Rebuilding. It’s not for the faint of heart, particularly when you’re talking basketball in the Palouse and the Pac-10.
But Washington State University appears to have stacked the deck in its favor the last two years, hiring two head coaches whose specialties are rebuilding and creating winning programs. But there’s more to them and their programs than mere wins and losses on hardwood — their eyes are on teaching, mentoring and character building on and off the court.
On March 19, 2002, WSU took a leap of faith and hired Sherri Murrell, a young, up-and-coming college coach who had built winning teams at both George Fox University and the University of The Pacific. At 35, Murrell admits she was young to be named head coach of a Pac-10 university team. But WSU Athletics believed it had found a gem in the making and wanted to nab this talent before another college beat them to it.
Murrell came to WSU from UOP, where she had four consecutive winning seasons (68-46 overall, 40-20 in conference). In 2002, her team earned a 19-11 record — the most triumphs by that program in seven years — and a berth in the Big West Tournament Championship game.
She took over the WSU women’s basketball team from Jenny Przekwas, who had compiled a 17-68 record in three years at WSU, 2-27 in her last season. But transforming the lady Cougs into a winning team is still an uphill battle, with WSU claiming a 2-25 season in 2003 and 6-21 in 2004.
Despite several disappointing games this season, Murrell is confident and optimistic that the tide will turn as her recruits arrive and mature.
One year after Murrell’s hire, Athletic Director Jim Sterk jolted the Pac-10 and college basketball world when, on March 29, 2003, he announced that coaching legend Dick Bennett was coming out of retirement to guide the rebuilding of the Cougars men’s basketball team.
Bennett, 60, came armed with 38 years of coaching experience and a 465-267 record. His first collegiate job at Wisconsin-Stevens Point spanned nine years and included a 173-80 record and three NAIA Tournaments.
Bennett then moved to Wisconsin-Green Bay, guiding the Phoenix to three NCAA Tournament appearances in 1991, 1994 and 1995. His most recent success was at the University of Wisconsin, where he led the Badgers to a 93-69 record, including three NCAA Tournament appearances (1997, 1999, 2000) and a 2000 slot in the Final Four.
In his first year at Pullman, Bennett jump started the revitalization effort as he reorganized the ailing program, began recruiting efforts throughout the region and guided the team to a 13-15 record (7-11 Pac-10), including the team’s first appearance in the Pac-10 tournament, which was reinstated in 2002 after a 12-year dormancy.
At home for the next to the last game of the season, the Cougars gave fans a glimpse of things to come as they played wire-to-wire, full-throttle basketball and nearly upended the nation’s #1 ranked, unbeaten Stanford Cardinal before an electrified crowd on Friel Court. Alas, in the last second of the game, the Cardinal escaped defeat with a 25-foot, off-balance shot launched in desperation that won the game, 63-61.
Now that the season has ended, WSU Today wanted to take a little different look at these two highly publicized celebrities.
Q: You stepped into a program very different from your own with existing players that had a substantial losing record. How does your approach in working with existing players differ from your approach with players, like those in Wisconsin, who your staff recruits?
DB: I might have been more flexible and accommodating to their habits at the beginning of the year, but as the season wore on we expected a bit more of what we teach. So we adjusted but didn’t treat them as though they were someone else’s players.
I don’t mind taking hits the first year, taking hits for losing some games and hits for players we haven’t recruited. I know that will change as the team develops and as we incorporate some of our own recruits.
I think we’ve done a good job recruiting next year’s class, and I think we have laid a good foundation to do that again in 2005.
Now that the season is over, we (all the coaches) will evaluate the first year and meet with each of the players and see if they feel like they fit in with our program and want to be a part of it.
Q: Could a professor look at your style of coaching and see applications for his/her classroom?
DB: I’ve always considered myself first and foremost a teacher.My first 11 years were as a high school teacher and coach, and I moved from teaching physical education to English my last eight years. Virtually everything I do is based on what I learned in the classroom and in other teaching circumstances.
I use a whole-part theory. We break our defense into logical parts, but with the offense we deal more with the whole. One key to success that’s absolutely essential is repetition.
We set practices up so that new material is introduced early when players are fresh and before fatigue sets in, then follow that with review and later introduce competition.
