NORMAN — Sherri Coale got a call last autumn. Could she come to Kansas City and talk about leadership with some other basketball coaches? In two days.
The answer was yes. Which is how the other night, just before the Big 12’s Big Monday game of the week, there sat Coale with North Carolina State’s Mark Gottfried and George Mason’s Paul Hewitt, talking leadership for a television bit sponsored by Northwestern Mutual, ESPN, the NCAA and the national basketball coaches associations.
That’s public relations a university can’t buy. Or maybe it can. OU is paying its women’s basketball coach well over a million dollars a year.
Coale is guaranteed $1.01 million per season, but bonuses and fringe benefits will lift her annual compensation well beyond that figure. Lot of money for the coach of an 18-13 basketball team that enters the Big 12 Tournament this weekend in the league’s lower division.
But Coale isn’t paid just for basketball. She’s paid for her ambassador skills. She’s paid for her promotional and PR skills. Coale is a virtual spokesmodel for the university, be it talking to engineering alumni or youth groups or coaches all across the country or all of America itself, courtesy of Northwestern Mutual.
When Coale talks about the importance of sport in young girls’ lives, or the importance of education, or the importance of hard work to fulfill dreams, people listen. Some of those people are impressionable. Others are influential. Coale reaches them all. I’ve said it before; Coale’s next job won’t be coaching a basketball team, it will be vice president of the university.
If OU president David Boren had to rid his school of either Sherri Coale or the college of arts & sciences, he’d keep the college. But it wouldn’t be a quick decision. He’d think about it.
“She’s a multi-talented individual,” said OU athletic director Joe Castiglione. “Her value to the university is measured in many more ways” than just basketball.
And Coale’s basketball record remains potent. Sure, these Sooners have disappointed, after being picked to win the Big 12. But Coale had OU in the NCAA Sweet 16 last season, for the second time in a three-year span. Had OU in its second consecutive Final Four just four years ago.
Still, more than a million dollars a year for a women’s basketball coach? For a sport that last season brought in $2.2 million in revenues and spent $5.3 million? That’s a lot of money. That’s more than a lot of money. That money comes with quite the responsibility.
“You accept that responsibility when you have a position like this and take it very seriously,” Coale said. “Coaching at the collegiate level is not a job that you do. It’s a way of life.
“You can say, ‘I’m going home from work.’ Are you really ever home from work? When I’m at the grocery store, I’m Sherri Coale, the basketball coach at the University of Oklahoma. When I’m at Target, that’s the way it is, go to the movies. It’s an all-the-time thing and it’s a privilege. It’s a responsibility, yes, but it’s a privilege.”
For the record, Coale is not the highest-paid coach in the women’s game. She’s not even the highest-paid coach in Big 12 women’s basketball. Baylor’s Kim Mulkey makes more, though the exact amount is unclear, since Baylor, a private school is not subject to open records requests.
But Mulkey has won two NCAA titles, and her Bears have dominated the Big 12 in recent years. Coale has coached OU to three Final Fours — 2002, 2009, 2010 — but still chases that elusive national title. And the Sooners in recent years have been overshadowed by Baylor’s success.