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McCollum's Column: How an unsettled front turned into a favorable forecast

Posted: June 1, 2012 - 7:49pm

A job interview morphed into a shopping spree.

When Matt Daniel resigned as University of Central Arkansas Sugar Bear basketball coach, one of the first calls placed from UCA Athletic Director Dr. Brad Teague was to Delta State coach Sandra Rushing. Teague, as athletic director at Delta State, was Rushing’s boss for five years and made careful mental notes.

In college athletics, where the coaching carousel can turn at whirlwind speech and dominoes can turn into an avalanche, every athletic administrator has to have in mind (or a list in a drawer) possibilities for the next coach in every sport.

It’s ironic that in a warp-speed effort to replace Daniel, an avid card player with a knack for comparing basketball to card games, Teague hit blackjack on the first moves.

Rushing was the No. 1 choice. She interviewed Wednesday morning. By Wednesday afternoon, Teague, convinced his instincts were on target, didn’t hesitate to put some more dominoes in motion. He told Rushing he would like to call a news conference for Thursday afternoon to introduce her as the new coach.

Rushing, understandably stunned by the swirl of events, was enthusiastic. And she immediately went shopping for purple clothes.

Three things you have understand about Teague:

1. He knows the parameters of the world of NCAA Division I FCS (or so-called mid-major). When he has an opening, the most likely possibilities to acquire a quality coach (both from a salary and perception standpoint) are to go after a major college assistant who is a rising star (such as Daniel at Missouri) or a highly regarded, successful and experienced NCAA Division II coach (such a Rushing at Delta State and baseball coach Allen Gum at Southern Arkansas, two of his more recent hires).

2. Within those parameters, he goes after the best coach with the right fit for his programs, regardless of race, gender, affiliation. He focuses on shared values and fit.

3. He knows how to close a deal quickly — and his instincts for coaches and people are usually good. He moves quickly because he cares about the athletes under his jurisdiction and his commitment to them to give them the best possible chance at success and a fulfilling college experience.

“We were able to get the best coach in Division II with 23 years of experience,” he said about Rushing.

And more than 400 career victories and seven straight seasons averaging 28 wins.

Rushing’s first head coaching job, at 25, was the women’s coach at UTEP when legendary Don Haskins, a coach ahead of his time in many areas, was men’s coach.

Haskins had a lot of college basketball knowledge to impart. And Rushing soaked it in. And after 23 years of coaching, she seems still willing to be a sponge.

“I think I’ve grown as a coach,” Rushing said. “I’ve learned a lot of basketball. ... When I left UTEP, I really grew when I was at Delta State because you have time to study the game and getting to know the players. It’s the same thing we’re going to do here. You never stop studying the game.”

Rushing is also used to building on strong foundations and succeeding highly successful coaches.

For 10 seasons, she was able to keep Delta State at the highest level of DII women’s basketball. She did that while building on the strong legacy of Lloyd Clark, one of the most successful coaches in DII history.

“Taking over a successful program means you have a lot of pressure,” she said. “But I’m passionate about what I do. I want to win and to do what I need to do to win.”

It didn’t take long to sense that the UCA players have the same mindset. Their record shows it. Their renewed spirits and commitment were obvious Thursday at Rushing’s introductory conference. Through the tempest of uncertainly, they stuck together with the same passion for winning and higher achievements.

“The players have to buy into the system, but it goes both ways,” Rushing said. “They also have to respect you.”

“They (the Sugar Bears) are a good group of young women who really want to win and do what it takes to win,” said Tony Kemper, UCA’s former associate head coach who confirmed Thursday he’s headed to West Virginia to join Daniel’s staff at Marshall University.

And Kemper, who has been a women’s coach for two seasons with ambitions of a head coaching job of his own someday, is excited about his next step.

So, after one turbulent, cloudy week, everyone involved seems to be seeing sunshine.

(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 505-1235 or david.mccollum@thecabin.net)

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