Coaches have plenty in common

Sherri Coale and Brian Giorgis both became college head coaches after successful runs at high schools. AP Photos

It looks at first glance like one of college basketball's more unlikely friendships, so of course it has improbable origins.

The connection between Oklahoma's Sherri Coale and Marist's Brian Giorgis brings together programs from different parts of the basketball strata Saturday in Poughkeepsie. It is a partnership that ought to be a model for moving the game forward, one of the sport's biggest programs willing to go on the road to play one of the most successful small programs. Even if in this particular case, the roots of the series stretch all the way back to a field goal missed nearly five decades ago.

That part might be tricky to replicate.

Growing up in New York, first Schenectady and later Syracuse, Giorgis followed a well-worn path in that part of the country by developing a passion for the New York Yankees, even as his teenage years coincided with one of the few championship lulls of in that franchise's history. It makes sense that the extensive memorabilia collection now in his possession is replete with items celebrating Yogi Berra, Derek Jeter, Mickey Mantle and other Yankees legends past and present. It is more puzzling to find them sharing space with the likes of Jimbo Elrod and Lee Roy Selmon, names that carry far more weight in Oklahoma towns like Chickasha and El Reno than a place like Poughkeepsie.

All of the crimson and cream mixed in amid the pinstripes in his collection is the result of the 1968 Orange Bowl between Oklahoma and Tennessee and a television audience that included a young Giorgis.

He liked Oklahoma's uniforms. He liked the way the Sooners ran the wishbone offense. And when Tennessee's Karl Kremser missed a 43-yard field goal in the closing seconds to preserve Oklahoma's 26-24 win, the collective sigh of relief that echoed around the Sooner State spread as far as upstate New York.

"I just remember I couldn't sleep all night," Giorgis said. "My heart was racing. That's when I became a Sooners fan."

It proved more than a passing fancy. By the time he was in college at Cortland State, he had a subscription to the Oklahoman newspaper. What now would arrive instantaneously on a tablet or phone took the better part of a week to arrive in paper form, but the editions after a Sooners game contained pages of information otherwise unavailable to him. When he talks now about the "Game of the Century," the 1971 encounter between Oklahoma and Nebraska, he interrupts his train of thought to note there should have been a clipping penalty called on the Johnny Rodgers punt return that helped doom the Sooners and define the game. Minus the accent, he could pass for a local in Norman.

Coale, too, was raised on the Sooners growing up in Oklahoma. As she put it, when the fight song played on the radio on fall Saturdays in her house, you stopped what you were doing and stood in reverence. She waited for autographs outside Owen Field. She knows the lore. But even she jokingly told Giorgis he was scaring her when they first talked football and names, dates, downs and distances poured out of his head and into conversation.

"If you know Brian at all, you know that's the way he is," Coale said. "If he loves something, he really, really loves something. He's going to be committed to it, he's going to find out all he can about it, he's going to celebrate it and he's going to be loyal to it. And he is all those things to Oklahoma football."

As he is to Marist, and as Coale is to Oklahoma.

The affinity for a football team is, of course, not all the two share in common. Rare among their peers most often mentioned as the best coaches in the women's game, both became college head coaches after successful runs at high schools in the same cities in which they still work. Neither Coale nor Giorgis spent any time on college benches before turning moribund programs into postseason staples.

Much as he might have wanted to ask about gridiron matters, that was what Giorgis brought up when he introduced himself to Coale at a basketball event in Washington, D.C., shortly after he left Our Lady of Lourdes High School to take the job at Marist. Coale was coming off an appearance in the national championship game, and he wanted to know what awaited him in making the move to college.

She told him that basketball was basketball. A pick-and-roll still worked the same way it did in high school.

Simple as it sounds, that proved sage advice for Giorgis. The college game was different. The recruiting aspect perplexed him. But few if any coaches are better at the basketball side of things. Give him players who know how to listen to him, and he can teach them how to use their strengths to exploit the weaknesses he inevitably spots in opponents.

"He's a teacher through and through," Coale sad. "I love his attention to detail. I love his emphasis on fundamentals. His teams are a direct reflection of him. They're going to be very serious, they're going to be very focused, they're going to be very intentional about what they do. But they're not going to be really emotional."

Giorgis is as close to introverted as can be found in a profession like coaching. That is not a label anyone will ever place on Coale, who can win a battle of clipboards with the best of them but also seemed at times to build her program into a national power by dint of personality. She did the same as head coach of the United States team that won gold this past summer in the World University Games, with Giorgis as an assistant.

"She knew how to get things across without yelling, per se," said Nebraska's Jordan Hooper, a part of that team. "She got them across in a way that you wanted to do the things she was telling you to do for her."

Shortly after arriving in Russia, Team USA lost a scrimmage against the host nation. When the teams met again with considerably more on the line, Coale's team won by 19 points.

"Her pregame speech before the Russia gold-medal game, I was ready to go out and smack somebody," Giorgis said. "I was so pumped after that."

Elite programs tend to steer clear of Marist. Many coaches have little interest in a home-and-home series that might put their teams in peril in Poughkeepsie. Others, like Kentucky's Matthew Mitchell this season, are willing to make the trip, to their credit, but do so when it serves a dual purpose such as allowing senior Jennifer O'Neill to play close to home in New York. By contrast, this is Oklahoma's second trip to Marist in four years. In neither case did its roster offer a geographic connection to the Northeast.

And it's not as if the first game wouldn't have caused some coaches to weigh the wisdom of a sequel. Oklahoma escaped with an overtime win in 2009.

Then again, the Sooners went to the Final Four that season.

"I enjoy putting our team against the kind of basketball coach that will expose us," Coale said. "And Brian will expose us. He will expose our weaknesses, and he will play us away from our strengths. It will force us to get better, and it will force us to see exactly who we are. It's an opportunity I wouldn't pass up."

There might not be much talk between the two Saturday night about how Oklahoma's football team matches up with Alabama in next month's Sugar Bowl. Coale will be focused on stopping a Marist team that is shooting the ball better than recent editions, paced by breakout sophomore Madeline Blais, and that just reclaimed from injury arguably its most valuable player in senior Casey Dulin. Giorgis will have his mind on containing Aaryn Ellenberg and keeping Morgan Hook from picking his team apart like Sam Bradford, not to mention the inevitable size disadvantage with which his team will operate.

It has the potential to be another classic, a game between programs that excel as reflections of their coaches. Two coaches with more in common than their personalities and surroundings might suggest.

"Sometimes, for some people, I think it's easier to develop relationships with opposing coaches and stuff," Giorgis said. "I'm usually kind of reserved and into myself and not that outgoing. But obviously with Sherri it's pretty easy.

"I just have to watch myself that I don't overdo it because I love talking Oklahoma football."

Thank goodness for college basketball that Tennessee missed that kick.