Marsha Sharp

Tall Enough to Coach

Marsha Sharp has graciously allowed the Foundation to share excerpts from her book Tall Enough to Coach. The book was published in 2004 by Bright Sky Press and was copyright by Marsha Sharp and her sister-in-law, Emily Foreman Sharp. In her acknowledgements, Coach Sharp states: “For me, this book is a compilation of lessons which have shaped my career to this point. Some of the lessons are lifelong, tried and true principles that will stay with me forever. Others are ever-changing approaches which I continue to evaluate along the way. Most of them are due to the direct influence of people who form my best quality–my very special support group.” Then she credits her parents and family, her staff, the young women who played in her program, and the Lady Raider Nation fans. Most importantly she thanks God for always being with her throughout her journey.

The subtitle of the book is “Elements of Leadership for Coaching and Life.” Thus, even if you are not a coach, the book provides many principles that may be applicable to your life. In time, we may come back to her life’s lessons. This series, however, focuses on Marsha Sharp the person and the excerpts we have chosen shed light on both the book’s title and what she credits for the heights she has attained through being “Tall Enough to Coach.”

Today’s post comes from the book’s preface which provides a “sense of place” and a description of Marsha’s early years.

“West Texas is in my blood, even though I was born in Washington and lived in New Mexico as a child, West Texas is home to me. It is a place which possesses a unique, two-hearted beauty. From its breathtaking sunsets, to its brilliant starry nights, to its serpentine fields of snow-white cotton, a person cannot help but feel the opportunity here. These surroundings repeat themselves in the personalities of true West Texans – there is a vastness about them in terms of their can-do spirit, their genuine friendship, their untiring work ethic, and their close-knit
relationships. Under girding all of these traits is an intense faith which guides most major decisions. Perhaps that confidence in God stems from centuries of farmers’ prayers each planting season; it takes faith to plant a seed and nurture it through all kinds of weather. As a child I spent many hours on this land—either chopping cotton, caring for cattle, or harvesting our family’s vegetable garden. We even raised pigs! On many mornings my entire family would go to the farm, load pigs into a trailer and head to Plainview so the pigs could be made into Jimmy Dean sausage. Then, we would go home and get ready for school. Later, when I would play “This Little Piggy Went To Market” with my baby nephews’ toes, I would remember those early morning trips to the pig farm. Making a life from the land was a full-time job indeed, but I came to appreciate the strong family ties it strengthened with every passing season.

West Texas people, against a West Texas background, make for a beautiful thing. That the landscape is level all around makes no one really that much taller or better than the other; you are who you are. But, if you live in West Texas, you’d better deal honestly, because people can see you coming for miles. It is a land of possibility and infinite skies; consequently, it’s a terrific place to have big dreams.

Many of these dreams are played out along Interstate 27, which runs north and south through this land. During the fall on Friday nights, the sky is aglow with the lights of small town football stadiums sporadically placed along the road. A love of athletic competition is legendary here, not only on the football fields, but also in the hundreds of basketball gyms which become places of community for all kinds of folks. As you drive along the highway, it is not uncommon to be greeted by billboards proclaiming the town’s champions of years current and past – a testament to a single event that puts a small town “on the map,” if for only a season. Tulia, Plainview, Hale Center, Abernathy, Lockney, Slaton, and all the towns in between share a passion for sports, especially for basketball. I am a product of this passion and I’ve spent my life pursuing its elusive dreams.

Some of the most significant events in my life occurred in West Texas, especially within a seventy-five-mile radius of Lubbock. My journey into the world of sports began north of Lubbock at Tulia Jr. High School, where I began playing basketball in 1964. My love of the game continued into high school where I was on the Tulia Hornette basketball team. Women’s basketball was a six-man game then, and I played both forward and guard which allowed me to play on both ends of the court and be a part of all the action. I was fortunate and proud to be named to the All-District basketball team my senior year.

