Just before sitting down with College of Charleston women’s head basketball coach Nancy Wilson, in an interview about her upcoming retirement, I was able to observe an afternoon practice with Coach Wilson and her team.
The time spent in practice was filled with demanding drills and intense focus from the team. It was filled with whistles and the shouting of plays, which seemingly all were named after a state or city. Wilson chanted from the sidelines, “Carolina!” and “Denver!” This practice was to prep the ladies for their upcoming game against Georgia Southern, which turned out to be a 47-44 road victory.
Now stationed in the hospitality suite of the TD Arena, Wilson casually sat back in her New Balance shoes and practice warm-up, ready to answer questions. However, after seeing someone with so much spirit and vitality for the game, it was hard to believe the interview was to be with someone about to retire.
When asked why she was retiring, she stated in the most sincere and open response that it was “probably energy, if I came right down to it.”
Wilson noted what has carried her through her coaching career and led her from job to job, “my whole career has been one of timing; my timing has just been excellent all the way across the board.”
That timing has taken her from the formative years of the College of Charleston’s women’s basketball program in the 1970s and 80s, to the then-Metro Conference powerhouse of South Carolina, and back to the Cougars in 2003.
But, as timing would have it, Wilson believes now is the time to retire.
For someone who has been with the game as long as she has, Wilson could certainly tell you just how much of a time commitment it is to maintain a team from year to year. Many of us think of basketball season in terms of a game schedule but, for a coach, the basketball season starts and does not end.
In part, she thinks it is time to pass the torch along to the young coaches who are aspiring to become involved in the game.
“So many young people are trying to get into it,” said Wilson. “They are just dying to get into it and they really should.”
Wilson’s modesty would probably not allow her to admit that she has been a role model and inspiration for many of these rising coaches to make their way into the coaching ranks.
College of Charleston associate head coach Temple Elmore, having been both an player and a coach for Wilson, said that she is hoping to learn just what it is that gives Wilson the ability to be clear and detailed while explaining the X’s and O’s of basketball.
“I think she is a great X’s and O’s coach,” said Elmore. “She is just very detailed when it comes to describing something or explaining something and that is one thing I hope to carry with me. I haven’t quite got it like she has it.”
Elmore noted how Wilson’s players will come back to visit her.
“What I will always remember is her players coming back after they have graduated,” said Elmore. “Honestly, it didn’t matter if it was a player that we had to let go for some reason, if it was a player that had great memories or had a great season or a great career. No matter what the circumstances were, they will always come back and they will always come back to see her. To me, that says a lot.”
Elmore added that coaching is sometimes a matter of shaping people into the best possible person they can be though the platform of sports. She said that Wilson has been able to do that while maintaining the respect and trust of her players.
“That is one thing I want to have if I’m ever a head coach,” said Elmore. “For players to know that your coach loved you enough to make the hard decisions, and you’ll understand that and you come back to say thank you.”
Athletes such as College of Charleston junior forward Cathryn Hardy are proof that Wilson has imparted the value of balancing the game of basketball with both enjoyment and hard work.
Hardy says that practices with Wilson demand a great amount of effort, but they are also decorated with laughter.
“I knew from freshman year until now that she wants intensity all the time, but she also leaves time to joke around. If something funny happens in practice we’re allowed to laugh,” said Hardy. “Coming in freshman year you think it’s strictly business all the time but with Coach Wilson, she’s not afraid to have a good laugh if something funny happens.”
Laughter and fun seemed to be two words repeated time and again when people describe Wilson. College of Charleston assistant coach Tammy Holder summed it up perfectly: “She is just a fun lady. She enjoys life.”
Having worked with her on three different occasions, Holder has seen the enjoyment Wilson stirs up in life.
Holder shared a moment when Wilson’s ability to enjoy life helped her South Carolina Gamecocks team win the Great Alaska Shootout championship.
Entering the tournament, South Carolina was low in the bracket, expected to lose and go home early. Holder explained Wilson’s impromptu itinerary once the team all landed in Alaska.
“So we get to the hotel and everybody’s doing their thing and Nancy’s like (cue her Nancy Wilson impersonation), ‘Well we’re not gonna come back to Alaska again so what do you think we should do?’”
