athletics director Joe Castiglione, she reflected on her time at OU on Wednesday morning.
“Sherri is not just an exceptional coach,” Harroz said. “She's so much bigger than that. … She drove our program of women's basketball to a place of prominence and everyone in the Sooner nation, every one of us and well beyond, even those that aren’t sports fans, have been impacted by Sherri Coale and the role model that she is.”
After playing at and graduating from Oklahoma Christian University, Coale began her coaching career with two seasons as an assistant at Edmond Memorial High School. From there, she jumped to Norman High and took over a dismal program that, after going 11-12 in her first year, never again had a losing record under her leadership and won two Class 6A state titles.
Coale faced a tall order again at Oklahoma, which dropped its program in 1990 due to subpar performance before reinstating it shortly thereafter. The average per-game attendance in 1990 was 65 people and from 1990-96, the program posted a mediocre 91-81 record. Coale was hired by former athletic director Donnie Duncan in 1996 following the retirement of Burl Plunkett.
“The task was a big one and it was not for the faint of heart,” Coale said. “But I so wanted to build a place where Oklahoma kids could come and have a chance to win a championship. A place that would be adequately reflecting of this great institution and this amazing state, and 25 years later I still cannot believe the ride that Oklahoma women's basketball has taken me on. I have had the time of my life.”
She responded to the challenge with a 513-294 career record, 10 Big 12 titles and 20 postseason appearances, including 19-straight NCAA tournaments from 1999-2018. Coale took OU to the Final Four in 2002, 2009 and 2010, with the Sooners losing the national title game to Connecticut during that first trip.
In sentiments to OU Daily editors in 2017, Coale said she laughed at an interviewer who once asked if she’d consider her career a failure without a national title. Instead she pointed to a letter inside guard Derica Wyatt’s locker as her own championship trophy. The letter, written unbeknownst to Coale by former guard Whitney Hand-Jones to the locker’s future owner, gave 10 tips she’d learned under Coale’s tutelage she hoped to pass on to the next great Oklahoma player.
“If that’s what we leave our players with,” Coale said, “then I don’t need a trophy.”
‘A pivotal moment’
As Coale and Stacy Hansmeyer sat together on the bench inside Boise State’s ExtraMile Arena in 2002, they were having a moment of deja vu.
Coale and Hansmeyer had experienced dominance in 1996, the duo’s final year together at Norman High before departing for Oklahoma and Connecticut, respectively. In the Class 6A State Championship game, the Coale-led Tigers, captained by Hansmeyer, soundly defeated Sapulpa High, 73-35.
In the second half of the 2002 NCAA West Regional Finals, Coale in her sixth season leading the Sooners and Hansmeyer in her first year as an OU assistant were watching similar dominance. Their squad ran up the score on No. 3 seed Colorado, eventually winning 94-60. Oklahoma punched its ticket to the program’s first Final Four appearance before a trip to the NCAA championship game. At that moment Coale’s OU basketball renaissance was only beginning to surface.
“We had such a huge win in our state championship game, and then just to have that game that felt like a similar moment we’d lived before in the game to go to the Final Four, it was such an exciting time,” Hansmeyer told The Daily on Wednesday. “And such a pivotal moment for the OU women’s basketball team.”
A four-time Big 12 Coach of the Year, Coale filled Norman’s Lloyd Noble Center with crowds it had rarely seen before her time. She’s responsible for the 50 largest home crowds in program history, highlighted by 10,713 fans against Connecticut in 1999 and 12,205 spectators against Oklahoma State in 2008.
Coale’s philanthropy has also been prominent during her time at OU. She’s been a champion of Special Olympics, Race for the Cure, Habitat for Humanity and Oklahoma City Children’s Hospital, among other organizations. She’s also on the board of directors for the Kay Yow Cancer Fund, which raises money and awareness for women’s cancer research. She was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2016 and is set to be added to the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame this summer.
All the while, Coale has shown an unwavering commitment to helping players prepare for post-college life. Sixty-seven of her players graduated from OU, with all but one landing Academic All-Big 12 honors. She developed stars like forwards Ashley and Courtney Paris — the latter now being an assistant coach at OU — and Phylesha Whaley and guards Stacey Dales and Danielle Robinson. Her pupils hold four combined First Team All-America honors and 14 WNBA draft selections, including six first-round picks.
‘You walked the walk’
In the past year Coale’s character was questioned.
Over the summer, as racial justice movements spanned the nation, former players Gioya Carter and T’ona Edwards criticized her handling of racial issues on social media. Coale apologized in a press release two days later, saying, "it is clear that there have been moments where my intent has not been the same as my impact." She later added in a Big 12 Conference call she attempts to provide an “environment that is inclusive for all.”
“I'm grateful to my players for letting me coach them,” Coale said Wednesday. “I have not ever taken that responsibility lightly, and the joy that comes from that I cannot put a price tag on. I want my players to know that they have left pieces of themselves with me, and that I'm the one that's better for it.”
Coale’s retirement decision comes after a three-year stretch in which OU failed to qualify for the NCAA tournament. The Sooners finished the 2020-21 season with a 12-12 record, while playing multiple games with just six or seven players due to COVID-19 opt-outs, injuries and academic ineligibility.
“There could not have been a better, more appropriate year for me to use as the dot of the exclamation mark on this amazing journey,” Coale said Wednesday, trying to hold back tears. “Because what they did this year was everything that I believe in most fully in the marrow of my bones. There are more important things than winning. And what we have always been about is maximizing what we have (and) playing the heck out of the hand we've been dealt.”
Castiglione indicated, after Harroz said Coale chose to retire on her own terms, the search for her replacement will begin right away. He’s looking for someone who’s willing to embrace following in Coale’s legendary footsteps while trying to lead OU back to competing for titles immediately.
“We're not going to shy away from those kinds of goals,” Castiglione said. “That's what we are made of here. And thanks to Coach Coale. She gave us the opportunity to dream, and those players took the dream and made it a reality and showed that it could be done. And we want to be able to get back in a position where we can do it again and again and again.”
Coale’s contract was worth $1.33 million and ran through 2024, making her the athletics department’s fourth-highest paid figure behind football coach Lincoln Riley, men’s basketball coach Lon Kruger and Castiglione.
She said she has yet to plan out all of her next steps other than spending more time with her 9-day-old granddaughter Austyn. Austyn is the first child of her son and assistant coach Colton and his wife Morgan Coale, formerly Hook, who played for her from 2011-14.
Coale also mentioned her love of reading, writing, reflecting on her days as a high school English teacher, as well as speaking publicly and supporting charities as other opportunities she’s weighing in retirement. Quoting former OU football coach Barry Switzer, she announced she “might write a book.”
Above the door of OU’s locker room, there’s a sign Coale’s particularly fond of. It states “leave your story better than you found it.” At the end of her coaching career, through the many highs as well as some lows, Coale’s done just that.
“Much the sentiment or meaning of that quote was to challenge any and all to think about one's vision of themselves,” Castiglione said. “Their purpose, their opportunities, their commitment to investing in and enriching their own lives. At every level, not just basketball. … Sherri, you didn't just talk the talk. You walked the walk.”