Jane Albright: A coach who won, in every way, far more than she ever lost
Women's basketball coach Jane Albright, who announced her retirement at season's end, was a coach whose career far exceeded wins and losses
"If women understand, it's because they create the rest of the human race" - prize-winning author and North Carolina native Reynolds Price.
On Wednesday, on the first truly sunny morning on our campus in a month or longer, during a press conference at Legacy Hall that was remarkable for its humor, its reflection, its seriousness and its warmth, women's basketball coach Jane Albright announced that after nine seasons of coaching the Wolf Pack, she's retiring at season's end.
This is a shame.
Not because the 61-year-old Albright, who has been coaching on a continuous roundball spin cycle, season after season, without a break, since 1977, feels it's time.
No, this is more about us.
It's a shame because we're not ready. Particularly at this particular moment in our history, where it feels as if America is a bit unsettled, and we're not quite sure if as a country we should embrace or reject those most in need. The coaching world needs more Jane Albrights, not less of them. Because I'd bet if you were to ask Jane Albright, there would be no debate whatsoever to the question of embracing or rejecting those who are in need, or those who are different from us, or those who come from difficult personal circumstances and need support and encouragement on the road to realizing their educational and life's dreams.
Albright said it herself at one point during her press conference. Rather than focus on the wins - and Lord, there have been plenty of them, as she's one of only 30 active coaches with 500 or more career wins, and she's the only Wolf Pack coach in history to win a WNIT game, and her 2010-2011 team is the Forever's Team of the program's all time with a school-record 22 wins - Albright instead chose to focus on the richest, deepest and most productive byproduct of any worthwhile coaching career: the people she'd been involved with.
The hundreds of games and the thousands of practices and the hours and hours of air and bus travel and the numerous forays into the community to better connect her players with people with experiences different than theirs, had, she said in the gentle, lilting accent of her native North Carolina, in words that felt like they were rising off the page of one of Reynolds Price's poignant novels of growing up in the south, which are, at their core, a gallery of strong, confident women, "Mostly, they give us a chance to love one another."
"That's what sports bring," she said. "It brings community, and that is what the world should be about."
Albright created a sense of community within her basketball program, and within the University, in ways that went far beyond basketball.
She did this by unrepentantly, and enthusiastically, reaching out. Hers was not some kind of insular, top-secret, hidden, Kremlin-like sports enterprise.
She encouraged her players to be themselves, to be confident in what they believed, who they were, and what they wished to become. She told them often to share their experiences with others, and to encourage others to unmask their frailties, to seek companionship, friendship and mentorship and direction, in order to begin the hard work of realizing their best and truest selves.
I remember an interview with Albright about six years ago. We were talking about Tahnee Robinson, the talented Wolf Pack guard who would later become the first women's basketball player from the University to be drafted by the WNBA. Robinson, for all of her gifts, had traveled a difficult road to Reno. She grew up on the Wind River Reservation in Fort Washakie, Wyo., and was of Pawnee and Eastern Shoshone and Northern Cheyenne and Sioux descent. She was a McDonald's and Gatorade All-American at Lander Valley High School, signed with the University of Wyoming, and then found out she was pregnant. After giving birth to her son, she played for Sheridan College in Sheridan, Wyo.
Albright welcomed Robinson to the program, and quickly was impressed with Robinson's love of the game, as well as a well-rounded basketball skillset that included just about every skill a great player could have.
I asked Albright if coaching a player like Robinson was difficult. Robinson's gifts were apparent, she played tough and physical, and there were moments during the Wolf Pack's games where she could be so thoroughly dominant it was like watching a professional playing with college kids.
"No, that's not ever the tough part," Albright said. "Sometimes the most difficult thing is to convince a great player that they truly have greatness in them. Often, it's not about the game. Sometimes they are the last person in the world to see that. Sometimes it takes someone else to remind them that they have something special in them, and that they are special, and that they are capable of doing exceptional things."
The best coaches always bring the best out in their players, and together, Albright and Robinson created the most magical two seasons in program history.
But seeing talent, nurturing it and allowing it to bloom, was just one of the reasons why Jane Albright was a great coach.
She was also an educator, dedicated to soaking up all the knowledge she could find. She was equally dedicated in making sure her players also were inquisitive and intellectually curious.
Athletic director Doug Knuth, when he would accompany the women's team on road games, was always amazed by Albright and her staff's ability to fill the itinerary not just with plane connections, practice time, hotel time, study time and game time, but with an opportunity to travel to a spot in a visiting town that had some sort of historical or social significance.
"Jane would be using road games to provide educational opportunities for her players," Knuth said. "There is nobody that embodies the mission and values of our athletic department, and what the University stands for, more than Jane Albright."
Just as social media provides branding opportunities and can curate a person's profile to provide the most positive image possible, it can also reflect, knowingly and sometimes unknowingly, the person's values. Take a look at Albright's social media accounts some time.