They took what could have been a brutal tournament experience and turned into the vacation of a lifetime. The team went dog sledding, traveled to a see a glacier and went ice skating.
“We did all of these things in between games and our first game, we won!” said Holder. “Western Kentucky wouldn’t leave their room, they were so disciplined. UNLV was so disciplined, and we were like, ‘Let’s have a ball!’ We ended up winning that tournament and it was one of the biggest upsets of the year and we had a blast.”
So where did this great coaching sense come from? She must have had the greatest teachers in the world for coaching. After all, how many people can say they have won a tournament while gearing up for a snowball fight?
Wilson entered into the world of women’s basketball when there were still a small number of female coaches. While there were only a handful of predecessors, there were even fewer scholarships available for women. She began her coaching career at the start of the scholarship days.
“My timing in getting into coaching coincided with the first of the scholarship days,” said Wilson. “Women had been playing basketball for a good long time. Colleges had been playing some very good basketball, (but) just a few number of them had. But nobody had been giving athletic aid.”
So with limited resources Wilson began blazing a trail, finding all the outlets she could to develop her coaching skills. One of those was Tennessee head coach Pat Summit, who has now recorded more than 1,000 career victories and eight NCAA championships.
“When I first started (coaching), Pat Head Summit – who is just a year younger than I am – had started at the University of Tennessee, and she very quickly made a name for herself.”
Wilson explained how they both worked to develop their coaching skills: “I knew her. We had worked at a summer camp together, and she was getting ready to coach the Junior National team, so I asked her if I could observer her.”
The two women worked out in Squaw Valley, Calif., where Summit trained the Junior National team and Wilson advanced her knowledge of the art of coaching.
“That was a major, major positive for me,” said Wilson about her trip to Squaw Valley.
In 1993, Wilson took over as head coach of the USA Women’s Junior National Team, bringing home the silver medal from the Women’s Junior World Championships in Seoul, South Korea.
As Wilson continued through her career, she would eventually work down the hall from another basketball legend, Charleston’s former men’s head basketball coach John Kresse, who she said was a great resource for learning the game.
“When John Kresse came it was just like icing on the cake,” said Wilson. “Everything I knew or was learning came together and then expanded with what I could learn watching him.”
Kresse admits that he learned a lot from Wilson, and working down the hall from one another they were both able to hone their skills as head basketball coaches.
“This was my first head coaching job in 1979 and Nancy had already been a head coach for a few years,” said Kresse. “So I would powwow with Nancy to talk hoops. I’d watch her practices and games and I learned a lot about her leadership and her style and system of coaching, which helped me greatly. She was very open to share her philosophy with me, as I did with her. I had a friend and colleague who knew maybe more basketball than I did, sitting in the same building. So it was a tremendous opportunity, especially for me.”
Inevitably, those who have known Wilson talk about her in terms of the wonderful friend they have made.
“She is just one of those people who cares about family and cares about her players,” said Holder. “She has close friends that she would do anything for.”
Wilson has formed great relationships in the game and made many great friends throughout her career. Now, those friends have to imagine the game without Wilson courtside.
So with more than 500 wins to her name – as well as three appearances in the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women national championship game, five Metro Conference titles at South Carolina and five NCAA Tournament showings – we have to ask ourselves: What will be like not having Nancy Wilson on the Cougars’ bench?
“The game is going to lose a great coach,” said Elmore, who then paused for a moment before beginning to lightly laugh to herself. “She does a lot of funny things.”
Elmore listed many of the things she will miss as Wilson goes on to retirement.
“I will miss the intensity that she brings, the funny side also. I will miss the dances that sometimes she will do that I will often catch on camera and am able to show the team and we can laugh about.”
Elmore paused once again as she thought about what it will be like not having Wilson as her head coach.
“I will miss the camaraderie with her, the discussions, being in the thick of battle; just all of those things. That’s what I will miss.”
Kresse noted what Wilson has meant to the program and to the College.
“Nancy has been the consummate professional and has represented the College of Charleston in first class manner,” said Kresse. “She communicated with both her players and the community extremely well, and she motivated her staff and her players greatly.
“She brought, both the first time and the second time (at the College of Charleston), a lady of great integrity, class and a true winner both on and off the court.”