In 15 years at Loyola my coaching style hasn't changed much. I yell a lot, I laugh a ton and I deliver motivational speeches at every opportunity. Only this season I've been doing it all from a wheelchair. My mother, Katherine, calls me Queen Bee, because my players zoom off the field to hover around my chair.
Nine years ago a CAT scan revealed a small tumor on my brain. I was a recently divorced mother of four, including a newborn girl, and had never needed so much as an aspirin before that day. I had surgery to remove the growth, and within a week I was on the road to visit two top recruits. They both signed. I felt triumphant. No little tumor was going to stop me from doing my job.
But that little tumor led to other tumors and to serious complications. For the next couple of years I had small seizures, as many as eight a day. I'd fall down, and my body would shake. I know it scared my players at first, but they adjusted. Like my kids, they knew the drill: The seizure would go on for a minute, then life, and practice, would resume. From 1998 to 2002, I had two more brain surgeries and several rounds of radiation and chemo, but I still coached full time. Seeing my players reenergized me. The ups and downs of my illness have made for some emotional team meetings. But we've received seven straight NCAA tournament bids; we've gone to the semifinals the past three years; and this year we're 13-0.
In December doctors discovered a large, inoperable tumor in my brain stem. I had a choice: spend my 40th year of life feeling sorry for myself or being the best coach and parent I could be. Coaching hasn't been easy, of course. Paralysis of my left side put me in a wheelchair in February, and my face is swollen from steroids. But I have one good arm and one good leg, my mouth still works, and cognitively I'm sharp. With the help of my assistants, who run drills, and my father, John, and sister Patti, who tend to me almost 24 hours a day, I've made it to most practices and all but one game this season.
My team has given me enormous love and respect—I must be the only coach whose players kiss her on the cheek every day. In return, I've been candid about my illness. When I found out about the brain stem tumor, I requested a team meeting. It was a week before Christmas, so I was surprised when almost every player and several of their parents showed up. I told them the bad news, and then I tried to lift their spirits with a story. In a rare moment alone that week, I had fallen in my bathroom. Unable to pull myself up, I used all my strength to drag myself down the hallway to the phone to call for help. Along the way I drank from my cat's water dish to keep me going. "That's perseverance," I said.
The team took that story to heart. The captains ordered workout T-shirts that say PERSEVERANCE on one side and MEOW on the other. I tell them they shouldn't feel pressure to win on my behalf, but they are playing better than ever.
All things considered, I'm doing pretty well, too. Doctors told me in January that I might have only a few months left. I have two goals: getting to the Final Four and to my oldest son Michael's high school graduation, both in May. How do I face each day? I wake up to the sound of my kids cranking up the stereo. Then they run into my room to sing and dance around my bed. I try to be as positive as humanly possible and thank God for one more day with people I love. As I tell my players, you can find inspiration no matter what you're up against.