Not only are there tweets and shares and posts directed to her from ex-players from all over the country (so many women in their late 20s and 30s and early 40s, strong and confident and excelling in fields from coaching to counseling, from playing overseas to parenting), there is also a drumbeat of social activism that speaks to a strong, engaged conscience. There are posts shared from the Dakota Access Pipeline demonstrations, Autism awareness, local and national Bible study groups, family in North Carolina, and, in early November, the Wolf Pack women's basketball team's community-based initiative, "As-One," which invited groups from northern Nevada, from all socioeconomic, ethnic, racial and faith backgrounds to join the Pack's players, arms locked together in unity, during the National Anthem. If 2016 was the year of the National Anthem protest in sports, there was no group of athletes in the country who took the notion of protest and transformed it into a frank, beautiful, honest expression of American diversity the way Albright's players did, "As-One."
Wrote Albright on her Facebook page that November evening: "Lots of controversy all over the country ... but look at this! We can support one another and take positive action! So proud of my TEAM!"
Not surprisingly, such unconditional love and respect was returned in kind by her players. There was this from current Wolf Pack basketball star Terilyn "T" Moe, posted on Albright's Facebook page just a few hours after Albright's Wednesday press conference: "Y'all don't know what this lady has done for me. I wasn't supposed to make it. I'm not supposed to be here. I was too ghetto. My attitude was too bad. I wasn't going to be successful academically. Here I am! Thank you for teaching me that there aren't any boundaries. All it ever takes is some hard work and faith and it'll all be done in His name! That there's more to life than just Ws on the court. Stay loyal to those who are loyal to you. Thank you for giving me the chance when nobody else did. There aren't enough words to fully express it. Love you lots, MY Janeygal!"
And this, from friend and national broadcaster Shelley Bardon Till: "When former players consistently, year after year, speak words of praise and gratitude for the positive impact made in their lives ... pay attention, you've found a true leader & mentor for life."
To think that it started 40 years ago, in 1977, when Albright, fresh out college after graduating from Appalachian State, was hired for her first coaching job in Spartanburg, S.C. ... for $500. "I remember thinking," Albright said with a sly smile, "I should pay them for what I'm doing."
She rose through the ranks quickly, joining the staff of legendary Tennessee coach Pat Summitt in the early 1980s. She learned many important lessons, many of them tactical but far more of them about the interpersonal, from Summitt, who passed away far too early, of Alzheimer's at age 64 on June 28, 2016.
In an essay that Albright wrote following her mentor's passing on July 14, 2016, Albright reflected on why Summitt - widely regarded as the women's game's version of John Wooden who won eight NCAA Women's Basketball Championships and was a gold-medal winning coach of the U.S. Women's Olympic team - was so successful, and why she was so revered.
"Hundreds of columns have been written about you and how you changed the world of women's basketball and the wisdom you gave us all," Albright wrote. "I have read some great stories of the enormous influence you have had on countless many. But what I remember is the time after you won the gold medal in 1988, thinking you were in New York City at the parade. I was surprised when I answered the phone and it was you. You decided to skip it and come home to Knoxville. You said you had tomatoes to be canned. You were always so down to earth and never left your roots.
"Thank you for pouring into my professional life."
Coaches are known for their inspirational acronyms, their pyramids to success, their ways of expressing themselves that, depending on the coach, can sound straight out of a boardroom and so somber and bloodless and joyless the words lose their meaning, or, if they tug too sharply at the heartstrings, can sound too canned, too obvious, too precious.
If you've followed Albright, a recurring phrase - and a recurring theme, really - is the act of pouring. It's a phrase that rings true. It speaks to a willingness to give, to constantly learn and to be of substance, and to be of service, to others. If you played for Jane Albright, you were expected to do as Jane Albright had done her entire life: pour your heart and soul into something that truly matters, for the good of others.
"People," she said, "have poured into my life for 40 years to help me in this great profession."
She's expected her players to pour themselves into their sport, their studies and their community during her nine years at Nevada. The results have been tremendous.
Like the times when Albright and her players would travel together, and volunteer at local schools, or homeless shelters, sharing the educational dream with those who had never had the benefit of feeling the inspiring groundwater that can happen when one person's dream and determination and encouragement can melt into the life of another.
"Investing in young people is the future of everything," Albright said.
During her press conference on Wednesday, the native of Graham, N.C., said she had very few regrets.
The only one, interestingly, involved love.
"My regrets are about the kids I didn't love enough," Albright said. "I can't stand it. It keeps me up at night."
If loving someone, then wondering if that love was enough, is a regret, then Jane Albright, by any account and by any measure, has had a career that has always been about winning a much bigger game than the one played on school yards, gymnasiums, auditoriums and arenas throughout this country.
It's a game she's won often, and always when it mattered most.