For someone who hopes to land a gig on Saturday Night Live someday, it wasn't an auspicious audition. Handed the microphone as the last of six seniors to bid Oklahoma fans farewell after the then 5th-ranked Sooners had closed the regular season with a 75-56 win over No. 15 Texas Tech on Feb. 27, All-America point guard Stacey Dales found herself—for the first time ever, according to her mother, Heather—speechless. "I haven't said 'um' so many times in my life," said Stacey, her voice quavering over the loudspeaker as she tried to sum up her college career. "Um...." After she had croaked out a teary thanks to her coach, teammates, parents and fans, she added, to an appreciative roar, "We're not finished yet. Come with us to the Final Four!"
Not long ago such an invitation would have been met with derisive laughter or, more likely, the hollow silence of a near-empty gym. But in the five years since Dales arrived in Norman from Brockville, Ont., just months after the Sooners had trudged through a 5-22 season, Oklahoma has won three Big 12 regular-season championships, been to the Sweet 16 twice and seen average home attendance blossom from a few hundred a game to nearly 6,000. What's more, after winning the Big 12 tournament last week, the Sooners enter this year's NCAAs as the top team in the toughest conference in the nation (seven Big 12 teams are in the Top 25) and a favorite to make an appearance at the Final Four in San Antonio. "People look at this program and say, 'Such a fast turnaround!' " says Dales. "No way. This has been grueling. But it also has been exciting, proof that you can do anything if you put your mind to it."
That was the thinking of Sherri Coale when she applied for the coaching job at Oklahoma, in 1996. Six years earlier school administrators had looked at the Sooners' losing record, listened to the players' gripes about the coaching staff, counted the 60 or so fans who could be found at most games and dropped the sport, during Final Four weekend. After a surge of public protest that the move was a Title IX violation, the program was reinstated eight days later, only to limp along with many of the same ills. When coach Burl Plunkett retired after the 1995-96 season, new associate athletic director Marita Hynes interviewed several high-profile candidates, but she was blown away by Coale, a spunky 5'5" 31-year-old who had no collegiate coaching experience but had won two state titles at Norman High, where she also taught English. Eight months pregnant with her second child and wearing the only outfit that still fit—"it didn't hurt that it was red and black," she says—Coale passed around pamphlets to the interview committee detailing how she would rebuild the Oklahoma program.
"I knew I had to have someone who really wanted to be at Oklahoma," says Hynes. "It was going to take vision, energy and passion to turn this program around, and Sherri had all that. By the end of the meeting, we were all ready to put on our shoes and go play for her."
Not everyone was so enthusiastic. Soon after Coale's hiring was announced, Hynes received the first of what would become a flood of toxic correspondence accusing her of trying to bury the program for good by hiring a high school coach. Coale didn't calm her detractors by hiring as an assistant Jan Ross, her backcourt mate at Oklahoma Christian, who also had never been a head coach above the high school level.
Her first season—when the Sooners won only those five games—was so miserable that Coale could at times be seen after games with her head in her hands, sobbing. She found solace by reading books like Gary Barnett's Taking the Purple to Pasadena and John Wooden's They Call Me Coach. The latter had gotten her interested in coaching when she was in the seventh grade.
A speck of light appeared in the distance shortly after Christmas of that first season, when then assistant Pam De Costa, who was in Canada to scout another player, saw Dales playing in a club team tournament. After watching the athletic 6-footer showcase the moves she'd picked up while watching NBA tripleheaders, De Costa got on the phone to Coale and announced, "I've found our savior." When Coale later watched Dales play, she saw in her scowling game face a passion that matched her own. "She had fire in her eyes," says Coale. "You could see she loved to play. I knew I had to have her."
Though she was on the verge of committing to Syracuse and unclear on where Oklahoma was, Dales was nevertheless intrigued by the Sooners' sorry situation. Listening to Coale pitch her vision, says Dales, "it was like you could see a trophy and all the details on it, you just couldn't touch it. I thought, how cool to jump in here and help something that was struggling. I felt they could really use me."
They wouldn't be able to use her for another year, though, because Dales blew out her left ACL in the second minute of her first game as a freshman. Oklahoma went 8-19 that season, but Dales's time on the bench "was probably the greatest thing that ever happened to me," she says. "I was skinny and immature, and I had no idea of the magnitude of Division I basketball."
When Dales hit the floor the next year, her teammates had to get used to the no-look passes that would often whip by them and land in the third row. For every assist there was a turnover. " Coach Coale never gave up on me, and I appreciate that," says Dales, whose 734 career assists rank as the most ever in the Big 12 and 27th most in the NCAA. "Even though I knocked down a few security guards that first year, she gave me the freedom to play my game."