- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell hit 900 victories with a win over Boston College on Thursday, putting her in an elite trio of NCAA Division I women's basketball coaches. But the number "1,000" is part of a story that tells you a great deal about how Hatchell got to 900.
When she began at Francis Marion in South Carolina in the 1970s, coaching was just one of her jobs. She also taught classes, was director of intramural sports, and even oversaw the cheerleaders. Thus, there were all kinds of groups she dealt with that, at times, needed custom-message T-shirts.
It was expensive to have them made, though, so Hatchell decided to learn how. Her husband and fellow coach, Sammy, helped out. Pretty soon, they practically had a side business screening T-shirts.
"We had an order once for 1,000," Sammy Hatchell remembered, chuckling. "My goodness, they were all over the house. And when you're doing them one at a time wow, that's a lot of T-shirts."
There are all kinds of "do-it-yourself" tales like that for Hatchell, which explain the relentless drive she has to just work, work, work. Which has translated to win, win, win. Growing up in Gastonia, N.C., outside of Charlotte, she was thinking like a businesswoman even as a little girl in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
"I had a push mower, and I'd go through our neighborhood and mow everybody's yard for a dollar," Hatchell said. "My grandpa was a carpenter who built houses, and I'd help him. I could put shingles on a house, sand floors, and lay tile by the time I was about 10.
"I was always an entrepreneur. In second and third grade, I'd go home for lunch, and we had fruit trees in our backyard. So I'd take pears and apples back to school and sell them. I picked up bottles and turned them in for two or three pennies each. It might not sound like much, but that adds up."
So have the victories. Hatchell, now in her 38th year as a head coach, spent 11 seasons at Francis Marion, where she won an AIAW title in 1982 and an NAIA championship in 1986. Then she went to North Carolina, where she won the 1994 NCAA championship and made two other Women's Final Four appearances. She has eight ACC regular-season titles, and the Tar Heels have won the league tournament eight times under her.
She laughs now remembering how excited she was early in her coaching career to get a contract for $9,000. But if somehow coaches' salaries dropped that low again, Hatchell wouldn't budge from the sidelines. If she had to go back to mowing lawns and picking up bottles to supplement her income, she'd do it.
And if you ever walked into Carmichael Arena and saw Hatchell sweeping the floor -- even this very week when she's being lauded for joining Tennessee's Pat Summitt (1,098) and Texas' Jody Conradt (900) in the 900 Club -- you shouldn't be surprised. The reason she'd be doing that chore is simply because the floor needed sweeping. When she sees something that must be done, she usually just does it.
"She's from very humble beginnings and still remains humble to this day," said former UNC player and assistant coach Charlotte Smith. "In terms of the legwork that it takes to build a program, she's still doing those things. You could find her in her SUV full of team posters and bumper stickers, carrying them around and handing them out, still trying to build the UNC brand."
The risk that paid off big
Smith is now in her second season as head coach at Elon, having worked from 2002-11 on Hatchell's staff. Smith launched the most famous shot in women's NCAA tournament history: A 3-pointer with seven-tenths of a second left that gave North Carolina a 60-59 win over Louisiana Tech in the 1994 final.
Of Hatchell's 900 victories -- and no matter how many more she adds to the total -- that single second of one win might always be her most amazing career moment. It encapsulated Hatchell's philosophy: Go for it.
Smith has recounted "The Shot" countless times in the nearly two decades since it swished, yet a part of her still remains astonished she took it. Initially, the Tar Heels had planned a lob pass inside to 6-foot-5 center Sylvia Crawley. When that was covered, Hatchell decided in the subsequent timeout to roll the dice in a big way.
"Coach Hatchell is a bit of a gambler, and she's very confident, too," Smith said. "I just remember in the huddle when she said, 'We're going for the win, not the tie,' I was thinking to myself, 'Well, who in the world is going to shoot the shot?' Never thinking it was going to be me.
"I'd say not only is she a risk-taker, I believe somehow there was some divine inspiration, too. I mean, who in their right mind as a coach is going to pick a player who's shooting about 25 percent from 3-point range all season to take the shot that's going to decide the national championship game?"
Indeed, Smith was eight of 31 from behind the arc her junior year before making the shot that really did change her life.
"It was profound, it was huge in how I approached the game for the rest of my career," said Smith, who played eight seasons in the WNBA. "Just the belief I developed in myself because Coach Hatchell had believed in me. She chose me to take that shot, and from then on, I focused more on becoming more an outside threat."
Smith said that now as a head coach, she finds herself laughing all the time when she finds herself doing or saying something that reminds her of her mentor.
"I'm a Coach Hatchell clone," Smith said. "Including with her approach to leadership and team-building; she is a genius at that. She has been so instrumental in shaping the lives of young women.
"The quotes she would give us every day before practice, they had a lot of meaning. They weren't just about basketball, but about life. She develops you for a lifetime of success."
The path to coaching
The kid who mowed the whole neighborhood's lawns and sold fruit from her yard clearly never lacked motivation. Still, Hatchell acknowledges that nothing was a greater incentive to make sure she got her college education than the summers she spent as a teenager working in a textile factory.
It produced children's clothing, and workers were paid based on how much they made. Hatchell volunteered for overtime and weekends to earn more.
"But I thought, 'I don't want to do this the rest of my life,'" Hatchell said. "I tell you, that was an education itself. I'd been kind of sheltered by my parents. And at the factory, you met people from all different backgrounds -- and, boy, did some of them have stories."
