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MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. --Sheryl Swoopes always knew her journey with basketball would not end with her departure from the WNBA. As the six-time WNBA All-Star, four-time league champion with the Houston Comets and three-time Olympic gold medalist stood on the sidelines, bellowing instructions to the Loyola Ramblers as they took on the Minnesota Golden Gophers late last month, the rest of the world knew it too.
Swoopes' voice rises only to shout plays and formations when the ball is live. Her timeout huddles are tranquil. But don't mistake her quiet style with a lack of passion and intensity. Though Swoopes brought her own chair to the sideline of the raised floor at Williams Arena when Loyola visited Minneapolis, it was quickly forgotten when the Gophers put up a big run to start the game. Swoopes quickly shifted to a standing posture and rarely perched on her chair for the rest of the contest.
Swoopes' celebrity as one of the best ever to play the game distinguishes her from many other coaches. The 2,368 fans at Williams Arena cheered when Swoopes' name was called in pregame introductions, and Loyola's road games result in an uptick of local media eager to follow up on the first-generation legend. On the sidelines, however, Swoopes is not much different from any other professional player now working as a head coach -- and certainly no less competitive.
"Knowing that you have a celebrity, it's like a dream come true. It's pretty exciting to get that opportunity," said Rambler junior forward Simone Law.
"Her being a leader and keeping us focused separates that celebrity persona versus a coaching persona," Ayrealle Beavers, a junior guard, added. "Sometimes I forget this is Sheryl Swoopes, the best basketball player ever."
Swoopes, one of the WNBA's founding players and long one of its biggest stars in her 13-year career with the league, was not reticent about her disappointment when she left the playing ranks without the kind of storybook salute received by many of her notable contemporaries, such as Lisa Leslie, Ticha Penicheiro or Tina Thompson. "More than anything, I'm just hurt," she told ESPN's Mechelle Voeppel in 2010.
Today, though, Swoopes is long past any lingering bitterness. "Basketball has done so many wonderful things for me," Swoopes said. "My passion for playing the game isn't there anymore, but my passion now is giving back to the game."
That shift in desire led Swoopes to Loyola, a Chicago school in its first year as a Missouri Valley Conference participant. The school hired her on the same day she conducted her job interview, and an official announcement was published last April.
No one is more aware than Swoopes that her debut as Loyola's coach marked a decidedly new chapter in her basketball narrative; since her swan song with the Tulsa Shock, an epilogue to her playing career is no longer a target for her. But Swoopes is also the first to recognize that there's a lot of the character who once wore the No. 22 Comets jersey to be found in the modestly attired coach.
"Me as a coach is probably no different as a player. I expect the best, and I expect the most. I really want these players to find that confidence and belief in themselves," Swoopes said.
As a child, Beavers marveled at Swoopes' talent, and her excitement only expanded upon greeting the legend in her new role as coach.
"When she walked in, she really owned the place. She's really right here, about to ask me my name," Beavers said. "She carries herself in a very respectful manner."
Swoopes' college coach at Texas Tech, Marsha Sharp, was among the first line of friends to get the word of her one-time player's move to the coaching ranks. Sharp's first bit of advice to the woman who was instrumental in winning the 1993 NCAA championship for the Red Raiders was to use the first year to understand the coach's role.
"There's no blueprint for being a perfect coach. There is always something different that happens every day," Swoopes said, reflecting on Sharp's words.
There's been a lot for Swoopes to get used to. As a player, she was accustomed to winning. A lot. As a coach, she has had to learn to deal with losing. A lot. After a 67-48 win in an exhibition warm-up against UW-Parkside, the Ramblers opened the 2013-14 season with a 101-54 blowout at the hands of last year's national championship runner-up, No. 7 Louisville, in the Preseason WNIT. The Ramblers picked up another confidence booster in an 82-61 win over IPFW, then dropped a squeaker to Idaho, 62-60.
They came into the Minnesota game with a 1-3 record, and things have only gone downhill since then for Loyola, which is now 3-8 overall, 2-4 at home and 1-4 on the road.
Coaching has also been an object lesson for Swoopes in dealing with circumstances beyond her control. The Ramblers' 80-36 loss to Minnesota was a microcosm of that perspective. Swoopes took an early morning flight to make Loyola's 10:00 a.m. shoot-around after spending the previous night on the recruiting trail, only to witness Tiana Karapulos succumb to injury, leaving Swoopes to navigate the season without the team's top two scorers. (Taylor Johnson had been injured in their previous game, an 89-69 road win over Western Illinois).
