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Original Issue

Back From The Dead A decade after shutting down its women's program, Oklahoma is a favorite to reach the Final Four, thanks to an unlikely coach, Sherri Coale

For someone who hopes to land a gig on Saturday Night Live
someday, it wasn't an auspicious audition. Handed the microphone
as the last of six seniors to bid Oklahoma fans farewell after
the then 5th-ranked Sooners had closed the regular season with a
75-56 win over No. 15 Texas Tech on Feb. 27, All-America point
guard Stacey Dales found herself--for the first time ever,
according to her mother, Heather--speechless. "I haven't said
'um' so many times in my life," said Stacey, her voice quavering
over the loudspeaker as she tried to sum up her college career.
"Um...." After she had croaked out a teary thanks to her coach,
teammates, parents and fans, she added, to an appreciative roar,
"We're not finished yet. Come with us to the Final Four!"

Not long ago such an invitation would have been met with
derisive laughter or, more likely, the hollow silence of a
near-empty gym. But in the five years since Dales arrived in
Norman from Brockville, Ont., just months after the Sooners had
trudged through a 5-22 season, Oklahoma has won three Big 12
regular-season championships, been to the Sweet 16 twice and
seen average home attendance blossom from a few hundred a game
to nearly 6,000. What's more, after winning the Big 12
tournament last week, the Sooners enter this year's NCAAs as the
top team in the toughest conference in the nation (seven Big 12
teams are in the Top 25) and a favorite to make an appearance at
the Final Four in San Antonio. "People look at this program and
say, 'Such a fast turnaround!'" says Dales. "No way. This has
been grueling. But it also has been exciting, proof that you can
do anything if you put your mind to it."

That was the thinking of Sherri Coale when she applied for the
coaching job at Oklahoma, in 1996. Six years earlier school
administrators had looked at the Sooners' losing record,
listened to the players' gripes about the coaching staff,
counted the 60 or so fans who could be found at most games and
dropped the sport, during Final Four weekend. After a surge of
public protest that the move was a Title IX violation, the
program was reinstated eight days later, only to limp along with
many of the same ills. When coach Burl Plunkett retired after
the 1995-96 season, new associate athletic director Marita Hynes
interviewed several high-profile candidates, but she was blown
away by Coale, a spunky 5'5" 31-year-old who had no collegiate
coaching experience but had won two state titles at Norman High,
where she also taught English. Eight months pregnant with her
second child and wearing the only outfit that still fit--"it
didn't hurt that it was red and black," she says--Coale passed
around pamphlets to the interview committee detailing how she
would rebuild the Oklahoma program.

"I knew I had to have someone who really wanted to be at
Oklahoma," says Hynes. "It was going to take vision, energy and
passion to turn this program around, and Sherri had all that. By
the end of the meeting, we were all ready to put on our shoes
and go play for her."

Not everyone was so enthusiastic. Soon after Coale's hiring was
announced, Hynes received the first of what would become a flood
of toxic correspondence accusing her of trying to bury the
program for good by hiring a high school coach. Coale didn't
calm her detractors by hiring as an assistant Jan Ross, her
backcourt mate at Oklahoma Christian, who also had never been a
head coach above the high school level.

Her first season--when the Sooners won only those five
games--was so miserable that Coale could at times be seen after
games with her head in her hands, sobbing. She found solace by
reading books like Gary Barnett's Taking the Purple to Pasadena
and John Wooden's They Call Me Coach. The latter had gotten her
interested in coaching when she was in the seventh grade.

A speck of light appeared in the distance shortly after
Christmas of that first season, when then assistant Pam De
Costa, who was in Canada to scout another player, saw Dales
playing in a club team tournament. After watching the athletic
6-footer showcase the moves she'd picked up while watching NBA
tripleheaders, De Costa got on the phone to Coale and announced,
"I've found our savior." When Coale later watched Dales play,
she saw in her scowling game face a passion that matched her
own. "She had fire in her eyes," says Coale. "You could see she
loved to play. I knew I had to have her."

Though she was on the verge of committing to Syracuse and unclear
on where Oklahoma was, Dales was nevertheless intrigued by the
Sooners' sorry situation. Listening to Coale pitch her vision,
says Dales, "it was like you could see a trophy and all the
details on it, you just couldn't touch it. I thought, how cool to
jump in here and help something that was struggling. I felt they
could really use me."

They wouldn't be able to use her for another year, though,
because Dales blew out her left ACL in the second minute of her
first game as a freshman. Oklahoma went 8-19 that season, but
Dales's time on the bench "was probably the greatest thing that
ever happened to me," she says. "I was skinny and immature, and I
had no idea of the magnitude of Division I basketball."

When Dales hit the floor the next year, her teammates had to get
used to the no-look passes that would often whip by them and
land in the third row. For every assist there was a turnover.
"Coach Coale never gave up on me, and I appreciate that," says
Dales, whose 734 career assists rank as the most ever in the Big
12 and 27th most in the NCAA. "Even though I knocked down a few
security guards that first year, she gave me the freedom to play
my game."