After graduating high school in 1970, I decided to attend Wayland Baptist College in Plainview, a community just 25 miles south of Tulia. Plainview was not only the home of Jimmy Dean, but also home of the storied Wayland Flying Queens basketball team. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with my life, but I thought it had something to do with basketball. I became Queens’ manager while completing my undergraduate degree in physical education and English. I was a sophomore at Wayland when I discovered a sobering truth. Flying Queen Head Coach, Harley Redin, looked me in the eye one day and said, “I know how much you want to play collegiate basketball, but you’re just too short and too slow.” I didn’t hear much beyond that. I wasn’t tall enough to be a Queen! I truly love the game and wanted to play so badly. I was devastated. I even discussed my future with Dr. Roy C. McClung, the president of Wayland, to see if he could change Coach Redin’s mind. Not so. Thankfully. however. Coach Redin didn’t give up on me entirely. He told me that while I wasn’t good enough to play, I might have what it took to be a coach. He asked me if I would coach the Queen Bees, the Flying Queens junior varsity team. I gulped and said yes. That was the beginning of my coaching career.

I was privileged to coach an outstanding group of talented, fun-loving women who had much patience with me as a rookie. I learned the value of creating team chemistry through that experience as many of the players have remained close friends through the years. Because we played some of our games through the holiday season, it was not uncommon for the Queen Bees to fill my parents’ home in Tulia for Thanksgiving or Spring Break, visits which forged the threads of relationships that extended to the basketball court. In 1973, the Queen Bees ended the season with 25 wins and 8 losses. I began to see coaching as both a challenging and rewarding profession – and it didn’t matter how tall or how fast I happen to be!

The next year, the Flying Queens came under the leadership of Coach Dean Weese who would become one of women’s basketball’s greatest champions. Because I felt a calling to pursue a coaching career, I ask him if I could manage the Flying Queens and be in the shadow of his expertise. He agreed and that began a relationship that continues to this day. Little did I know that, years later, I would depend on him not only as my mentor, but also as the older brother of Linden Weese, my faithful assistant coach for the Lady Raiders for more than two decades.

The Wayland Flying Queens experience afforded many opportunities to see women’s basketball at its best. In 1974, Janice Beach, Carolyn Bush, Pearl Worrell and Brenda Moeller were all members of that National Amateur Athletic Union Tournament title team, in addition to being named All- Americans. I remember that the Wayland College Trail Blazer, the school’s newspaper, had this to say about the victory: “At last, the meaning of ’Queen’ was revealed – capable of facing the battle with her head held high regardless of the final outcome because she would give her all – for herself, for her teammates, and her fans.” I have thought of those lofty ideas many times throughout my career and I am grateful for the chance to have been a small part of the Flying Queens history.

Following my graduation from Wayland in 1974, I decided to stay on one more season with the Queen Bees while pursuing a master’s degree in education at West Texas State University. We had a 19–2 record that year and were runner-up in the state collegiate tournament. I applied for and received an offer for the head basketball coaching position at Lockney, Texas, a town just east of Plainview. It is interesting to note that nine other female Wayland graduates were coaching in the surrounding West Texas towns. The Wayland Flying Queens influence cannot be underestimated when studying women’s basketball history. It is truly an amazing phenomenon not only for our sport, but also for the initial rise of women’s leadership throughout the country.

I can honestly say that my experience at Lockney High School was a significant turning point in my career. The people there were wonderful and took a twenty-two year-old novice into their community and made me feel like I had been there forever. I had terrific kids who wanted more than anything to be successful and to please their coaches and teachers. While they learned the game, I learned to coach and how to compete against other West Texas powerhouses like the Abernathy Antelopes and the Tulia Hornettes for whom I have once played. We had many victories, including District and Bi-District championships, and I learned the importance of not just the school’s, but the entire town’s surrounding a program and being one of its sources of strength. My tenure with the Lockney High School was by far one of the most conducive coaching situations I have ever known, thanks to its school administrators. They believed in me and in what I was trying to do through athletics, and I am eternally grateful for their confidence. After six years of coaching the Lockney Longhorns, I began to feel a nudge toward the next step in my career. I never dreamed that Longhorns of another sort would be on my radar screen.

