VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. _ It’s a warm January afternoon, with sunlight streaming in a window at Chick’s Oyster Bar. Despite the nice weather, it’s still winter in this popular summer-vacation city, so there’s no lunchtime crowd.
But even if there had been a wait instead of your choice of tables, Wendy Larry wouldn’t have minded. For the first time in her adult life, she can casually spend time chatting on a weekday during basketball season. There is no practice to prepare, or meeting to run, or luncheon to speak at, or film to watch.
In May, she resigned after 24 seasons and 559-203 record as head coach at Old Dominion. A contract dispute with athletic director Wood Selig – Larry was entering her final year, and Selig wouldn’t give her an extension – was unpleasantly played out publicly.
Long the primary face of ODU’s athletic success, Larry opted to resign rather than muddle through what she felt would be a perfunctory season before being let go. She is getting her last year of salary, but she no longer has a real role in the athletic department, and her ties to ODU are severed. At least for now.
Maybe the wound will be repaired with time. Or maybe it won’t. She wasn’t planning to leave and never imagined ODU’s 72-55 CAA tournament quarterfinal loss to Delaware would be her last on the sidelines of her alma mater.
I went to the Tidewater area recently as part of ESPNW’s “Hoops Across America” project, and wrote about the past, present and future at Old Dominion. But there was more to say specifically about Larry and how her situation reflects where women’s basketball is now.
Does she miss coaching? Yes, and she watches women’s and men’s games frequently on television now, calling it a “re-education” process. As a bystander without a rooting interest, she can see the sport again from a purely analytical standpoint. It’s been somewhat of a revelation.
So has the time she spent this summer with her mother, who went through bouts of illness. She feels they got to know each other again, after so many years when Larry’s summers were crammed with recruiting trips and basketball camps, as the supposed “off-season” did not really allow much of a break in the daily demands of a coach.
Larry resents how her departure happened … yet acknowledges the good to come from it, especially the days with her mom. It presents an intriguing question: Could it be this really all was for the best?
Larry stares out at the sparkling water, and listens to it as well.
“See that? Hear that?” she says, smiling, about the sight and sound of the waves of Lynnhaven Inlet. “That’s what sustains me. I love it. I’m loving life right now.”
Larry grew up not that far from the water in New Jersey; her grandparents had boats. She remembers driving to the Tidewater area in 1972 as a junior in high school. She was visiting William and Mary in Williamsburg, and had her heart set on going to college there. But she’d been talked into continuing further down pine-tree-lined Interstate 64, through the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel into Norfolk, to see Old Dominion, too.
She walked into ODU Fieldhouse, which has now been remodeled into a student-rec center. Even in its former incarnation, it likely wouldn’t have impressed today’s recruits.
But to a teen-aged girls’ basketball player in the early 1970s, the Fieldhouse was palatial. Larry felt the first tug for going to ODU instead. But … her favored choice remained William and Mary.
“They didn’t let me in on early acceptance,” Larry said, laughing in retrospect at what was actually good fortune. “So the pendulum swung to Old Dominion.”
After playing at ODU, Larry went into coaching. She became an assistant at her alma mater for Marianne Stanley, who’d been a championship player at Immaculata. After ODU won the NCAA title over Georgia in 1985, Larry interviewed for two jobs.
“Tara VanDerveer got Stanford,” Larry said, “and I got Arizona.”
She liked the Wildcats’ potential and the school’s commitment then, but Tucson just wasn’t the right place for her. “All beach and no ocean,” Larry said.
When Stanley left ODU after the 1986-87 season, Larry had the chance to come home. She took over the ODU program and made the NCAA tournament her first three seasons while the school was still in the Sun Belt Conference.
After a 5-21 record in 1990-91, ODU’s incredible run in the Colonial Athletic Association began. For the next 17 seasons – from 1992-2008 – ODU won the league tournament and NCAA automatic bid.
Most of those years, ODU was the best team in the league. But not always. Yet every year for nearly two decades, when it mattered most in league play, ODU won. The CAA has changed over the years, including its member institutions. Part of what ended Larry’s career at ODU was that other schools got better at women’s basketball and kept her team away from the automatic bid the last three years.
“I’d like to think we had something to do with that,” Larry said of ODU’s influence on the CAA’s overall improvement. “We asked the coaches to beef up their schedules.”
The closest Larry got to the pinnacle as a head coach was in 1997, after ODU beat Stanford in the national semifinals before falling to Tennessee. That ’97 overtime duel between ODU and Stanford, which felt and played out more like a national-championship game than the actual final did, remains one of the most emotional, dynamic women’s basketball games in Final Four history.
