Cooper-Dyke Bringing Hall of Fame style, Broken Clipboards to UNC-Wilmington
TOWSON, Md. -- As Cynthia Cooper-Dyke turned to walk out a side door of the Towson Center to board the team bus for a seven-hour ride in the middle of the night back to Wilmington, N.C., it was gently brought to her attention that she had broken yet another clipboard in that night's game in frustration over her team's play.
"How many is that this year?" asked Cooper-Dyke.
"Five," answered an assistant coach.
There are three things that make that situation pregnant with irony. First, UNC-Wilmington, where Cooper-Dyke is in her first season as head coach, had just beaten Towson by 29.
Second, the win moved the Seahawks to a 21-6 overall record and to 13-3 in the Colonial Athletic Association, keeping them in contention for an at-large NCAA tournament bid.
Third, Cooper-Dyke had just said to a reporter the day before that the one thing she had learned in her transition from Hall of Fame player to college basketball coach was that she could be patient.
"What I had to realize was I wasn't Cynthia Cooper, the Hall of Famer, when I was 18-years-old, either," said Cooper-Dyke, who was enshrined in the Naismith Hall of Fame last August. "I made a lot of mistakes. I had to grow and I had to mature."
"Once I realized that, 'Hey, when you were in college, you were making the same boneheaded mistakes, you were inconsistent, so take yourself out of the professional ranks and off the podium at the Hall of Fame ceremony,' and you say, 'Hey, when you were 18 years old, you were making some of the same mistakes.'"
And you have to think Cooper-Dyke, a two-time WNBA Most Valuable Player and four-time WNBA Finals MVP, really meant it at the time.
But, with the Seahawks leading by 23 at halftime, all it took for that patience to evaporate was for her freshman point guard Alisha Andrews to commit a turnover on the first possession of the half, then try a behind-the-back pass on the next possession.
The pass found its way to teammate Kristen Hanzer, but she couldn't finish the lay-up. Next thing you know, the otherwise overmatched Tigers had trimmed the lead down to 19, and Cooper-Dyke was up off the bench calling a timeout, roughly 90 seconds into the half.
And the coach made the proverbial beeline right for Andrews, making her and the rest of the Seahawks aware of her, shall we say, disinterest in their temporary case of carelessness.
"We were never really in danger of losing the lead, but we just played a sloppy second half," said Cooper-Dyke, after the game. "For me, I just told the team after the game, 'The first 20 minutes we played, I need that for 30 minutes, for 35 minutes and for 40 minutes as we head toward our conference tournament.'
"If we want to be successful, then that's how we have to play. We can't take days off and we can't take halves off. We have to be able to finish games. Overall, I thought it was a good game."
With two games left in the regular season -- including a Sunday meeting at home with George Mason, whom they dispatched by 16 on the road last month -- the Seahawks have a chance to beat or surpass the school record for wins.
And while Andrews, who is second in the Colonial Athletic Association in assists and third in steals, is a key addition, Cooper-Dyke has turned UNC-Wilmington around with players who went 12-19 for former coach Ann Hancock, whose contract wasn't renewed after 10 seasons.
"She has a lot of energy," said senior forward Brittany Blackwell, the team's leading scorer. "She's very enthusiastic and competitive. I think it's just good for us because we feed off her. She makes sure that we get stuff done."
For Cooper-Dyke, the challenge all through her six-year coaching career has been to transmit the grit and fire that helped her lead the Houston Comets to the first four championships in WNBA history, to players who might share her passion for the game, but not necessarily her prodigious talent level.
"I've learned that I'm a lot more open and flexible as a coach than I thought I would be," said Cooper-Dyke, who led Prairie View A&M to three SWAC regular season titles and two NCAA tournament berths in five years there before coming to Wilmington.
"I go into every scenario with my wish list, with what I would like to get done and what I would like to run, but ultimately I look at the players on my roster and I formulate a plan for us to be successful, not to try to stuff my system down their throat."
"At the end of the day, it's my job to put my players in the best position possible to be successful and that's what I try to do."
Cooper-Dyke has an undersized, but scrappy bunch of players who lead the CAA in scoring margin and field-goal percentage, as well as assists and steals.
Those last two are due in no small part to the diminutive Andrews, who is generously listed at 5-foot-2, but that's only, as Cooper-Dyke puts it, when she's in sneakers with lifts.
Nonetheless, the Stone Mountain, Ga. native has already put a large stamp on the Seahawk program. Her 10.1 points-per-game are fourth on the team, while Andrews' five assists a game are good for second in the conference, and her three steals place her third in the league.
Andrews originally committed to Prairie View A&M, but when Cooper-Dyke got the job at Wilmington in May, Andrews got a release and followed the coach east.
"When we're in practice, we get in the gym before practice and she teaches me moves that I should be making and when to shoot," said Andrews. "She told me to work on my pull-up jumpers and also my driving to the hole off the screen and attacking."
"She knows the game and I want her to teach me the game just the way she played it. I want to be just like her."
Said Cooper-Dyke: "It's tough having a freshman point guard, but Alicia Andrews has so much heart that she plays like she's 5-foot-10. She's growing up right before my eyes. She's starting not only to play basketball but she's starting to lead my team. Before, she played point guard for UNCW. Now, she's a leader on the court for UNCW. That's just beautiful to see."
Cooper-Dyke's transition hasn't gone entirely smooth. She was forced to discipline assistant coach Johnetta Hayes, after Hayes punished a player for a September team rules violation by making the player roll up and down the court for 30 minutes. The player, guard Julia Finlay, vomited, and is not on the team's roster.
In the aftermath of the incident, Cooper-Dyke said she and her team tried to bridge the gap between themselves and area residents by performing more community service activities. Certainly that, and what may become the best season in school history, have gone a long way towards making people forget what happened in the fall.
Cooper-Dyke, 47, who coached the Phoenix Mercury of the WNBA for two years, says she plans to be on the bench for the long haul, though how long she'll be in Wilmington is a mystery, especially if the Seahawks get an NCAA tournament bid this year.
After all, a high profile Hall of Famer with a proven track record at smaller schools would seem to be made to order for any BCS school with an opening that wants to make a splash.
They'd just better make sure they have a ready supply of coach's clipboards on hand.