In all honesty, I did not have a clue about my next step, but I knew that it was time to move on. As with any major decision, I prayed that God would put me in the right place. I felt so good about that prayer that I actually resigned my job at Lockney before I had another employment position in place! I’m sure my parents were thrilled about that prospect. I truly thought, through several signals I was getting, that I was supposed to be the next head coach at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas, a few miles south of Lubbock. I enthusiastically went through the interview process there fully expecting to get the job, as I had also completed my master’s degree in education—plus the fact that I had such a good coaching experience at Lockney. In the end, ASU decided to hire a woman from Michigan instead of this self-assured West Texas girl. She had a year of college head-coaching experience which I did not have. I was devastated. I began to doubt myself and began wondering what I was to do with my life.

About a month later, a good friend of mine, Melynn Hunt, called and told me that Jeannine McHaney, the women’s athletic director at Texas Tech, had called her looking for an assistant coach. Melynn had given her my name. My heart leapt at the prospect, and I was immediately consumed with fear. How could a little ol’ gal from Tulia be ready to coach at such a large university? Jeannine called me and we went through another interview process. By some miracle, I got the job. For the next several months, I went through an extremely emotional experience. Leaving the wonderful people of Lockney, moving to a community that seemed overwhelmingly large to me, and working at a university which was bigger than any town I had ever lived in appeared to be an insurmountable challenge. Everything about my job intimidated me. The responsibilities, the people, the players, and head coach, Donna Wick, all combined to make an extremely new and frightening scenario. I really thought many times that I had missed a cue and that I would never survive this scene!

As with most things, the reality proved to be entirely different. Donna Wick treated me wonderfully, and Jeannine was a terrific leader and mentor. However, there was still an uneasy feeling that overcame me almost daily. I felt uncomfortable, and I certainly missed the environment in Lockney where I had wonderful friends and went about my days brimming with confidence and enthusiasm. I realize now that I was scared and homesick and truly did not feel tall in any sense of the word. As I look back on that year, however, I know that it was all part of a grand plan meant only for me. I needed that year to prove myself and to prepare me for the future. The learning curve was steep, both professionally and personally, but I learned a huge lesson – in order to grow in any area of one’s life a person must get out of his or her comfort zone. I was out of mine that first year as a Red Raider. Unfortunately, the feeling would get worse before it got better.

The following August, after my initial year as assistant coach, Donna Wick resigned rather suddenly to pursue a business career away from Lubbock. Under Coach Wick, the Lady Raiders’ win/loss record was 31– 29. I was excited for Donna because she had found a great opportunity, but she had left a great opportunity behind. I desperately wanted the head coaching job and begin gathering my courage. I was twenty-nine years old and wanted to walk down the hall to visit with Jeannine about my chances. I had to make her think that I had all of the maturity necessary to handle any situation which would arise. I went through everything I wanted to say in front of a mirror a thousand times, in my car as I drove to the gym, and behind a closed door of my tiny ten-by-ten cubicle which was my office. Then one day the phone rang, and Jeannine said she was ready to see me. For the first time in my life, my knees were so weak that I did not know if I could walk. When I finally got to the appropriate office and walked in, I just looked at Jeannine and simply said “Please let me have this job!” All of my valiant talks to the mirror disappeared into a pool of pleading. Jeannine looked at me pitifully for a few moments. Her gruff response to me is one I will treasure all of my life: “Kid, I’m going to give you a shot at this, but do not screw it up!“ I remember bolting out of my chair, quickly thanking her from the bottom of my heart, promising her I was worthy of her trust, and then sprinting out of the office and down the hall, before she changed her mind.

She and I laughed about that conversation many times throughout our years together. But that was the beginning of the Lady Raider program as we know it today. Most of what I have accomplished in the field of collegiate athletics is due to Jeannine’s initial faith in me. It is highly appropriate then, that I dedicate this book to her, with a promise that I am still trying not to screw it up.”

In our “Tall Enough to Coach” series, we are focusing on Marsha Sharp the person. These selections come from some of her former players and fans. They again shed light on the interesting title: Tall Enough to Coach.

Note: The writer of this section is Emily Foreman Sharp, Marsha’s sister-in-law, and the player quotes come from interviews Emily conducted.

Carolyn Thompson Conwright. Forward 1980-1984.

. . . at the beginning of her sophomore season, she [Carolyn] ran up against Coach Wick’s [Texas Tech’s head coach] new assistant coach, Marsha Sharp, whom she decided she was not going to like. What did this “little short white lady” think she could teach her about life? What was she, 5‘2“? OK. 5‘4”. Here this coach was fresh out of “perfy-poo” Wayland Baptist, always talking and philosophizing about basketball when all Thompson-Conwright wanted to do was play.”

