Sheryl Swoopes Embraces New Role as Head Coach at Loyola Chicago

It’s been two years, three months, and five days since Sheryl Swoopes last played a game of basketball, but I was still surprised when she said she didn’t miss playing.

“My passion for the game doesn’t come from playing anymore, my passion for the game now comes from watching and teaching, instructing and coaching and giving back,” Swoopes told WNBA.com over the phone from her new office in Chicago. She had just gotten off a post-practice conference call – one of her many new duties as the head coach of Loyola Chicago’s Women’s Basketball team.

Sheryl Swoopes is often -- and rightfully -- heralded as the Michael Jordan of women’s basketball. She, like Jordan, was known for consistent dominance on both ends of the court and a raw emotion and competitive drive that set her apart from everyone else. Also like Jordan, Swoopes was offered a Nike contract for her own shoe, the Air Swoopes. But probably the most Jordan-esque thing about her was her genuine love for the game of basketball – a love that resulted in one of the most storied careers in professional basketball history prior to retirement in 2011.

Swoopes
Sheryl Swoopes poses with Michael Jordan in 1996.

Swoopes was a successful college player for Texas Tech, but she saw even more success as a professional player, leading the Houston Comets to 4 WNBA Championship titles. Swoopes was the first WNBA three-time MVP and the first WNBA three-time Defensive Player of the Year. She was also a 6-time WNBA All-Star and even became the second WNBA player to be named the regular season MVP and the All-Star MVP in the same season.

In 1997-2000, Swoopes played with Cynthia Cooper, the first WNBA MVP and two-time WNBA All-Star, and Tina Thompson, a nine-time All-Star and the eventual WNBA all-time leading scorer. The "Big Three," as they were known, launched the first ever WNBA dynasty with the Houston Comets, winning the WNBA championship four years in a row for the first four years the league was in existence.

Before, during, and after her prime years with the Houston Comets, Sheryl Swoopes was able to compete in three Olympic games taking home the gold for Women's basketball all three times.

“I know I made the right decision [to retire],” she says with confidence now. “So I can actually sit and watch WNBA games now and not say ‘Oh my gosh, I miss it and I want to get out there and play.’”

But while crossing over to coaching may seem like the logical next step after the WNBA—many of Sheryl’s peers are now coaching college teams as well—Sheryl took her time getting there, spending a year as a broadcast analyst for Texas Tech, her alma mater. In fact, Swoopes had never held a coaching position in any respect before she was named the head coach at Loyola.

Unsurprisingly, that doesn’t seem to matter to Sheryl. If she approaches coaching the same way she approached playing for so long, then there is no doubt that Sheryl Swoopes will be a successful coach.

But of course that doesn’t mean she isn’t met routinely with challenges and obstacles. Right now that means injuries and rebuilding.

And while the Ramblers are off to a rough start (they are 2-7 on the year), Coach Swoopes assured me that they had had a good practice this morning and are making their way back to good health.

But those are the challenges Sheryl expected to face as a coach. When I asked her what the hardest part of coaching really was?

“Patience.” She laughed.

“You know because as a player you always felt like you could go out there and take over a game if something wasn’t going well or shots weren’t falling. I wanted to believe that I was always that player who could do that. And now being a coach, all I can do is prepare [my team] in practice and say ‘here’s a game plan and now we have to go out and execute it.’”

I was curious, though. How could a player who held herself to such high standards as a professional basketball player set reasonable expectations for an entire team of younger, less experienced players?

But Sheryl Swoopes is more grounded than that:

“I don’t expect any of my players to be who I was, the type of player I was. The things that I expect from them are things that I think they’re very capable of doing -- or being -- and that’s to come to practice and work hard every single day and to compete. I don’t care what the outcome is or who you’re playing. We don’t ever quit. We don’t ever give up. And as long as I’m getting those things from my players I can walk into the locker room at the end of the day whether we win or lose and feel good about the product that we just left on the floor.”

It’s a sentiment she’s likely heard before from the many coaches she played for during her career – most notably Coach Marsha Sharp at Texas Tech and Coach Van Chancellor with the Comets – but 100% effort is not a learned behavior for Swoopes and it’s no surprise she would ask for nothing less from her own players. The grit and the passion that she wants to bring to coaching is so completely Sheryl that it’s hard to imagine she’s picked up a few things from watching other coaches.

And her list of model coaches isn't scarce.

There’s Cynthia Cooper at UNC Wilmington and now at USC, Dawn Staley who left Temple with the best overall women’s basketball record, and Jennifer Rizzotti who has coached the University of Hartford to four trips to the NCAA tournament and coached the USA Olympic U-18 and U-19 teams to gold medals. But those are just the coaches she played with.

“Granted, what Pat Summit has done -- what she did -- her mark that she left on coaching, no one will ever be able to touch that. And of course what Gino’s doing over at UConn, Muffet McGraw at Notre Dame, and Tara Van DerVeer at Stanford, I think everybody has hopes and dreams about being able to build that type of a program and that’s exactly what I’m doing here is trying to build a program and I know I’ve got to take small steps.”

And so Swoopes has a plan for her team that far exceeds the bounds of a single season.

“I think anytime you come in and take over a program you have to work with what you got,” she said. “I really want to be able to create our offense around our defense. And I don’t really have those types of players right now that allow me to play that style, so we’re really trying to adjust to what we have. But it takes time, change takes time, and bringing in a whole new coach and a new coaching staff who have a different philosophy and a different style… it’s something that the players have got to adjust to and I do think they’ve done a really good job with it.”

And that adjustment period is hard for everyone, even off the court.

“I have a brand new appreciation and respect for coaches, because as a player you don’t realize all the time and effort that goes into running a program and preparing for practices, all of the scouting you have to do, all the recruiting all the … It’s just a lot that goes into it. To me the actual coaching part is about 20% of the job, the other 80% is everything else.”

But even with all of her new coaching duties and generally busy schedule, Sheryl still finds time to check in with the WNBA – the league she helped garner credibility, notability, and traction since its inception in 1996.

“I do think it’s competitive, there’s so much talent in the league, from your worst team to your best team, there’s some great individual talent. Being in Chigaco, I got a chance to go out and catch a couple of games this summer. I really got to see Elena [Delle Donne] play up close and personal and I have so much respect for her as a player.”

“My goal,” she added matter-of-factly, “is to be the first coach to send a player from Loyola to the WNBA and that’s what we’re working on.”

And while that’s proof she still sets some lofty expectations, we already have proof enough that Sheryl Swoopes can not just meet, but far exceed even her own goals.

More »

Video

Charles' Double-Double

Tina Charles goes off for a monster double-double with 31 points and 16 rebounds to lead the Liberty over the Sparks.

Liberty vs. Sparks

Tina Charles records 31 points and 16 rebounds, adds 16 points as the Liberty defeat the Sparks.

Robinson's Game-winner

All Star Point Guard Danielle Robinson stepped up for the Stars and put in the go ahead layup to win the game!

Sun vs. Mystics

Ivory Latta scores 23 points and dishes out six assists to lift the Mystics past the Sun.

Odyssey Sims Career-High

Odyssey Sims goes for a career-high 39 points in the Shocks game versus the Stars.