There also is the aspect of rewards and incentives vs. punishment or discipline. Generally, what I have found is these things tend to be inherent in the game. If you don’t play well, you sit out more. If a team doesn’t play well, they lose.Another important strategy that I use is emphasizing the essential points of our program. There often is a big difference between what you are trying to teach and what the players learn. I’ve found that they tend to remember what you emphasize. So I try to make sure that we emphasize what’s important.
DB: The foundation of our program is built on intangible building blocks that will stand the test of time in all circumstances. These are the characteristics that we look for in all recruits.
In essence, there are three categories we look for — attitude, physical qualities or abilities and experience — and each one accounts for about one-third of the points we give when ranking players.
Attitude plays a major role in succeeding in our program. Physical qualities and ability include things like speed, size, quickness, balance, intensity and endurance. Experience looks at what players have been taught and what kind of programs they’ve played in.
Players can score a bit lower in the last two categories, but without the right attitude, I won’t take a player.
Q: What do you mean when you say attitude? What does that look like?
DB: We look for and try to develop certain attitudes in our players. For example, we’re looking for a person who is humble. By that I mean someone who knows who we are as a team and who knows his role on the team and is not interested in showing off as an individual.
We want players who are passionate about the game and what they do, and who want to be the best at it. They refuse to be outworked by their opponents.Since we stress playing as a team rather than as individual stars, a sense of unity is important. We need players with a team-first attitude, with an ability to get along and work with others. This is extremely important to a team.
One trait that’s become harder and harder to find is a servant’s mentality — a willingness by a player to reach out to make it better for their teammates and the team as a whole. On the court this might be demonstrated by setting screens, passing to the open man rather than making the shot, or cheering for others.
An attitude of thankfulness is also important — a mentality that embraces coaching and correction and says “thank you, I can learn from this.”I’ve built programs around this approach for years. I believe that these intangible areas are more important than the win-loss record and the honors received. This is something that really counts for the players, something they can take away and use throughout their lives.
Q: Have things changed much over the years in terms of the game or players?
DB: There’s been a dramatic change. The focus among most players has shifted from we to me. Kids are very much into themselves and what it will mean to “me.” I’ve always been concerned about dealing with that, but now I act on it much more readily. Today, most teams are shaped more by an individual approach than a team approach — magnifying the individual versus the team.Kids used to be happy to be on the team. Now, they’re not happy if they are not playing a prominent role.
Q: In several of your interviews, you have mentioned your faith. Does that affect the way you coach?
DB: I try to stay true to my internal values. I read in John chapter 17 (in the Bible) where we’re to be “in the world” and not “of the world.” Well, the world we live in is very bottom-line oriented, especially in basketball. The win gets you esteem and visibility and can affect who you are and what you value.
All the mistakes I’ve made are connected to this tie-in with the world — my anger, my pride, my guilt, my ego, my selfishness, my aloofness. These are things that pressure can bring out in you because you are in this world.
It’s a constant battle to stay true to your internal values. Although biblical in nature, it’s hard to value humility when you’re working hard to win.
This world can pull you away from what really matters. I’ve lost the battle many, many times. Then, when I realize it, I apologize, confess and return to the battle.
Q: Do professors in the traditional classroom have an important role to play as role models to students?
DB: Absolutely. I think they are vital. In truth, what they do is much more important than what I do. It’s unfortunate that it’s not always perceived that way by the public.
My most important role model in school was Joan Paulson, a high school English teacher. I came into her class with extreme tunnel vision — someone who was wrapped up in a little world of sports, having only read books on that topic.
She started me with what I knew and loved and expanded my vision from there. She taught me to be aware that life is going on all around me. She began by encouraging me to read “Mutiny on the Bounty,” then led me to “The Caine Mutiny” and on from there. She transformed me into someone who loves to read. We have kept in touch ever since. In fact, I just wrote her yesterday.
When teachers really connect with their students, can have an impact that lasts a long time. Sometimes a lifetime.
Professor Henri Nouwen was one of the great teachers and writers at Harvard. He resigned in order to work at L’Arche, a community for the mentally and physically impaired.
He found out they didn’t care about degrees. He felt that in order to really teach you had to develop a relationship. He believed that you can instruct in your area of expertise, but at the same time students need to see or share in who you really are and understand your vulnerabilities.
The teachers I remember are the ones who challenged me and showed me a bit of themselves. And who came across as more than a lecturer. So, I’ve tried to apply that.
Every one of our players could provide a litany of my weaknesses and limitations… they’re exposed to them on a daily basis. I don’t even try to hide them anymore.That’s what allows students and players to see we are real. We have to come down from our pedestals.
