NORMAN, Okla. — The words coming out of Coquese Washington’s mouth should make fans, current and lapsed, of Oklahoma’s women’s basketball program very happy.
“We talk about playing in the NCAA tournament and advancing,” she said, with emphasis on advancing. “Last year was a one-year blip, it happens, but we’re not talking about, ‘OK, let’s go from eight wins to 10 wins …”
Washington still hasn’t made Norman her full-time residence — she’s working on it — but she has been one of two new assistants on head coach Sherri Coale’s staff since April.
Jackie Stiles is the more famous of the two new faces, having enjoyed a record-breaking playing career at then-Southwest Missouri State before playing in the WNBA for two seasons and eventually joining the coaching ranks.
Washington, though a big-time collegian at Notre Dame before embarking on a professional career that includes a WNBA championship with the Houston Comets in 2000, is the more accomplished coach.
She took over the Penn State women’s program in 2007 and led it from also-ran status to prominence.
From 2012-14 she and the Nittany Lions won three straight Big 10 regular-season championships and reached the Sweet 16 twice. In all three of those seasons, Washington was named coach of the year in the conference.
Yet, just as Coale’s program has fallen upon lean times, failing to reach the Sweet 16 for six consecutive seasons and failing to reach the NCAA tournament after 18 straight appearances, so did Washington’s Penn State program.
She resigned on March 8 after 12 seasons at the helm, the last five coming up short of the NCAA tournament.
Nonetheless, Washington appears thrilled to get right back into coaching, and perhaps even more thrilled to do it in an assistant’s capacity.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” she said. “My enthusiasm is coming from [not having] to be the head coach anymore. I don’t have all these things that need to be done.
“I can really focus on player development. I can really focus on building relationships with recruits. I can really focus on how can I be of service to coach Coale … Downsizing can be invigorating.”
Stopping by the golf tournament for the Fast Break Club, the booster club to the Sooner women's program, on Tuesday at the Jimmie Austin OU Golf Club, Washington appeared entirely invigorated.
She believes new blood in any program can bring a new energy and fresh take upon what’s required to move forward. Indeed, that was the case when she experienced turnover on her own staff at Penn State.
“As a head coach, you’re like, ‘What have you got recruiting? What have you got in player development? What out of bounds plays have you got,’” she said.
Yet, more importantly, she believes herself to be a particularly good fit for Coale.
For starters, they have a real history together, one that includes Washington assisting Coale when Coale took on head coaching duties for USA Basketball at the 2013 World University Games.
“She was really easy to be an assistant for because she listened to the ideas and suggestions that I would bring and then she would make the decision and I would respect the decisions that she made,” Washington said. “If it wasn’t a good experience, then I’m probably not here.”
Yet it was a good experience, and not only because the Americans won gold.
“I have a lot of confidence that I can be the voice of, ‘I know you want to do this, but this is my perspective,’” Washington said. “‘And at the end of the day, you’ve got to make the decisions, and once you make the decision, I’m 100 percent behind it, but I’m going to give you my perspective and thoughts.’”
Washington said Coale has already come to her new assistant coaches for fresh ideas and new ways to attack old issues.
“We get the benefit of being in the office every day with a Hall of Fame coach, being in the gym every day with a Hall of Fame coach,” Washington said, “learning everything that she has done, that she’s brought to the table for 23 years.
"At the same time, she gets us coming in and saying, ‘Have you thought about this?’”
How much difference can new dynamic like that make quickly? Perhaps now is a good time to refer back to Washington’s quote about last season being a “blip.”
Here would be the rest of it.
“… We’ve got to figure out what we need to do to be better,” she Washington said. “We’re talking about making big strides and big jumps.”