For Swoopes, such a day highlights the degree of versatility coaching demands.
"Coaching is about 20 percent of the job. With all these young ladies, it's being a mentor, a teacher, a friend, being a mom to some of them," Swoopes said.
Her players have definitely got the message that Swoopes is much more than their coach.
"She's genuine, she's real. She cares about her players and it shows," Law said.
While Loyola players seek guidance from Swoopes, she turns to several of her own contemporaries as coaching role models. Coquese Washington, a former teammate of Swoopes at Houston, has gradually built Penn State to a renewed perennial contender after the turbulent resignation of Rene Portland. Cynthia Cooper, also a Comets' teammate of Swoopes and now a Women's Basketball Hall-of-Famer, developed a pedigree for transforming programs that had previously enjoyed little success and now holds the head coaching job at Southern California (USC). Swoopes' Olympic teammate, Dawn Staley, has coached college hoops since 2000 and has qualified for the NCAA tournament eight times with Temple and now with No. 10 South Carolina.
To Swoopes, each of these players-turned-coaching-successes represents her generation of player-coach; she shares with them a common bond in their passion for making an impact beyond scoring baskets.
"What they've done for their respective programs are things that I want to be able to do here at Loyola. They give me a lot of encouragement and inspiration that it is possible," she said.
But perhaps surprisingly, Swoopes looks to an earlier generation for her ultimate coaching role model. Most fans would likely believe that Swoopes' No. 1 choice from that previous era would be either Sharp or Van Chancellor, another Hall-of-Famer, who was the Comets' head coach during their dynasty years.
To be sure, Swoopes can and does draw upon the examples set by those two as her new career unfolds, but her idol in this realm is Tara VanDerveer. VanDerveer, the Stanford coach who recently won her 900th career game, took the helm of the coveted 1996 Olympic team, a roster Swoopes was a part of and under whose tutelage Swoopes spent a year of training in preparation for the Atlanta Games.
"She's that coach that really helped me become the player that I am. I thought I was good, but she always told me I wasn't good enough, that I could always be better," Swoopes said.
Communicating those ideas will be key to lifting the abilities and optimism at Loyola, and the Ramblers are already showing signs of both despite Loyola's 3-8 start.
Swoopes is pleased to see a willingness to embrace change at the private Jesuit university, even when that change means a return to seemingly routine drills in basketball fundamentals.
"When I came in, I probably assumed that they would know a jab-fake, head-fake, how to box out correctly. There are some players that don't, so I had to take a couple steps back. If I want it done correctly, we got to teach it correctly," she said.
Especially when those tactics are enveloped by a broader plan to channel the style that made Swoopes famous.
"Speed, quickness, transition. She wants to get up and go," Law said.
Swoopes sees the gradual rise in skill and athleticism as the means to employing a faster tempo. These days, virtually every team attempts to establish a man-to-man defense, a stark contrast from the zone formations she encountered in her Texas Tech days.
|First-year head coach Sheryl Swoopes gives instructions to Loyola guard Ayrealle Beavers. Beavers, who has followed Swoopes' storied playing career since childhood, says the new coach is helping her believe in her own skills and abilities. (Photo by Steve Woltmann/Courtesy Loyola Athletics Media Relations)|
Beavers is one of those buying in to this conversion to a faster paced style of play. When Swoopes told Beavers she could pull up if she had a one-step advantage against her defender, Beavers says she accepted that she was capable of executing that move on the court, knowing her coach had such moves in her own repertoire.
Although currently short-handed, Swoopes' short-term goal is to take Loyola to the championship round of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, a mark the Ramblers achieved last season in the Horizon League. Whether or not that benchmark is reached, however, Swoopes' underlying attitude of patience and perseverance calms the atmosphere.
Swoopes admits it will take time and successful recruiting to transform Loyola into a basketball power team, but a strong work ethic is a tangible she is striving for in the interim.
"Talent does help, but you got to work. I want to be a very good defensive team, and defense is supposed to be hard. You can't be a good defensive team if you're lazy," she said.
The Loyola roster is already seeing a difference, and the values they are imbibing from their new coach informs their own goals when their time in college is up.
"I'd like to imitate the leadership I've seen from her, and take that to whatever working field I choose to go to," Beavers said. "A lot of people have doubts of our team and how far we can make it. It's just amazing to see what she's doing to prove everybody wrong."
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