Central Arizona College looks like anything but the home of a basketball dynasty. The campus is in remote desert country between Coolidge and Casa Grande, about 40 miles south of Phoenix. Cotton fields adjoin the school on three sides. On the fourth is the Gila River Indian Reservation. Scorpions find their way into dorm rooms, and students strolling among the white stucco buildings may find themselves face to face with a javelina, a small wild boar.
Lin Laursen arrived at Central on a hot summer day in 1971. She had a master's degree in physical education from Arizona State and a pressing need for the job she had recently accepted as women's basketball coach. "I looked around and thought, where the hell am I?" says Laursen. "I had to ask people what a vaquera was."
Once Laursen learned that vaquera—the feminine version of the school nickname—is Spanish for female cowboy, she went to work to make sure everyone else knew, too. From 1974, when the Arizona Community College Athletic Conference began overseeing women's sports, through the end of last season, the Vaqueras had the most successful junior college program in the state, with a record of 379-82. Their conference record over the same period was 230-22, including a four-year streak without a loss. Last season the Vaqueras won the National Junior College Athletic Association tournament.
"No one was shocked that we won the championship," says Central's athletic director, George Young. "Lin had been winning for so long, we all thought it was a matter of time."
Laursen, 46, is a kind of female Bob Knight—intense, driven, demanding. "In my early days here, I couldn't get out of bed after a loss," says Laursen. "Even when I'm playing H-O-R-S-E with the kids, I want to win. I don't handle losing well."
In 1983 the Vaqueras suffered a late-season defeat that kept them out of the national tournament. Laursen was so upset that she took off for Nevada to play blackjack. "I went to lose myself in the cards," she says.
Laursen was paged while at the tables and told she had won the Converse Coach of the Year Award for women's junior colleges, the first year the award was given. She wasn't happy. "How could I be, if we weren't going to the nationals?" she says.
Laursen's passion for winning draws complaints from opposing coaches, who say she runs up the score. "You can be down by 50, and the pressure is still coming," says Bike Medder, the coach at Scottsdale Community College. "She takes no prisoners."
Last season the Vaqueras beat Pima Community College 131-21. Pima coach Susie Pulido says the defeat was a humiliating experience, particularly for her players. "My goal is to beat Lin Laursen," says Pulido. "Even if have to be out there in a wheelchair. And I hope I can be classy about it, not beat her the way she has beat us."
Laursen says she doesn't know what running up the score means. "Do I teach players to throw the ball away?" she says. "We do what we have to do to get better. I don't care what the score is, I'm still yelling." Furthermore, Laursen says she would never risk injuring her starters just to mortify the competition.