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.
In many ways, Coale is a victim of her own success. OU crowds are down somewhat in recent years. Some of the fans that once were in the Sherri Coale wheelhouse have switched devotions to Kevin Durant, a PR dynamo of another kind. And the Sooners aren’t the national contenders they were when the likes of Stacey Dales and Courtney Paris and Danielle Robinson led the Sooners.
“Yeah, but that’s what our job is to do,” Coale said, “to have people expecting that we’re supposed to win every game and we’re supposed to win championships and we’re supposed to be in the Sweet 16. That’s why you build it.”
But Coale says the program is in great shape, and she eloquently defends her record. An English major with natural charm can be quite the communicator.
“You know what, when I walked into this gym (Lloyd Noble Center) to begin coaching here, there weren’t any of those,” she said, referring to OU’s three Final Four banners. “We play in a gym that is a pretty storied facility with a pretty good men’s basketball tradition, and there weren’t many of those (for the men). So when I look up, and we’ve been to three Final Fours … that’s pretty unbelievable, actually.
“I have to step back and go, ‘we’ve done some pretty neat stuff.’ Maybe spoiled some people along the way. But that’s what we want to do. That’s the bar we’re reaching for. We make no apologies for high expectations.”
Not so long ago, Castiglione was constantly bombarded by concerns over OU being able to keep Coale. That’s one reason why her salary has escalated. Joe C. is a pre-emptive athletic director. He acts rather than reacts.
“Her value to our university and the state of Oklahoma is far more important than the salary that she receives,” Castiglione said. “We are very mindful of how salary decisions are made, and we’ve been very competitive with our salaries we’ve offered for all of our highly successful coaches.
“She’s been and continues to be one of the top head coaches in women’s basketball today. Sherri’s loyalty to the University of Oklahoma in unquestioned. We know she wants to remain an Oklahoman but could have easily been a lot of other places.
“She is still way too young to be considered iconic, but what she has done to transform interest in women’s basketball is incredible.”
Castiglione is wrong. The 49-year-old Coale is not too young to be labeled iconic. That’s exactly what she is. An icon. A women’s basketball icon. An OU icon. A state of Oklahoma icon.
Does she make too much money? Heck yeah. But she’s in good company. In case you haven’t noticed, almost every major college coach is in that club.
Bob Stoops makes almost $5 million a year. Virtually all of that is for winning championships, and he mostly earns his paycheck. Coale makes over $1 million. But only a fraction of that is for winning ballgames. The majority of that money is for winning friends for OU.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at . He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.