Sherri Coale took over the Oklahoma women’s basketball program in 1996, just six years after it was discontinued because the Sooner administration at the time thought no one would care. Following a nationwide outcry, including at the Women’s Final Four that season, the decision in March 1990 was quickly reversed.
When Coale was hired at age 31 from a successful career at Norman High School, there were naysayers who felt it was another sign the Sooners weren’t serious enough about women’s basketball. But Coale — an Oklahoma native — turned out to be the right person at the right time, and after a 5-22 opening season, turned the Sooners into a national power remarkably quickly.
Coale’s first year as a college coach was also the first season of the Big 12, and she and the league grew up together.
“I was really lucky that the University of Oklahoma hired me right before the sport exploded,” Coale said of women’s basketball’s increased television presence and ensuing popularity in the mid-1990s. “Had the sport [already] exploded, I’m not sure I would have had this opportunity. But I got in right under the gate.”
Coale — who announced Tuesday she is retiring — isn’t giving herself enough credit. Once she got the chance, she made the most of it. One of her best players at Norman High, Stacy Hansmeyer, went to UConn. During her recruitment, Coale became friends with the Huskies’ Geno Auriemma, whom she faced in the 2002 national championship game.
In Coale’s 25 seasons with the Sooners, she led a push to endow each of the team’s scholarships, and connected with the community and the state in a way that helped build the program’s profile and attendance. Oklahoma made 19 NCAA tournament appearances and three Women’s Final Four trips, all of which seemed unattainable when she took the job.
Following an iconic coach is one of the toughest things to do in sports, and someone will have to take that on now at Oklahoma. Sooners athletic director Joe Castiglione said he sees this as a very desirable job, and thinks the future can still be bright for the program.
“This is a great opportunity, and I want someone who has the type of confidence to embrace it,” Castiglione said Tuesday. “The right person is out there, no doubt about it. You’re at a place here at the University of Oklahoma that wants to succeed. It’s proven that it can win and get to the highest level and get to the Final Four. We haven’t won the national championship, but we were right there on the threshold.
“We want somebody who has the vision that could create a program that builds upon what we’ve done here and gets back to that point. We’re not going to shy away from those kinds of goals.”
Will the Sooners look to an established head coach? Or perhaps a top assistant? Maybe an Oklahoma alum? Here are five potential candidates that Oklahoma might consider.
Johnnie Harris: The 2018 WBCA national assistant of the year, Harris has worked at very successful programs such as Arkansas, Texas A&M (including during the 2011 national championship season), Mississippi State and now Texas. Might she decide it’s time to move to head coaching? The Pine Bluff, Arkansas, native began her coaching career as an assistant at Arkansas Little Rock in 1998.
Dionnah Jackson-Durrett: The former Oklahoma guard (2001-2005) has been an assistant to Vic Schaefer at Mississippi State and now Texas, along with Harris. The St. Louis native played briefly in the WNBA and then overseas before starting her coaching career in 2010 as an assistant at Southeast Missouri State. She also coached at George Mason before joining Schaefer’s staff in Starkville, Mississippi, in 2015 and being part of two Final Four runs with the Bulldogs.
Britney Brown: Another former Sooners guard (2003-07), she is also currently an assistant in the Big 12, in her fifth season at TCU this year. Brown is an Oklahoma native who started her post-playing career as a video coordinator for her alma mater in 2007, then worked at Nebraska and Tulsa before going to TCU. Like Harris and Jackson-Durrett, she also might be ready to move into a head-coaching role.
Tina Langley: A former assistant at Maryland, Langley is 133-47 as head coach at Rice, including 18-4 this season with a loss to Middle Tennessee in the Conference USA tournament championship game. Her 28 wins in 2018-19 were a program record for the Owls, and she was C-USA coach of the year that season. At Maryland, Langley was part of two Final Four teams.
Michelle Clark-Heard: She was 154-47 in six seasons at her alma mater, Western Kentucky, before taking over at Cincinnati in 2018. Her first two seasons, she went 32-15 at Cincinnati. This season, the Bearcats were 8-16 overall and 6-12 in the American Athletic Conference. Prior to that, she had never won fewer than 22 games in a season with Western Kentucky or Cincinnati. Clark-Heard previously was an assistant to Jeff Walz at Louisville, and helped the Cardinals make their first Final Four appearance in 2009.