Hatchell's high school did not have girls' basketball, but she played from a young age in a YMCA league.
"I still have my very first trophy from fifth grade," she said.
And she competed on the playgrounds with neighborhood boys. A southpaw, she perfected a left-handed bank shot that was hard for them to guard, and she'd get chosen for teams.
Hatchell then got to play basketball and volleyball in college, at Carson-Newman in Jefferson City, Tenn. While still competing, she worked as a lifeguard and started coaching a girls' junior high hoops team. Then she went to nearby Knoxville, Tenn., and got her masters degree while coaching a junior varsity squad for Tennessee head coach Pat Summitt.
In 1975, Hatchell took over at Francis Marion, in Florence, S.C. That was the hometown of current Tennessee assistant Jolette Law, whose cousin Pearl Moore was Hatchell's biggest star at Francis Marion.
"Coach Hatchell had an extremely large impact on a lot of us growing up then in South Carolina," said Law, who went to Hatchell's camps. "Most of us didn't have the means to go see other programs. Francis Marion was our connection to the best of women's basketball.
"Every time Coach Summitt would come to speak at our camps, we would just be in awe. She would come because of Coach Hatchell. And had it not been for Sylvia, I probably never would have ended up at Iowa."
Hatchell had watched Law play since childhood. And much as Law could have helped Francis Marion, Hatchell knew she needed to go to Division I. So she alerted top coaches, imploring them to come watch Law. She especially kept bugging C. Vivian Stringer, then with Iowa.
Finally, Stringer sent down an assistant, whom Hatchell picked up at the airport. It didn't take long for the call back to Stringer: "We have to get this kid."
"I give Sylvia Hatchell a lot of credit; she saw something in me," Law said. "I'm indebted to her for sharing that with Vivian Stringer. Sylvia will always be special to me for what she did for me."
Law's link to both is timely to note. Because the next to hit 900 will be Stringer -- now at Rutgers -- who is two wins away.
"They were pioneers," Law said. "If it hadn't been for each of those women, I wouldn't be here today as a coach."
Let 'em play
The move to North Carolina and NCAA Division I in 1986 didn't change anything fundamentally about Hatchell. Her basketball philosophy -- maximize possessions, don't fret a lot about turnovers, let athletes be free to do their thing -- has stayed much the same.
"I've always loved the fast break, playing up-tempo, pressure defense. I love being aggressive," Hatchell said. "Sometimes, I've been criticized because I don't adjust that much. I'm usually thinking, 'This is how we play, and the other team has to adjust to us.'
"Years ago, when I'd let my players dribble behind their backs or through their legs, some people would call it hot-dogging. And I'd say, 'No, that's skill. Women can have those skills.'"
Hatchell does have her critics: those folks who think the way the Tar Heels play is never quite a tight enough ship. There's also a peanut gallery that pokes fun at her eclectic, true-to-herself sideline wardrobe. And some fellow coaches who lost recruiting battles to UNC and Hatchell will forever stew about those.
She truly doesn't worry about any of that. Hatchell does things her way -- "She has a philosophy and sticks to it," Smith said -- and her players appreciate it.
Camille Little, who helped the Tar Heels make it to the Final Four in 2006 and '07, has gone on to a successful pro career. She was a starter for Seattle's 2010 WNBA championship team, and even when playing overseas, keeps tabs on her alma mater.
"I loved the freedom that Coach Hatchell let us play with," Little said. "It let us know that she trusted and believed in our ability. It gave us the confidence to play at a high level as we got closer to our professional careers.
"It gives you the opportunity to learn from your mistakes and also the courage to take risks."
Sammy Hatchell is a successful coach in his own right. Now at Shaw University, he previously worked at Meredith College (both are in Raleigh) and then at Cresset Christian Academy in Durham, where the Hatchells' son, Van, played. Van earned a spot on Roy Williams' UNC men's team in 2010-11, and currently works for a non-profit in Chapel Hill called "Extraordinary Ventures," which helps young adults with autism and developmental challenges find employment.
Placing people in the right position might be a skill that Van inherited from his mother. Sylvia is frequently called to suggest coaches for open jobs and vice versa. Just another thing to keep her busy.
You might think there is little else besides basketball discussed in the Hatchell household, but Sammy said he and Sylvia have gotten better about that as they've grown older. They sometimes watch movies instead of hoops, and they enjoy going shag-dancing a couple of times a month.
Another thing that Sylvia still loves to do? Mow lawns. She finds it very relaxing. In fact, she jokes that her dream job in retirement -- because, of course, she will feel compelled to still work when retired -- is to mow grass at the beautiful Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C.
Retirement, though, is still very distant for Hatchell. North Carolina now has 21 victories this season and seems sure to be heading back to the NCAA tournament after a rare miss last year. And the Tar Heels have the top-ranked recruiting class coming in next season.
Hatchell will turn 61 on Feb. 28, but she isn't anywhere near being finished with coaching.
"I have as much passion for it now as I've ever had," she said. "I'm out there in the middle of practice every day, and I feel like I'm 25. Until I look in the mirror and think, 'Uh, who is that?'"
She's not pausing much to reflect on 900 -- not in midseason -- but she plans a "thank-you tour" in the spring/summer to visit many who helped her along the way, including those who hired her for coaching jobs.
Having been such a key participant in the growth of modern-day collegiate women's basketball, Hatchell has been writing a book of her memoirs.
"I guess it's about three-fourths done, and I've passed my deadline a few times already," Hatchell said. "But things keep happening."
16dBonnie D. Ford