- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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There was a time when Sylvia Hatchell didn't win so many games at North Carolina. After going 19-10 her first season with the Tar Heels in 1986-87, Hatchell hit a serious rough patch. Over the next four seasons, North Carolina failed to post a winning record, failed to win more than four conference games in a season, failed to finish higher than sixth place.
And Hatchell pondered a change.
"It was my second or third year and we'd lost three or four games in a row and I applied for a job at UPS," Hatchell said Wednesday, just a few days before her induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. "I would wake up in the middle of the night and pound on the walls. I guess it's a good thing I didn't end up working at UPS."
It certainly fair to say Hatchell, whose 39-year coaching career has netted more than 900 victories, national championships at three different levels and a network of fiercely loyal former players, wouldn't be preparing for this day if she had.
"I've learned to keep things in perspective over the years," Hatchell confessed, "but I'm still not a very good loser."
Hatchell was getting ready for a spirited Wednesday evening with girlfriends, trying on outfits to pick which one she will wear on her induction day.
Her former players might have chosen a classic for her -- say, the pantsuit with the gold lions on the shoulder pads that she only wore when North Carolina played NC State.
"One game she was giving her pregame speech and she said, 'C'mon y'all, ladies, rub my lions,'" recalled former UNC guard Ivory Latta, now with the WNBA's Washington Mystics. Latta laughs through the memory. "I think we all said, 'We aren't going to rub your shoulder pads,' and she said 'C'mon, now. It's good luck.'"
Quirky and competitive, maternal and intense, Hatchell has carved out her own place in the history of the women's game. She is currently only one of two active coaches in women's basketball with 900 career wins (she is 908-321 overall). She has coached teams that have won national titles in the AIAW (Francis Marion, 1982), NAIA (Francis Marion, 1986) and the NCAA (North Carolina, 1994). She has coached gold-medal winning teams for USA Basketball (including as an assistant for the 1988 Olympic team).
Hatchell has a "bag of tricks," as she calls it, which is deep and varied after nearly four decades as a coach. Longevity has its benefits.
"I can use things that I used 20, 30 years ago, and a lot of those things still work," Hatchell said.
Still, it's the relationships she has fostered over her long career that mean the most.
"It's the biggest thing," Hatchell, 61, said. "My players have always known I care about them. I love them. It's not about basketball, it's about them. What's happening in their lives, good or bad. When they need me, I'll be there. They know I won't bother them or pester them, but I'm there."
Charlotte Smith has perhaps a deeper history with Hatchell than any player she has ever coached. Smith made the buzzer-beating basket to win the 1994 national championship. She coached on Hatchell's staff for nine seasons. And it was Hatchell who told Smith that Elon was the right choice for Smith's first job as a head coach.
"She's definitely a mother figure for me," Smith said. "She's been there for me through the loss of my parents, the day I got married, through my divorce. She's just solid, always there by my side. She calls me her daughter and I feel like she's my mom."
Smith has modeled her own career after Hatchell's.
"She's built programs from the ground-up and she doesn't take no for an answer," Smith said. "This is a Hall of Fame coach and she still drives around with posters in the back of her car promoting her team. She does whatever it takes."
Latta helped lead Hatchell's North Carolina teams to back-to-back Final Four appearances in 2006 and 2007. She remembers the first time she met Hatchell when she was being recruited.
"I thought, 'Man, this lady is country,'" Latta said. "I thought I was country. But she's always allowed me to be myself. When I was there and even now, we are so connected. She's one of my best friends."
Latta talked to Hatchell once or twice a week as she began her professional career in 2007 and began what are sometimes difficult days overseas. But Latta said that Hatchell built her thick skin with high expectations and high intensity, including the days at practice when Hatchell wouldn't call any fouls and then would stand on the sideline and smile as her players did battle.
"She'd see my scores overseas and send me a text and congratulate me," Latta said. "I can say that she's changed my life. She brought me to college when I was 117 pounds and young and made me into the woman I am today. Everything she did prepared me for what I go through in the WNBA."
Camille Little played with Latta and is now a WNBA veteran with the Seattle Storm. She's a little heartbroken that she can't attend Hatchell's induction ceremony.
"I don't think when you get to college as a freshman you are prepared to build a personal relationship with your coach," Little said. "But she has made things like a family. And I don't think you realize it until you are older and you talk about things with other players."
Andrew Calder has been on Hatchell's staff since she arrived at North Carolina.
He said her ability to motivate her players is "her greatest talent."
"She recognizes that every player has different needs and she adjusts for each player," Calder said. "Players are a little tougher now, but she's prepared them for the game of life.
"You will see this weekend. There will be a lot of Francis Marion players there as well as North Carolina players. "
Hatchell said she just feels it's important to give whatever she has to the young women who have passed through her program, whether that be her fiery competitive spirit, her time or even, at times after they've graduated, some financial support.
"I've had players call me who couldn't pay the rent, or a medical situation, or who have had a death in the family and need money to bury their parent," Hatchell said. "Everything we have in this life, we didn't come in with it and we aren't going to leave with it. It's not ours.
"I'm a simple person. People who have known me for a long time tell me I haven't changed and I want it to be that way. I want them to know that I am real. These players, they are my daughters and I would do anything for them. That's what life is about."