After playing for the Canadian Olympic team in Sydney, Dales
averaged 16.0 points, 7.3 assists, 5.1 rebounds and 2.4 steals
last season, and became Coale's second Big 12 Player of the Year
(Phylesha Whaley, Coale's first recruit, was the other, in 2000)
and the Sooners' only consensus All-America. If her stats are
slightly less gaudy this year (17.3 points, 5.0 assists, 5.1
rebounds and 1.8 steals), it's because she has become a more
complete player.

"The thing about Stacey that gets overlooked is that every time
she gets on the court, she feels what's missing and takes it on
her shoulders, whether it's setting screens or making extra
passes," says sophomore reserve guard Stephanie Luce. "I think
that's what defines her. She naturally picks up the slack."

That's true off the court as well. When the artistic Dales
decided the basketball offices needed a group picture of the
coaches, she drew one. When the staff wanted to show boosters in
Texas what the Sooners' new locker room facilities looked like,
Dales and teammate Caton Hill made an MTV Cribs-style video that
helped snag a donation from the Austin alumni club. Last
Valentine's Day, when Dales spotted an elderly woman sitting
alone at an Applebee's, she walked over and started chatting.
Now Dales and her fiance, Oklahoma grad Chris Schuman,
frequently go ballroom dancing with the 84-year-old woman and
her boyfriend.

Dales, a communications major who dreams of becoming a
broadcaster--preferably as a regular on SNL--met Schuman in a
media class two years ago, when he teased her about being only
No. 2 in the Big 12 in assists. After folding up the Dallas
Morning News he'd been reading, he tossed it at her and said,
"You might want to put this up on your fridge for motivation."
Dales laughed and, after a long chat following class, made him
promise to call her. An April wedding is planned.

"Stacey is so much bigger than her play between the lines," says
Coale. "We could have signed other great players and not had
half the package we have with her. Ask any of her professors,
and they'll say she's their favorite student. She's smart,
funny, articulate and hardworking. She has become the
personification of our program."

Which is not to say that she's the whole program. Joining Dales
in the highest-scoring backcourt in the nation is senior
shooting guard LaNeisha Caufield, who led the country in steals
last year with 135 and is second on the team in scoring with
17.1 points a game. "LaNeisha is the best cutter I've ever
played with," says Dales. "If you're a great passer, it's
because there's someone great on the receiving end."

Adding 11.0 points a game is senior three-point specialist
Rosalind Ross, a guard whose trials keep everyone else's in
perspective. Ross, who grew up in a west Milwaukee ghetto, has
had six friends murdered in the last four years. On top of that
she's in nearly constant pain, because her right ACL has almost
disintegrated in the five years since a tear was misdiagnosed.
Like Dales, she can find a bright side in her knee injury. "In
high school I was a slasher, not a shooter," says Ross. "After I
hurt my knee, my dad forced me to develop my shot by shooting
over a trash can he held in the air in front of me." This year
Ross has made a team-high 64 three-pointers.

"I don't know if there's a team with a better perimeter game in
the country," says Texas Tech coach Marsha Sharp. "Oklahoma can
hurt you in so many ways. And in the tournament, it's the teams
with great guards that go furthest."

Playing in the Big 12, the Sooners have been tested about as
severely as any team in the country, and they learned from an
early 86-72 loss to No. 1 Connecticut--it was a four-point game
with six minutes left--that they can play with anyone. But can
they win the big prize? "Our strength is who we are together,"
says Coale. "When everyone's on, no team is better.... But we
have the smallest margin of error. We don't have great size or

What Oklahoma lacks in stature (its average height is 5'10 1/2")
and depth (only six players average more than 25 minutes a
game), it makes up for with speed, smarts (the team grade-point
average is 3.44) and drive. "We're all perfectionists," says
Hill, a 6'1" junior power forward who is the Sooners' best
rebounder (6.6 per game) and its most accurate three-point
shooter (40.7%). "We expect a great deal of ourselves."

Oklahoma is, in that respect, a reflection of its coach, a high
school valedictorian and summa cum laude college graduate.
Coale's high expectations can be found in everything from the
team motto, No excuses, which is written on the players' right
shoes in Chinese--compliments of center Theresa Schuknecht's
fluent husband, Seth--to the card Hynes still keeps in a file
along with all the nasty letters about Coale she got six years
ago. The card, which arrived in Hynes's office along with 16 red
roses after the Sooners made the Sweet 16 last year, is "so
Sherri," says Hynes. It is, in other words, appreciative,
succinct and above all, confident: "Thanks for always believing.
Enjoy all 16 of these; you only get 4 next year. Sherri."

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES Bighearted The Sooners make up for their lack of size with gritty players like Hill (10) and the passionate leadership of Coale (center of huddle) and Dales (seated far left).

COLOR PHOTO: MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II She ain't heavy Upon coming from Canada, Dales (left) bought into Coale's vision and lifted the Sooners to undreamed-of heights.

"Every time Stacey steps on the court, she feels what's
missing and takes it on herself," says Luce.