“What kept aggravating me about Coach Sharp was that she kept acknowledging my personal being rather than my being an athlete. She kept giving us a version of ourselves after basketball and wanted to know how the non-athletic part of our lives was going. And that’s how she won me. She kept asking what my vision was of myself.”

“After Coach Wick left, Coach Sharp probably inherited material she would have never recruited, but she made us believe in her. It just happened, kind of like magic, that we made more out of ourselves than was there. Coach Sharp gave us a bigger vision . . . She made things happen that we never even thought of happening.”

Michelle Thomas. Guard 1992-1996.

“Most coaches during recruiting will initially take you to visit the gym or take you on a tour of the locker room. Not at Texas Tech. The first place the coaches took me when I got off the plane was to the law school because they knew I wanted to be an attorney. My biggest concern had been ‘if basketball is taking away from me for some reason, then what?’ A 99% graduation rate for players? You don’t think that made a difference in my decision to come here?”

“Now, you’ve got to admit, taking directions from a short little white lady trying to be hip-hop was a little difficult at first. Why should I listen to somebody who calls a sunroof and ‘moon roof’? I learned, though, that this woman knows her x’s & o’s and is and is able to deal with any condition. Coach Sharp has built a legacy of consistency. She is classy, she is intelligent, she is the entire package. And, she has built this program from the bottom to the top, all without breaking the rules.”

Sheryl Swoopes. Forward 1991-93.

“I can honestly say that Marsha Sharp is the single individual in my life who had the most influence on me as a person. From the very beginning she was always about Cheryl Swoopes the person, first, and Cheryl Swoopes the basketball player, second. She makes all her players realize that someday, playing basketball will be a distant memory for us. The roar of the crowd, the media attention, the endorsements, the echo of “Swoooooooopes” lingering in the air when I make a shot – all of these, while so satisfying and important, will someday disappear. Coach Sharp always made me understand that what will be left are the relationships I shared with those whose time on earth happened to coincide with mine. One of the opportunities I am most grateful for is to have learned and grown under the leadership of one of the greatest teachers of the game. I have loved basketball for nearly all of my life. Coach Sharp has, too. But, she is the one who taught me that talents are to be used for greater ends than glory or fame. They are a complement to our personal being and are the means we have for making a good difference in the world.”

I am honored to write the foreword for this book that explains the wonder of what Coach Sharp’s players have always known—leadership with integrity matters, talent without teamwork never wins, dreams are worth going after, and the legacy a person leaves is always more important than any win/loss record.

I will always be grateful to God for blessing me with the great joy of playing basketball and for leading me to the coach who could make me better, not only as a player, but as a person. Former Lady Raider, Carolyn Thompson-Conwright, once said that role models come in all sizes and colors. But because of who she is and what she taught me, Coach Sharp’s shadow will always be taller that mine.”

Emily Foreman Sharp

There is, however, little separation between Marsha Sharp, the coach, and Marsha Sharp, the human being. Off the basketball court, the only thing noticeably missing is the fierceness of her competitive spirit. It does, however make its presence known in the way Marsha constantly encourages those around her. Her dedication is clearly evident to her closest circle of friends who count on her loyalty and unconditional acceptance of who they are. . . . That so many of her former students have become successes in their own right is a testimony to Marsha’s influence not to mention her players’ 99% graduation rate. When gifted players come her way, it’s as if the spark of their giftedness is enhanced in both player and coach. Watching that mutual recognition makes for great basketball entertainment and is an example of the adage, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

Her accomplishments cast a tall shadow, then, not only over the West Texas communities she calls home, but also over the lives she has coached for more than two decades.

[As a fan,] I have been wooed by the artistry of the game, the finesse of the player’s athleticism, the intensity of focus by both players and coaches, the desire of many of her players to use their giftedness to further their education and thus, their station in life, the thrill of winning, and, yes, the roar of the crowd. All of this would be nothing, however, without the passionate class act of Coach Sharp, the short gal from Tulia who orchestrates it all– from coordinating plays, to igniting fans, to venting her opinions with the referees, to inspiring players to reach deep within themselves to use their God-given abilities – she is the hub around with it all turns. Watching how all aspects of the game radiate from her skills is truly a thing of beauty. Even if I haven’t grown up in the same town and married her brother, I would still be one of her greatest fans and mad about Marsha. How can we know the dancer from the dance?

