OC alumna excels on national stage

Sherri Coale has built one of NCAA's top programs

“Oklahoma Christian was an easy choice – the academic environment, their church affiliation and what they stood for philosophically. And their basketball program was fantastic, too.”

When Sherri Coale of Healdton, Okla., arrived on Oklahoma Christian’s campus in 1983, her personality traits were evident – tenacity, competitiveness, confidence, a willingness to work hard and a passion for basketball.

In the quarter-century since then, Coale’s career arc has made her arguably OC’s most high-profile graduate, thanks to her success as the University of Oklahoma’s women’s hoops coach. But those who know the former Sherri Buben say she’s changed little since her days as an undergraduate.

“She’s grounded,” said Stephanie Findley, who began her long tenure as OC’s women’s coach before Coale’s junior season. “She knows what it’s all about.”

That Coale ended up at OC is a blessing she doesn’t discount. Max Dobson, then OC’s women’s coach, recalls that Coale’s cousins happened to be members of the school’s booster club and told him about “this little girl down in Healdton who scored a lot of points, was quick and had it together.”

At first, Dobson said, he was skeptical.

“You hear a lot of those stories. Everyone’s got a good player,” he said.

But he decided to offer Coale a scholarship “basically without seeing her play.” When he finally watched her at the annual All-State game, Dobson realized he’d made a good choice.

“Things just fell into place,” he said. “It was kind of like God meant for her to be here.”

Coale had received recruiting interest from a handful of small colleges and junior colleges, but she said it didn’t take long to decide to attend OC after the scholarship offer came.

“Oklahoma Christian was an easy choice – the academic environment, their church affiliation and what they stood for philosophically. And their basketball program was fantastic, too,” she said.

From her first days on campus, Coale was a fixture in a gym. Then-teammate Jan Ross (86) – who’s been Coale’s top assistant at OU since Coale was hired there – can recall finding Coale shooting in OC’s Barn during freshman orientation week.

Dan Hays became OC’s men’s coach in 1983, just as Coale was arriving on campus. The two formed a bond that remains to this day, so much so that Hays considers her one of his former players. She sat in on so many of Hays’ practices that she might as well have been.

“There are a lot of girls who will kind of hang around and watch, but she probably asked more questions and would come in and talk about things,” Hays said. “She was always a gym rat. I think it was pretty evident early she was going to be an English teacher and a basketball coach.”

Sure enough, right out of college in 1987, Coale landed a job at Edmond Memorial High School as an assistant coach.

Two years later, Hays recommended her for a head coaching job at Norman High School, a position that Coale landed at age 24, making her the youngest head coach in Oklahoma’s highest prep classification.

In seven seasons, she turned Norman into a national-level power, going 147-40 and winning two Class 6A state titles. Her last two Norman teams went 53-2.

Then came an even bigger career jump – to the NCAA Division I level at age 31. Critics openly wondered if Coale could turn what had been a mostly middling OU program into a winner and if OU had dropped the ball by handing the young coach the program’s reins.

Coale said she’s fortunate that she coached in the town where OU is located, so university administrators saw close-up what had happened at Norman High.

“Her timing was perfect,” Hays said. “In 2009, she wouldn’t have gotten that job, even though she would have been the same coach and have done the same job.”

OU struggled in Coale’s first season, going 5-22 and losing its last 16 games. The Sooners went 8-19 the next season.

By season three, 1998-99, OU posted a winning record of 15-14 and made the Women’s National Invitation Tournament field.

One season later, the Sooners won the Big 12 Conference championship and reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.

They’ve been to the Big Dance every year since. In 2002, Coale guided the Sooners to the national championship game, losing to Connecticut in San Antonio.

Last season, behind All-America center Courtney Paris, the Sooners made it back to the Final Four.

With a record of 286-132 in her 13 seasons, Coale is by far OU’s career wins leader. It’s not uncommon for the Sooners to draw crowds upward of 10,000 fans.

She’s served as the president of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association and has won multiple national and conference coaching honors.

“Did I know she was going to be so successful when she got the position at OU? Nobody knew that,” Hays said. “But I’m not shocked or surprised. She treats people with respect and that’s what it’s all about.”

Through her success, Coale has remained fiercely loyal to her alma mater. Along with Ross, two of her former staff members at OU – Bill Pink (90) and Scott Raines (89) – were fellow OC graduates. She schedules yearly exhibition games against OC and sometimes can be found watching her children play during OC’s annual Cage Camps.

“When you go away from home and go to college, that’s when you formulate your own set of values and principles and decide how you want to live your life,” she said. “I was fortunate to be surrounded by great people who made great impressions on me.

“I got to play for Max and watch Dan build a program. You can’t put a price tag on that. I was taught by some fantastic English teachers, who really created the type of teacher I would become. I could just go on and on with people, people, people. That’s the best thing about it.”

By Murray Evans (89)

Murray Evans has written for The Associated Press in Lexington, Ky., and Oklahoma City for almost seven years after spending 15 years as a sportswriter for The Oklahoman newspaper.