They almost always go to work together in the morning and return home together at night. They spend the hours in between together, devising game plans, running practice drills and taking care of administrative business. Such an arrangement might put some couples on the fast track to divorce. But for Mary Hile-Nepfel, 36, and Bill Nepfel, 44, being married to each other as well as to their jobs has proved successful. This season the Nepfels, the only husband-and-wife co-head coaches in NCAA basketball, have steered the University of San Francisco Lady Dons to their second straight NCAA tournament. "When things are going great like they have been," Bill says, "you want to take your job home with you."
Last season, West Coast Conference coaches picked the Lady Dons to finish seventh in the eight-team league, and San Francisco began the campaign with only eight healthy players. But the Lady Dons adopted the slogan Refuse to lose, and that's essentially what they did: They not only finished 24-5 but also made it to the first round of the NCAAs, where they were eliminated by Arkansas 67-58. The Nepfels were named WCC Coaches of the Year.
While the Lady Dons have had a tougher time this season—they were 22-7 after a 61-57 victory over Portland on March 3 helped them to win the conference and make the tournament—the Nepfels have kept their cool. "When practice started, they wanted to make sure we knew that last year was last year," junior co-captain Renee Demirdjian says. "They knew people might be hyping us as this great team, but they told us not to let that get into our heads. They're very open to us, and there's a lot of communication."
The coaches' sensitivity stems in part from the fact that Mary knows the game's highs and lows as a former player as well as a coach. In her playing days at USF (1977-81), the 6-foot Hile was a two-time All-America. With 2,324 points in her college career, she's the top scorer—male or female—in USF history, and she was the first woman inducted into the school's Hall of Fame, where her retired jersey hangs alongside those of male basketball stars Bill Russell, K.C. Jones and Bill Cartwright. After college she played a year of pro ball in Italy, then returned to the U.S. and earned her master's degree in physical education at Long Beach State.
Though Bill never matched Mary's achievements on the court—he played intramurals at Cortland State in Cortland, N.Y.—he has been passionate about the game all his life. He met Mary at Long Beach State in 1982, when he was an assistant coach for the women's team and she was a graduate assistant, and they were married in 1985, when Bill was the women's coach at the University of Hawaii.
When the women's coach and her assistant left USF in 1987, the university offered the Nepfels the positions, leaving the chain-of-command details to them. They decided to split everything equally: salaries, responsibilities and title. The Nepfels are now in their ninth season of easy, informal collaboration. Luckily their coaching styles are similar—"We really enjoy running fast breaks," Bill says—and their strengths are complementary. Although they share responsibility for recruiting and game strategy, he handles most scheduling and budgeting work (which is "the way it is at home," Mary says), while she works with players on skills and orders equipment and uniforms. During games they both call plays and timeouts, but since regulations allow only one coach to stand, Bill's the designated stand-up guy, largely because he "can bark a little louder at the officials," Mary says.
The downside of being married co-coaches is that the Nepfels sometimes take professional pressures home with them. "We don't want to argue in front of the players or on the court," Mary explains, "so sometimes we wait until the ride home to discuss it."
But the truth is, "We just don't disagree on that much," says Bill. "We've done this long enough that we're pretty clear on our goals for the team."