From Ticha Penicheiro’s initial driving layup to the Cardinal’s frantic misses in overtime, it had a “historic” feeling to it even as we were watching it.
Larry can take the time to think about such memories now. She also recalls a 2002 Sweet 16 blitzing of Kansas State, when it was almost as if ODU had hit the Wildcats with a stun gun. The score was 88-62, but the game wasn’t nearly that close.
Larry grins and shakes her head at how well ODU played that day, but adds that in spite of that, “I knew in the next game we just had no chance. I couldn’t say that, but I knew it.”
That’s because ODU next faced the Sue Bird/Diana Taurasi/Swim Cash-led UConn team that finished with a perfect record. In Larry’s last trip to the NCAA tournament, in 2008, ODU got “UConn-ed” again, this time by the likes of Maya Moore and Tina Charles in the Sweet 16.
Larry had some real standouts in her time at ODU, such as Penicheiro, Celeste Hill, Clarisse Machanguana, Mery Andrade, Nyree Roberts and Hamchetou Maiga. But Larry also had a lot of roll-up-their sleeves workhorses: the less-talented players who had big hearts and scraped knees.
She wonders what it would be like to coach “the cream” of women’s basketball talent, so the WNBA intrigues her. She says she could adjust to being an assistant at the college level or in the pros.
Larry feels like she’s not done with coaching, yet at the same time, there is no hurry to move on to something else. For that matter, the Atlantic Ocean, the Chesapeake Bay and Hampton Roads are magnetizing forces for her. She won’t go just anywhere.
“I see myself still looking at water,” she said.
Larry has a foot in the pioneering past of women’s college basketball, when salaries were low, perks were few, and times were tougher yet simpler. Isn’t retrospect usually like that?
When you were struggling, you didn’t always notice what was fun about it. Yet for most folks, the best stories tend to come from those early days of their careers when budgets were tight and they had to come up with creative solutions for problems because there wasn’t money to fix them.
Driving the vans, washing the uniforms, and packing homemade lunches maybe didn’t seem so great at the time. Looking back, though, coaches remember how they helped each other despite rivalries.
“I got a story,” Larry says, grinning. This one is about Kay Yow, who in the early 1980s was recruiting and came across an upset Larry in an airport. During a layover in Atlanta, Larry’s wallet , with ID and credit cards, had been stolen. Now she was trying to rent a car to take care of her priority – seeing the recruits – but had no way to do it.
Yow, ever helpful, gave Larry her own ID and credit card to go get a car, saying she could just pay her back later. Skeptical but in desperation, Larry gave it a try.
“So the woman behind the counter takes the license,” Larry said. “And she says, ‘Sandra? … Sandra?’ I’m like, ‘Who is she talking to?’ Then she says, ‘Ms. Yow?’
“I said, ‘Uh, yes?’ And she said, ‘Today is a special day for you, isn’t it?’ And I’m, like, busted. I don’t know what she’s talking about. She said, ‘You look mighty good for 40.’ I was 26 at the time.”
“Not only did I not know my own first name – I mean, how many people knew Kay’s first name was really Sandra? – I also didn’t know it was my 40th birthday,” Larry said.
They then explained the whole thing … and Larry actually still got the car, along with an admonition not to try this stunt again.
“I was so into the history of the game,” Larry said. “And I was fortunate that at a young age, I was part of the history. I have a great fear that we have a tendency not to spend enough time on it. You have to know where you were before you know where you gotta go. You have to understand what it takes to get there.”
Larry tells some more funny tales, just the tip of the iceberg of all she knows. It’s a pleasant afternoon, not maudlin or overly sentimental. She’s doing fine. But exactly how her life will look in another year or two is not something she’s figured out just yet.
Women’s basketball isn’t like the men’s game in terms of pressure to succeed leading to job termination. But it’s progressed in that direction, which seems natural considering the increase in salaries at the Division I level, especially in the past decade.
We in the media talk about this periodically: Are the coaching salaries too high across the board, artificially inflated by the success of a handful of the best coaches? Should programs spend so much on salaries for coaches whose programs, in general, don’t make a profit for the university? Have higher coaching salaries demonstrably improved the overall quality of the women’s college game?
But even if you do think women’s hoops coaches are paid too much, how do you put that genie back in the bottle? That’s a whole other column – or several – but it’s part of the general discussion of what happened last year at ODU.
