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.
And it’s not just basketball. She coached softball and track, too.
Softball, by the way, might never have come to Millwood if not for Spears. She pushed for it, and the field that the teams now have was the work of her hand. She rallied the community. She raised the funds. She built it, and they came with so many elementary school kids wanting to play that they’ve had to add extra teams.
“She develops all the youth at Millwood,” said Robinson, the superintendent who went to John Marshall but attended Spears’ basketball camp every summer from the time she was 10 years old. “She’s the one that gets kids interested in the game, teaches them the fundamentals, then moves them out. She’s the reason that they’re interested, knowledgeable.”
Spears’ top assistant, Shannon Hayes, often tells her, “Not only do the girls championships have your name on them, but the boys championships as well.”
Millwood has three girls titles and 15 boys titles, and Spears’ name is on the gym right alongside longtime boys coach Varryl Franklin.
“It’s not just a job,” said former player Michelle Hightower, now an educator herself teaching third grade at Oakridge Elementary in Oklahoma City. “To see it year after year after year, that’s nothing but love.”
Arnelia Spears sat on the bleachers in the gym that bears her name earlier this week. As classes dismissed that afternoon, kids of all ages filtered in and out. Several who walked by Spears stopped and put an arm around her.
She playfully shoved them away.
As the gym floor filled with kids, Spears occasionally hollered at one of them. A sixth grade boy in a red shirt caught her attention.
“Don’t encourage him to be shootin’ no threes,” she said. “Tell him to find him a left and a right hand.”
The boy smiled sheepishly.
“You’re hitting 1 out of 5?” she said. “Lay it on the glass.”
Spears doesn’t sugarcoat anything. No matter if the kid is young or old, a star or a scrub, she is going to tell it like it is. She said that standout post player DeRae Lewis, for example, started out the area championship game with “wabs in her head” but then played “the best defensive game that she’s played.”
Spears is just as clear-cut on her expectations.
“You either work hard or you get out,” said former player Kesha Watson, who went on to play at Oklahoma City University, then overseas professionally for five years. “Whether you were a star or you were a bench player, you either work hard or you get out.”
Spears wasn’t joking either — she kicked out lots of players over the years.
“But at the end of the day,” Watson said, “she was going to love you regardless.”
Need a ride home? Need help buying your basketball shoes? Need a swift kick to the backside? Spears would do whatever it took to help kids.
Even though it could be tough, it was still love.
“I tell my basketball players, ‘I am your coach, and I am your mentor. I am not your friend,’” Spears said. “I’m not going to change, and they know it. That’s why we’re bumping heads.”
She looked across the gym again at her girls getting ready for practice.
“I’m not going to change my expectations for them to be good, to be good citizens,” she said. “When you get a job, who cares whether you get mad? You think you can just quit your job because you’re mad? Your family just gonna go starve?”
Those types of lessons resonated so powerfully over Spears’ 40 years that 300 former players returned for her final home game. A woman who never had any children of her own — she and husband, Kenneth, were married 38 years when he died suddenly during the 2007-08 season — was a mama to many.
A few days after that final-game celebration, one of Spears’ elementary school girls approached.
“I’ve been coached by a famous coach,” the girl said.
“When was that?” Spears asked.
“It’s you, Miss Spears. You’re a famous coach now.”
“Go on and sit down.”
Spears laughed as she finished the story, her high-pitched cackle contagious to everyone around her. But then, her brow furrowed and her eyes steeled. She grew silent as she considered her career, her years, her life at Millwood.
Finally, she said, “It’s truly blessed me.”
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.