Q: Overall, how do you think the first year went? And what can WSU fans expect next year?
DB: Overall, I think we achieved about as much as we could. We came on strong in the last half of the season and made the Pac-10 Tournament. We moved in the right direction and advanced the program.
Now we begin the hard part, which is the rebuilding phase. Many people think of this last season as the building phase, but it really wasn’t. We took this year to honor all the previous commitments made to players and to evaluate their skills.Our focus is to bring in another quality group of players who, along with our returning players, can move us to the next stage. The fact is we need to improve our talent level to be competitive in this league.
Q: You recently were quoted in the Green Bay Press Gazette as saying, “This is the hardest job I’ve had because it is so new to me, and I don’t know the lay of the land like I did in Wisconsin.” Do you expect it will get easier next year?
DB: No. I think next year will be harder. The recruits will be freshmen and the league will be better. It will be more difficult but more enjoyable.
It was such a quiet group this year, which was really unusual. The players provided very little feedback. After a year, I know a lot more about their game, but I don’t know much more about them. I always want my teams to be like a second family.
In our upcoming season, we need a lot more dedication to the classroom and to the court.
SM: It is great having coach Bennett here. I appreciate him as a colleague and friend. We visit each other’s offices and bounce ideas off each other. We’re both in the same situation, trying to rebuild, which is a common bond. I knew of him before I ever came to WSU and really respect him and look up to him.
Like Dick, every program I’ve been in has been a rebuilding situation. So even though I’m relatively young to be a head coach at a Pac 10 university, I brought experience.
Q: Is coaching at a Pac-10 university different than at a smaller college like George Fox or University the of Pacific?
SM: It’s interesting. High school coaches come in to talk to us and observe and want to know what kind of drills and plays we run. Even though we’re a Pac-10 university we’re still teaching the fundamentals. You always teach fundamentals.
Q: You stepped into a program that was definitely flagging and is still in its early building stages. Given that, how has recruiting been?
SM: Recruiting has been a challenge. Our staff has a lot of energy and wants to turn the program around quickly, and we know that recruiting is the road to that.The toughest challenge is convincing athletes to choose us rather than a program that already has success. Kate Benz had offers on the table from Stanford and Arizona — two programs that are already winning — but we were able to draw her by convincing her that she could be a reason this program turns around and that she’d get to play a lot.
There are players out there who are willing to take a chance and enter a program that doesn’t have that winning tradition yet.
Q: Looking back at the past season, you won five out of your first eight games (including exhibitions), then dropped 20 out of the next 22. Are you about where you expected to be in the rebuilding process?
SM: I have such high expectations and lofty goals, it has been a challenge. I thought we would be better than we are right now in the win-loss category, but as they say you can’t build Rome in a day.
However, we are better overall. Our team has definitely improved. And all the colleagues and fans that see us play have said it’s unbelievable how much better we are compared to one and two years ago. But I want more in the W category.
We have learned as a coaching staff that we have to look at smaller victories. And one of our smaller victories is that in many cases we have cut the margin on our losses in half compared to a year ago. For example, we lost to Arizona by 30 points last year; at the end of this season we lost by five. Oregon we lost to by 33 last year; this year we lost by 10. So, we believe that perseverance will lead us from small victories like this to bigger victories.
Q: Compare teaching on the court to teaching in the classroom.
SM: It’s very similar. The court is our classroom.
I look at my job as a teacher. And, we often go a little bit deeper than the classroom professor in that we spend a lot of time with these athletes. When we go on a trip, we’re often with them Wednesday through Sunday, so there’s a lot of teaching about life that goes beyond the classroom or the court.
But, we have to motivate students just like the teachers do to grasp ideas and go beyond the textbook.
Q: Are there lessons that the classroom instructor can draw from coaching?
SM: One of the lessons that we constantly learn on the floor is the need for a never-ending will to win and not give up — particularly in our program, which is going through so much.
That may apply to those teachers who have students that get a C- or D+ and want to give up.
During my career I have learned that as a coach you are in a nonstop teaching role. There may be times when you want to scream, but it’s not going to help you get the point across to a student athlete. And, I’ve made that mistake.
Instead, you have to teach in the practices and work to make things a habit for them. Because in the games, they are going to make choices that sometimes aren’t what you want. That’s really one of the hardest times as a coach. But you can’t do it for them.
For us, we have to rely on the motivation of the player. We remind them of what they did or didn’t do, and don’t yell, because they don’t get the message if you are yelling.