Especially depending on your age, you may be able to relate to all sides of this. You may feel badly for Larry or any coach who gives a program its identity and isn’t ready to leave. But you can also see the point of view of administrators who are juggling many constituencies and might want their own choices in coaching positions.
Coaches may think, “I was doing this job when my AD was still just a goofball in junior high. Now he can get rid of me?”
ADs may think, “I’ve got a whole lot of people to try to make happy, Coach, and you’re not at the top of the list.”
Even if you appreciate how much coaches such as Larry have contributed to the sport, you still may wonder if a fresh approach was needed.
Sometimes people get tired in their jobs without even realizing it. Or maybe others get tired of them. Exits aren’t always graceful or pleasant. And there are financial realities for some institutions in regard to coaching salaries. ODU did not pay top dollar for Karen Barefoot to replace Larry.
As a longtime coach, your only remedy against being replaced is to keep producing _ although sometimes even that isn’t enough.
“It’s a young person’s world,” says ODU alum Nancy Lieberman. She actually tends to be pragmatically correct about a lot in athletics, and her statement is generally true. But then you remember that 65-year-old Gary Blair won his first NCAA title with Texas A&M last season.
Of course, Blair was also practically kicked to the curb in 2003 by Arkansas, which wanted to go a different direction. It wasn’t easy for him to relocate to College Station, Texas, considering his family members’ work and school commitments that remained in Fayetteville, Ark. But he went, and he’s had the last laugh.
There were fans and observers who thought ODU needed new blood. Now that the Monarchs have that, we’ll wait to see what it actually produces.
It’s been interesting looking just at the Big 12 in women’s hoops and how some coaching “legend” departures and replacement hires have gone in the last decade.
Texas Tech’s Marsha Sharp, Colorado’s Ceal Barry and Texas’ Jody Conradt all orchestrated their own exits for the most part, stayed tied to their schools, and seem relatively content in their current lives.
Kansas’ Marian Washington was both physically ill and feeling pressured to leave when she departed the Jayhawks during the 2003-04 season. As far as I can tell, she has little relationship with the school or the program she dedicated so much of her career to.
Was it the right time for each coach to go? All were in a little different circumstances, but one could say, with respect, that it probably was. Yet that didn’t necessarily mean the programs improved without them.
Kansas’ last NCAA appearance was 2000. The Jayhawks didn’t make the field in Washington’s last four seasons and still haven’t done it yet under Bonnie Henrickson, either. She’s in her eighth season in Lawrence.
Colorado hasn’t made the NCAA tournament since 2004, Barry’s second-to-last year as coach. Kathy McConnell-Miller didn’t get an NCAA bid in her five seasons in Boulder. Linda Lappe, one of Barry’s former players who’s in her second year guiding CU, is off to a strong start with the Buffs in their first season in the Pac-12.
Kristy Curry ended Texas Tech’s five-year NCAA drought – that’s a long time in Lubbock – last season, her fifth with the program. Gail Goestenkors came to Texas a year after Curry went to Tech, and the joke was the Longhorns sent a Brinks truck to Duke to pick her up.
Texas has made the NCAA tournament all four of her seasons in Austin. But sky-high expectations, fueled by her salary, were for Final Four appearances pronto, not an NCAA second-round loss followed by three consecutive first-round losses.
The difficulties of playing in the Big 12 – which has had national champions in Baylor and Texas A&M, plus two Final Four appearances from Oklahoma in the past seven years – help explain why the replacements at Kansas, Colorado, Texas Tech and Texas haven’t had as much success as they all hoped they would.
But it also shows that replacing a longtime coach can be an even bigger challenge than most initially think.
Barefoot is facing that now at Old Dominion. She’s 39, and feels she’s paid her dues, going back to her days as a Division III player. She knows there are many hurdles, but she envisions herself eventually clearing all of them.
This has not been like a relay race, though. Larry feels the baton was taken from her. Someone else handed it to Barefoot.
So Larry currently has things on her mind other than ODU basketball. For the first time, she didn’t winterize her boat. Normally she’s had to because she knew she wouldn’t be using it for months during the season. She expects to be catching some striped bass soon.
It’s Friday, and some friends will be over at her house that night to try a new recipe. Larry’s life right now isn’t affected by missed jump shots by a tired freshman or the whims of an indecisive teen-aged recruit.
It might be one day again. But not on this sunny afternoon.
“It’s in my soul, it’s who I am,” Larry said about coaching. “It’s my identity. It’s what I love to be.”