A Student of the Game

A Student of the Game

She hung up the phone and began to cry. The voice on the other end of the line had told her that someone else had already called, and it was first come, first served. Sorry, Miss Wilson. Best of luck to you.

The College in 1973 was a very different place. Apparently, it was the kind of place you could dial up and possibly land a job, sight unseen, especially if it was coaching the women’s basketball team.

Wiping away the tears and following her roommate’s advice, Nancy Wilson, a recent college graduate teaching physical education at a local elementary school, phoned the woman who beat her to the punch and volunteered her services.

“I was young and hungry,” Wilson remembers. “I didn’t want to miss my chance at being a coach, and I just knew that this could be something special.”

It turns out that the other woman, Joan Cronan, was very happy to have the help, and Wilson joined her as an assistant coach that fall. Soon after, Wilson began coaching the College’s volleyball team as well.

“Almost immediately, I knew Nancy was something special,” says Cronan, who went on to become the women’s athletics director at the College and, in 1983, at the University of Tennessee, where she has assembled one of the most storied collegiate sports programs in the nation. “Nancy is a great communicator and an exceptional teacher. She has a great love for the student-athlete, having been one herself, and she understands putting her players’ needs first. Nancy’s also one of the best Xs-and-Os coaches in the game.”

In 1976, Wilson took over the head coaching duties from Cronan and immediately demonstrated her basketball acumen, leading the team to a 21-5 record. By 1979, Wilson’s teams were a fixture on the national scene, reaching the AIAW national championship game three years in a row.

“Remember, women’s basketball was just beginning to have opportunities then,” says Scooter De Lorme Barnette ’78, who played on Wilson’s first team. “There was no D-I, D-II, D-III. We played whoever had a team, and we dominated pretty much everyone in those early years.”

That domination did not go unnoticed. In 1984, Wilson, who by then had lined her shelves with leadership accolades like the Kellogg’s Small College Coach of the Year and several SCAIAW Coach of the Year awards, was lured away by the University of South Carolina to build its program into a contender. And she did. In only her second year there, she claimed the first of five Metro championships and began her run of NCAA appearances, culminating with her team reaching the Sweet 16 in 1990. When she left her post in 1997 to become associate head coach of the Seattle Reign (an ABL professional team), she was – and still is – the most victorious coach in their program’s history.

But life in the pros didn’t follow Wilson’s almost formulaic rise to success. In her second year in Seattle, the ABL folded midseason. She then returned to Charleston and began teaching physical education classes at the College. By 2003, Fred Daniels in the College’s administration (and a former Cougars basketball coach) convinced Wilson to leave academia and return courtside.

“I still loved the game of basketball very much,” Wilson says. “And, while I enjoyed teaching, I did miss the challenge of putting together a team and preparing for games – that thrill of piecing together a puzzle of talent and personality.”

In many ways, Wilson had been a pupil separated from her true subject.

“For Nancy, I think it goes beyond love. She is such a student of the game,” says Nessie Harris ’80, a former player and former assistant coach with Wilson. “She’s always learning, and she puts that learning into action.”

Barnette remembers Wilson attending Coach John Kresse’s practices for the men’s team in order to find plays to implement with her own squad. And that dedication to a sport ever evolving did not change when Wilson returned as the Cougars head coach in 2003.

Just listen to Wilson talk basketball for a few minutes, and it’s an insider’s tutorial on power offenses and defensive schemes.

And that’s her secret for success, according to Temple Elmore ’85, a former Cougar great under Wilson and the current associate head coach of the team: “Nancy has a brilliant mind. Her study of the game, to me, is what separates her from other coaches.”

But what also separates her from many others is her ability to lead teams to victory. Very few coaches enjoy long careers, and of those who do, an even smaller percentage reach 500 career wins. Wilson achieved that lofty goal in 2008–09, when her team set the Cougars’ season win record since becoming a Division I school.

This spring Wilson, the Cougars’ all-time leader in wins for the women’s program, is retiring from the game she has been living and breathing for close to four decades, marking the end of an amazing coaching career.

“While Nancy will certainly be remembered for all of those many, many wins, that’s not her real legacy,” Elmore observes. “It’s the effect she’s had on her players. That’s her true legacy: how her players feel when they leave the program – and how they return. They know that she cares about them as people and has helped them grow, on and off the court.”

Wilson smiles when she thinks about her players, past and present. All those shared moments – the highs and lows, laughter and tears, victory and defeat – that pour forth during the season, all similar, yet somehow markedly different with each team, each year.

“When it comes down to it, basketball, really, is about character and seeing potential in people,” Wilson notes. “And being a coach and working every day to get the best out of people: that’s been one of the most incredible blessings in my life.”