The motivation comes from a heart that says, “Okay coach, what did I do wrong and what do I need to do?” So you encourage them to do it right next time, and you go back and review it in practice to try and make it a habit, so it happens right next time.
Q: What about academics; how does that fit in?
SM: That’s one of those small victories we’ve attained this past year. Our players just earned a cumulative 3.09 grade point average. That’s the highest GPA the women’s basketball team has ever had at WSU. One of the first goals set by our staff was to have a 3.0 or better GPA.
Q: Some faculty look at athletics as toyland, something that’s not really serious academics. What would you say to them?
SM: I would challenge them to step into the student athlete’s shoes for a week. It’s been amazing when I have had faculty and administrators do that — come to our practices and games or on a road trip. It’s unbelievable the change I’ve seen in them.
There are so many lessons that you learn as a student athlete, and I don’t think people realize how difficult it is to balance academics and athletics.
I don’t think people realize how important academics is to us coaches and how strongly we stress it. We make our players run if they miss a class for a day. We really stress that they need to be responsible, and we encourage them to sit in the front three rows in class.
There are also a lot of lessons learned on the court that make them a better student in the classroom and in life.
I have employers who seek student athletes because they know how to balance things, how to win, and how to handle challenges and losses.
Athletics is also a window into our school. People on the East Coast and throughout the nation know WSU through its athletic programs. It provides a window to see what else is here, which is great. And it works the other way as well.
Q: How important are role models to students?
SM: To me, that is my number one responsibility as a head coach. My staff and I are very responsible for these young ladies, how we conduct ourselves in front of them, and what foundation we are laying for them. We are probably the most influential people in their lives in college because of the time we spend with them and the impact we have on them daily. I really cherish that responsibility, and what we say and do is very important.
Q: How might that translate in regards to classroom teachers? What does that mean to them?
SM: During my freshman year in college there were several things that happened in the classroom that really impacted my life.
For example, I had a religion class where the professor asked me, “Sherri, why do you believe in God?” Well, I was this kid who had grown up all my life going to Sunday School and church and Sunday night service, but had never really been asked that question. It was just what I did. But this made me search in my heart and soul and in literature for the answer.
SM: The biggest challenge for me in life is balance. I started this career at such a young age that I put a lot of eggs in one basket, working till the wee hours of the morning. I’m very goal driven to do the best I can do. And in those times I lost those moments with family and friends when I could have shared more. So, creating a balance is something that’s a challenge.
Q: You recently wrote out a personal check for $1,000 to Bosom Buddies, the breast cancer support group in the Palouse, because more than 1,000 fans (1,360 to be exact) attended the Feb. 21 UW-WSU game. What’s the fan support issue been like for you and your team?
SM: It’s the toughest thing to have your kids work so hard and get excited about a game, then walk out onto the court to empty seats. Everybody else we play in the conference — even Cal who’s struggling to win — has great crowds.
I can see it in the girls’ eyes, the lack of support really affects them. I know there’s a responsibility that we need to win and we’re working on that.There’s a lot of people who have gotten on board and know what we’re going through and have said, “Sherri, we’ll be here even in bad times.” And I will cherish them even in a few years when we’re winning.
Building that support is a work in progress, something we’re trying to build throughout the community, and hopefully we’ll reap the rewards in time. I try to get out in the community to meet people and let them get to know me and the players as well. Meeting Kate Benz or Bianca McCall makes it a little easier and more interesting for them to go to a game. “Hey, I know her, she’s a wonderful girl.”
But there also are a lot of people in the community, especially the students, who want to support a winner — band wagon supporters.
The wins will bring these others in time as well. But in the meantime, it’s hard for us. Dick and I have talked about it and, reality is, this is Pac-10 basketball and there are not a lot of things going on in Pullman. That’s what surprised us.
Q: What would you do if you could not be a basketball coach?
SM: I’d probably be a teacher. I love young people and look back on influence teachers had in my life. I have a passion for people and love what I do. I wouldn’t be a good person to behind a computer or desk. I don’t know what I’d teach, but I know what I wouldn’t teach, math. I hate math.
I love to see the change in a player by the end of our program. Take my job and eliminate the win-lose factor, and the lessons that are taught are amazing. Athletes develop not only court skills but as a person as well.
Right now, we are learning how to persevere through the tough times, how to never give up.
I think it’s a passion we all have as teachers.