I can still remember all the little details… the buzz of excitement in the air before leaving for our first postseason game, and the team laughing and messing with each other across the table. I can still remember feeling the nooks of the conference table as our athletic director walked in. I can still remember giving him a big smile, even though he didn’t return one. I can still remember looking up and noticing a change in the vibe of the packed room full of support staff and players. Some staff were missing, but at that time I didn’t pick up on that. Some girls stopped laughing and playing with each other, while others put down their phones for the first time. The AD cleared his throat, and I would have never imagined what happened next.
Fast forward ten minutes. I can remember hastily trying to grab my phone as I tried to escape the bus of mixed emotions and crying girls and ran outside before a staff member could ask me where I was going. I was lost. To be honest everyone was. I stood outside at the back of the bus and looked down at my phone, all of the sudden not knowing how I was going to explain this to my parents. What were they going to say? Would they make me quit? Would they make me come home?
What we had thought was to be a congratulatory meeting with our athletic director before we got on the road to Colorado became something that no one saw coming. I remember my parents not picking up the phone the first few rings, and then I remember the warm tears running down my cheeks – a mix of frustration, confusion, and the pain of being burned by someone I once trusted. That person was my head coach, who we found out accepted a different coaching job in our same conference with no warning and no formal goodbye. I didn’t really understand at the time what was happening, but I did know two things: the bus was getting ready to leave and I wasn’t going to have a head coach for my first WNIT appearance of my college career.
As a young freshman, this transition in my life was viewed as a personal insult, and not just a regular, unsurprising business deal that happened across the country. Truth of the matter is, coaches leave just as abruptly and frequently as players transfer, the only difference is that college athletes suffer consequences for those actions, while college coaches usually don’t. Truth of the matter is, back then, I had no idea how common this really was.
Fast forward four years, and I’m a seasoned “super-senior” under my fourth coaching staff. That’s right, four different staffs in five years. Out of the four different head coaches, only two were of those changes were my choice.
My original plan was to stay under my first coach for four years, after he promised to stay through my senior season by signing a contract extension before I committed. He had been successful at my first school for 15 years prior to my arrival, so the intention of leaving was not even a thought bubble in my mind. After he left, we flew to Colorado and lost in the first round of the WNIT, ending the season for our seniors and for what ended up being the remaining staff’s last game with the team as well.
My original plan obviously fell through, and my fate was now in someone else’s hands- the hands of the hiring committee for the next coach. The new coach took over a few months after our loss, and changes were happening quicker than hands raising at a UConn press conference. At first, it seemed like a perfect substitution. A coach that once dominated my position and played professionally? Couldn’t ask for a better person to play under. Boy, was I mistaken. My new coach’s style was what some call the “new age of basketball” in other words forgoing traditional post play and playing the running game with five quick, small, “finesse” type players. For my position, this was not in my favor and it was also not something I signed on the dotted line for.
This led to the ultimate heartbreaking decision to leave the school I loved to find another institution where I would be more of a factor on my team. If I wanted to accept sitting the bench, I would have gone with one of my other 30 options that already had a winning culture set. It was a purposeful decision in coming to a school that was still looking for a spark, for that X factor player, for that incredible season that hangs on all the banners and creates that winning culture. It was a purposeful decision in signing with a school that was high in academic achievement and still striving for athletic achievement. It was that same idea that brought me to my second school, and my third head coach.
By making this decision, I lost a lot of close friends and I had to start from scratch at my new school. Looking back now, I was so naïve and I wanted to believe that coaches meant the things they said and that every team was truly going to be a family… After five years, I know now that at the Division One level, the word family will never come before business.
As I mentioned above, college coaches leaving and college athletes leaving have two very different results: one holds consequences and the other typically holds pay raises. In my case, my decision to transfer because of something out of my control caused me to be forced to sit out an entire year of play, putting my junior year on hold. That season, my new team went 13-18 as I watched from the bench. Paired with a 7-23 record the year before that, it was a recipe for another coaching change. Even though I felt real promise to play and genuine passion behind this coach, there was nothing I could do to reverse the tides as just a mere student athlete transfer. This time everyone knew it was coming, and the media labeled it a retirement.
My fourth coach was hired approximately 3 or 4 months later, and with him a new energy and zest for the game, or so I thought. He was a first-year head coach, and with that he brought energy and belief into our stuffy environment that he could change our team culture. My own love for the game had dimmed slightly in the mess of a system that wasn’t designed for me and an entire season of sitting, but the idea of starting fresh and defying odds was enthralling, I won’t lie about that. That idea motivated me to get up every day and grind through the highs and lows of working through another new staff, new coach, new rules, new culture, new everything… even when my personal life was in shambles. The energy he brought was a huge factor in me believing that this time I would finally get the chance I dreamed of when I was opening shiny, sparkly letters on my bed in front of my googly-eyed sisters at 17. This unfortunately was not the case. It went on to be the worst two years of my college experience yet.
I graduated with my bachelors and master’s degrees with a dream that was never realized. A dream that never left the bench. In my five years of collegiate sports, I was never utilized as an X-factor player or a game-time player. Coaches referred to me as a “great recruiter,” some would even say a GPA booster, and I was always told I was a great practice player that made my teammates better. Basketball is a team sport, and everyone truly does have roles and that was something I accepted after my fourth coach. I tried my hardest week in and week out, and brought in many recruits in my five years, even the ones that ended up off the bench before me. I clapped, I cheered, I sang every school song and am so grateful for the two degrees I get to hold in my hands and the friendships I’ve made. But, I will say this, whoever sold me that “college dream” needs to stop selling those lies and take a sip of some truth tea. This story’s purpose isn’t about trying to make anyone feel bad for me or my college career. The purpose is to shine light on what college athletics really are about at the highest level. I made some of the closest friendships I could make in my last two awful years, and that along with my two degrees, are probably the only positive I can take away from these experiences. I learned a lot about the system, I learned even more about myself in tough times, and that is something I will always hold with me.
During my five years, I was telling recruits to not look at things like how cool the locker room is or how much stipend you get for living off campus but to instead look at how the team works and how much of a family they are. Today, I tell a different story. The material things are still not important but what is important is to be real with what your goal is in college. If your number one thing is to play, then you need to sit down with that coach and really understand the dynamics of the team and his philosophies and if that works, for whatever position you may be. If you want to play overseas or professionally in general after college, then I would advise to go to a “favored” school. Big name schools will get you farther when it comes to agents and team contracts, even if your playing time isn’t so significant. There are a thousand different possibilities and motivations that a player can have for coming to a school, so I won’t list them all, but it is important to know what you truly value and to understand that the red carpet the put beneath your feet during your visit will be quickly swept away when the first whistle blows.
This article is the first part of many that I plan to write about my experiences and the experiences of my teammates in hopes it will bring awareness to many different aspects of collegiate sports. Bottom line, it is to at least share my story so that the next doe-eyed 17-year-old doesn’t fall into the same traps that I did.