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Aspiring is never safe

Posted: Wednesday January 23, 2002 2:19 PM
 

Sherri Coale is in her sixth year as coach at Oklahoma. After seven years of coaching at the high school level, the Oklahoma native was hired by the Sooners. She has led Oklahoma to two Big 12 regular season titles and two back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances. Check out Coale's diary on CNNSI.com throughout the season.

January 21, 2002

It's bye week for us -- an uncharacteristic Wednesday off in the midst of Big XII play, and it couldn't have come at a better time. Last week was a roller coaster ride. We played well on Saturday at Baylor, coming from behind to beat a very good team in a great women's basketball environment. It was an emotional win and a fun game of which to be a part.

We bused home and had two light practices, preparing far more mentally than physically for our next road trip, a Tuesday matchup at Iowa State. Ames is not an easy place to get to and it seems, for us anyway, to be an even harder place from which to escape. After a lifeless first half, which gave ISU confidence and me a headache, we came out in the second half and played even worse. Iowa State couldn't miss; we couldn't throw it in the ocean off of a boat. Suddenly we were rolling downhill Merle Haggard style -- like a snowball headed for you know where. I hated our effort. I could have cared less about the missed shots (goodness knows there were plenty of those), but despondent play eats at my soul.

In the locker room following the nightmare, I apologized to our team. I coached as badly as they played. I got mad and fed my stubborn streak instead of helping them find another way. To make matters worse, in the media room I popped off (indirectly referencing the fact that one of my post players fouled out and the other two finished with four each) about not having a solution for guarding Angie Welle in the paint and told the media present if they had any advice to e-mail. I wish they had written "tongue-in-cheek" in the newspaper -- so does my computer.

I've always believed that the most important thing about a loss is the way in which you react to it. Come to think of it, I've never lost a game that didn't turn out to be a blessing in disguise (OK, perhaps I'm still looking for the lesson in a couple of those fifteen consecutive that first year, but generally speaking...). So, we dissected our performance at Ames -- threw away a big chunk of it over which we had little control -- and handled very honestly the things we could control.

I have a great, great admiration for those who can complete any season in perfection. Winning makes it so easy to ignore symptoms. Losing magnifies them. For us, the loss at Iowa State served as a reminder that not only is the destination impossible without the journey, but that the journey is what makes the destination matter. We have a very small margin of error. We've known that all along. Therefore, our energy, our execution, and our effort have to be constants. There will be nights when we don't shoot it well. There can't be nights when we don't defend, or rebound, or dive on the floor for loose balls. We can't have lifeless games or halves or even possessions. And we shouldn't. This is a game -- it's supposed to be fun. Perhaps in some distorted, perverted way, losing this game reminded us how much fun winning is. I hate the backward predictability of that. It's like being told that you're about to die, so you finally decide to live.

One ever-endearing by-product of an unexpected loss is that it reminds you who your friends are. Several of mine called to make sure I had removed all sharp objects from my office. One reminded me that jumping out of the window would only maim and not kill me, therefore solving nothing. They collectively put a "you will survive" and "you have a great team" spin on this thing. A perspective that I would have probably come to eventually without them, but it would have taken a lot longer and it wouldn't have been nearly as much fun. Such a special camaraderie grows between coaches. I swear my heart ached for Bob Stoops when our football team lost to OSU this year; and I cried like a baby last March as Roy Williams held a stuffed monkey and talked about his players taking turns knocking it off his back. It's like the clique of motherhood, a sort of secret society that you don't sign up for or get invited to, you just happen there. And you're all inextricably linked. You fight the same battles, face the same fears and dream the same dreams. And wherever you are, you know everyone in the club has either been there before or is headed there soon.

We returned to action on January 19, hosting Texas (then 5-0 and ahead of us in conference standings). For the third time in four years we were playing the Longhorns on my birthday. We played great. We shot 49 percent from the field, posted 21 assists and only 13 turnovers (a season low!), and we out rebounded. Most importantly, however, we played with abandon. Stacey Dales smiled for the first time in weeks. We had six players score in double figures, and we had thirteen players and four coaches emotionally spent by the sound of the final buzzer. That's the way it is supposed to be. Leave it all on the floor and enjoy every second of it. It wasn't the most important game of the year and our winning it certainly didn't print us a free ticket to the final four or even a conference title, but somewhere in that 40 minutes we found our joy. That alone made it a landmark.

We're perfect on my birthday against Texas. I am currently lobbying the Big XII to play Iowa State on that day next year. The television stations announced that I had been given a perfect birthday present and the newspaper accounted not only the date but also the number of times I had experienced it. Really, it's hard to beat aging publicly. Okay, losing while aging publicly would do it.

As I look back on the emotion of this week, I am forced to step back and remember a time when nobody cared enough to e-mail, when a 5-1 conference start would have been a miracle, when a national ranking of four would have been a dream come true. I step back to gain perspective, but I do not stay there. The bar has been raised. It was shoved up by us. And while occasionally it strikes me that I might be creating a monster capable of devouring me, I am more than happy to feed it. Aspiring is never safe and it's often painful. But it's always worth the effort. I don't know what March -- or February, for that matter -- has in store for us. And it doesn't really matter. All that matters to me is that we move down the road with our eyes wide open, living the season. The rest will take care of itself.

-- Coach Coale

 
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