In our “Tall Enough to Coach” series are focusing on Marsha Sharp the person. In the following excerpts, she discusses her faith.

“I have been fortunate to have made some great friends due to women’s basketball, from coaches across the country and the fan from all walks of life, to the players I’ve had the joy of teaching. My life is filled with beautiful relationships; I am grateful every day for the blessings of this precious gift. The coaching profession is a unique arena to impact lives. Walk yourself through a series of your days, whatever your vocation may be, and you will be amazed at the number of people who cross your path. For me, chance to take fifteen or so young women for a four-year period of time and provide them an opportunity to change their lives dramatically is an amazing endeavor. The college years typically provide the most vibrant opportunity for change in a person’s lifetime. Here students are building their own value system, shaping their goals, and literally trying to draw a roadmap for the rest of their lives. My job as their coach is to be a guide along the way and encourage when I can. Providing this leadership is the most important role I play for our team. Someone once said, “Leadership is taking an individual or group of individuals and making them do things they don’t want to do in order to take them to a place which they don’t even know exists.” What an exciting and, yes, frightening, opportunity! I have spent over two decades of my life hoping to create something very special–both for Texas Tech University and in a small way, for the history of women’s basketball. I have been blessed to have been surrounded by great people throughout my career. I have coached incredible young women of whom I am extremely proud. They are actively doing wonderful things with their lives as I write this. I have had an unbelievable experience, but I hope it is evident that ultimately there is more to Marsha Sharp then a win – loss record, a group of trophies in any case, or some brass plaques on the wall.

While all those are quite special to me, they are not what drive me every day. Each one of us has to define our lives by things other than material rewards or even by how successful other people think we are. It is my experience that worldly endeavors are never going to bring us the ultimate peace and happiness that everyone wants and deserves. For me, the source of resonating peace and contentment that undergirds everything else is my Christian faith. It is this faith that teaches me my community responsibility and my life mission. It is the greatest legacy I can leave for those who come after me.

I believe that the only decision crucial for every person is what she will do with eternity, and a person’s eternity begins today, with this moment. For me, the question of how I will choose to spend eternity was settled when I was ten years old in a little pink Baptist Church in Roswell New Mexico. I gave my life to Jesus Christ and became a Christian. Every other decision I make in life can be changed or forgiven in one way or another, but this one has to be taken care of to ensure eternal life. It is humanity’s ultimate question and the greatest choice we face. Becoming a Christian, however, does not mean I am close to being perfect, that I always do the right thing, or that I will never make mistakes or have regrets. It just means that I am forgiven by God’s loving, mysterious, and encompassing grace.

. . . . This, then, is the bottom line for me: The opportunities we have to affect lives positively are daily staring us in the face. A friend gave me the following quote which I keep as a reminder on the corner of my desk, “Angels reveal themselves by their simple acts of kindness.” Whether it’s small gesture that costs us nothing or large commitments of time and money, the opportunities to make a good difference are all around us. What else could be more worthy of our time or more central to one’s Christian faith? It doesn’t really matter what you do for a living, how much money you make, whether you are married or single, what your gender or race is, or any other factor the world may notice – it only matters that you have a heart for service and the will to be a conduit for God‘s love. Some would say that the notion of giving and giving, especially when someone does not return the favor, is a foolish waste and life- draining endeavor. Our world is daily bent on getting something for something rather than giving something for nothing. I can tell you from experience that God will give you all of the strength and opportunities you have the courage to ask Him for. The greater my talents, the more responsibility I have to give back. My Christian faith tells me that this kind of giving is not an option for me; it is my happy privilege as a follower of Christ who gave his entire life for mine.”

The Hutcherson Flying Queens Foundation offers our deepest thanks to Marsha Sharp for allowing us to post excerpts from her book Tall Enough to Coach. Marsha stands tall in the world of women’s basketball and tall in the eyes of all who know her. Yes, Marsha Sharp is Tall Enough to Coach!