For 40 years, nothing has meant more to Arnelia Spears than Millwood's kids

Behind the scowl, there’s a woman who cares deeply for kids. You see it in the 40 years she has coached girls basketball at Millwood High School. You see it in the girls and boys she’s taught in phys ed. You see it in the generations of women and men who have been changed because of her.
by Jenni Carlson Published: March 12, 2014
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photo - Millwood basketball coach Arnelia Spears (right) watches as players run through a lay up drill during practice on Tuesday, March 11, 2014. Spears is retiring from coaching after over 40 years at Millwood. Photo by KT King, The Oklahoman
Millwood basketball coach Arnelia Spears (right) watches as players run through a lay up drill during practice on Tuesday, March 11, 2014. Spears is retiring from coaching after over 40 years at Millwood. Photo by KT King, The Oklahoman

Watch Arnelia Spears work the sidelines at Millwood, and you’d think she doesn’t much like her team.

She furrows her brow. She wrinkles her nose. She shakes her head.

Then, there’s her signature pose — arms crossed, eyes steeled.

But behind the scowl, there’s a woman who cares deeply for kids. You see it in the 40 years she has coached girls basketball at Millwood High School. You see it in the girls and boys she’s taught in phys ed. You see it in the generations of women and men who have been changed because of her.

“She does it for kids,” said Cecilia Robinson, Millwood’s superintendent and one of Spears’ disciples. “She doesn’t want any credit. She doesn’t want to be paid back.

“She just does it.”

Soon, she will do it no more. Spears is retiring, and with Millwood in the Class 2A state tournament, the end of her coaching career will come sometime this week. It might culminate with more than 760 victories and another state title — the top-ranked Falcons could give Spears her fourth championship — but regardless, Spears insists this is it.

“Everybody says, ‘One more year,’” she said.

She shook her head.

“Nope. If I do one more year, it’ll be another year, another year and another year.”

Plus, this team has worn her out. In her signature blunt style, she talks about how immature the players are. How the parents think they’re all coaches. How she’d like to be able to pay someone to come in and slap some sense into some folks.

But as she watched the players get ready for practice earlier this week, she fell silent a moment.

“This is a really good team,” she said softly, proudly. “They’re just now comin’ on.”

She might not always like her team, but she always loves her players.

*

Born Arnelia Shaw, she was the oldest of 14 kids. Four girls. Ten boys.

Their house in Jones nearly burst at the seams, but it was always orderly. Spears’ parents made sure of that. Her father had been a military man, and everyone called him Sergeant Shaw. When he went to work in the summer, he’d leave a list of chores for every kid to do. The girls would get to it, but the boys would put off the work. Often, Sergeant Shaw would come home at lunchtime to check on their progress.

“We used to tell my brothers how dumb they were — ‘Oh, my gosh, he’s going to kill you because you didn’t do what you was supposed to do,’” Spears said. “I used to think Daddy was so crazy. Now, they don’t know how much I appreciate them.

“I really thank God for my parents.”

Her parents stressed education, and Spears and all of her sisters ended up working in it. Teaching. Coaching. Counseling.

Coaching was an obvious route for Spears. She played every sport possible growing up and was even a three-sport athlete in college. Volleyball. Basketball. Track. She was so good that Langston inducted her into its Hall of Fame a few years ago.

Her first job was at Millwood.

Hired as the elementary school PE teacher, Spears was approached by school administrators in 1974 about taking over high school girls basketball. The high school was still in its infancy, but already, the team had been through three coaches. All men. None right.

“You take it,” Spears was told, “or we’re shutting it down.”

While Spears wasn’t sure if they were serious or not, those were days when Title IX was a foreign concept and access to girls’ sports would get cut and no one would raise a stink like today. Spears couldn’t take the risk; she said yes.

The first decade-plus was rough. Millwood had a winning record in 12 of her first 14 years, but only once did Spears and her girls manage to advance out of district play. And all the while, Millwood was winning at the highest levels in boys basketball and football and track and so many other sports.

Then in the late 80s, girls basketball turned a corner. It went to state in 1989. Won state in 1990. Finished runner-up the next three seasons.

Part of the reason: the feeder program that Spears developed. Not only was she coaching the high school team all these years but also many of Millwood’s grade school teams. That’s still the case today. Some of her teams have been as young as fourth grade.

Turns out, she has coached more elementary school games in her career than high school games.

And it’s not just girls. Spears coached many boys’ teams, too.


by Jenni Carlson
Columnist
Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football...
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