- Ramona Shelburne, ESPN Senior Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- It really is just a book she picked up in an airport somewhere, something to read on the way to someplace else. But Cynthia Cooper-Dyke just couldn't put it down. It's what she was reading again a few days after she led USC to a Pac-12 tournament title and NCAA tournament berth in her first season as head coach at the school she began her Hall of Fame career with in the 1980s.
It wasn't written by John Wooden, Phil Jackson or Vince Lombardi. It was a simple book of affirmations called "I Wish for You" by Lance Wubbels.
"I've probably read it six times," Cooper-Dyke said. "I just love this one."
She flips to a page that says: "When you know you're right, I hope you never change or compromise, just because you're outnumbered."
It's fitting that Cooper-Dyke found the book in an airport along the way. In transit. And it's fitting that these are the words that inspire her. Her journey has been much longer than most.
She didn't just walk into USC one day, announce that she would like to coach at her alma mater and get the job because she has a plaque in the Basketball Hall of Fame and helped the Trojans win back-to-back titles in 1983 and 1984.
Cooper-Dyke had to prove herself as a coach at places like Prairie View A&M, North Carolina-Wilmington and Texas Southern before her alma mater gave her a serious look. The first two times the Trojans were looking to hire a coach and Cooper-Dyke expressed interest in the job, she never even got an interview.
"It was very frustrating to know your ability and to have had experience and success and still not be given an opportunity," she said. "But it wasn't my time. After I got over the emotional parts of some of those decisions, I knew I still I had so much to learn and experience.
"And at every level and every stop, I learned something that I was going to need later on to help me win a championship."
After taking the Trojans to 22 wins and their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2006 in her first season as head coach, it appears Cooper-Dyke was indeed ready. USC is seeded ninth in the Knoxville Subregional and will face No. 8 seed St. John's on Saturday. The Trojans will not be favored.
But if you haven't caught on yet, none of that matters to Cooper-Dyke.
There's a reason she kept at it all these years, the same reason she was willing to take that first job at Prairie View A&M for $60,000 a year and prove that she was more than a Hall of Fame player trading on her name and reputation to stay in the game as a coach.
She just knew she could do it.
She always has.
The story about how she made the 1986 world championship team after paying her way to an open tryout explains her drive.
"Never during that process did it ever cross my mind that I wasn't going to make that team," she said. "That's not arrogance; that's a confidence I had because of the work that I'd put in and the work that I was willing to do."
Cooper-Dyke made it all right. First out of a group of 300 players at an open tryout, then out of the camp where dozens of college stars had been invited to try out for the team.
It was her first real validation as a basketball player. Cheryl Miller and the McGee twins had been the stars of her Trojans teams. Cooper-Dyke was USC's sixth man.
She didn't become a star until she got overseas, where keeping your job meant finding a way to score and be effective through triple-teams. But it wasn't like it just happened either. She worked at it, teaching herself new moves while learning Spanish and Italian to communicate better with teammates and coaches.
By the time Cooper-Dyke came back to the States in 1997 for the opening of the WNBA, she was a revelation. She was so talented and skilled it was easy to forget she was ever a sixth man.
You wonder where that comes from with great athletes -- the drive to be great and the capacity to put the work in to make it so. Cooper-Dyke has shown it as both a player and a coach, and she's pretty clear on where it comes from.
She grew up amid poverty and violence in Watts, just around the corner from USC. Her mother worked multiple jobs to provide for her seven brothers and sisters, but it still wasn't always enough.
"I knew what it meant to be poor and live in Watts and not know where your next meal was coming from," Cooper-Dyke said.
Growing up like that, she was literally and spiritually hungry -- for a better life, for it not to be this way forever, for a way out. Basketball gave her that, and she's never lost it.
She almost did in 1985, when she left USC to work at a bank after the death of her brother. But USC assistant coach Fred Williams wouldn't let that be the end of the story.
"She's like a daughter to me," said Williams, who is now the coach of the WNBA's Tulsa Shock. "We've always had that bond. I've always been in her corner, and I've always told her the truth. And at that point, she needed to hear that she needed to be back in school."
It wasn't an easy sell, but Cooper-Dyke came around.
"If Fred and coach [Linda] Sharp, if they don't come get me, I'm not a Hall of Famer. I don't play anymore. There's no WNBA. There's no Olympics," Cooper-Dyke said. "They came to the bank and said, 'Get your butt back here. You need to be back in school. It's not that we need you to play basketball. No, you need to get your education. You need to get your degree. This is your future.'"
Her mother told her she would work more shifts to get by. It was a gesture Cooper-Dyke never forgot.
Whenever there was a challenge, she would remember her mother's example. Just work more. Push more. Don't dwell on disappointment. Change the narrative.
"After that, nothing discouraged me because I wouldn't let it," she said.
So when Cooper-Dyke had to start her coaching career at Prairie View A&M in 2006, or when she had to move on to UNC Wilmington and Texas Southern and turn those programs around before a major conference school would take her seriously, she didn't dwell on why.
"I was embarrassed to even tell her how much that salary was," said Charles McClelland, Prairie View A&M's athletic director then. "But she told me it wasn't about the money.
"It was about the opportunity to do something that she loved."
Prairie View is close enough to Houston, where Cooper-Dyke won four WNBA titles, that McClelland knew how big of a name he was bringing to his small school. Hiring her was a no-brainer for her name alone. He was pleasantly surprised to see she could also coach.
"I actually talked to [former Houston Comets coach] Van Chancellor before we hired her, and Van told me, 'She's going to be intense. You've got to get ready for that. Same way she was on the floor. But you can't find a better motivator or a better coach.' And that's ultimately how it turned out," McClelland said.
Cooper-Dyke had immediate success, turning a SWAC program that had never had a winning season into an NCAA tournament team in her second season. In all, she made three postseason appearances in four seasons at Prairie View. She also took classes to complete her bachelor's degree, which she hadn't finished at USC because of the year she stepped out to work at the bank.
McClelland hired her again in 2012 when he became the athletic director at Texas Southern, and she did the same thing there, turning a 5-26 team into a 20-game winner in her first season.
When USC called to ask permission to speak to her last season, McClelland told the Trojans she would "have them back in the Final Four very shortly."
While the initial buzz when she was hired last year trumpeted her rich history with the Women of Troy and drew former teammates like Pam McGee, Rhonda Windham, LeAnne Sera and Yolanda Fletcher, Cooper-Dyke made a point of not trading on her name and reputation.
Yes, she was happy to be home and have the support of the women she had won championships with. Yes, USC history is important to her. But for this to work, her new team had to find its own success. Same way she had to as a player, same way she had to as a coach.
"I think they got that message early on," Cooper-Dyke said. "That it wasn't, 'Let's bring back the glory days.' No, you make your own glory days. ... You guys go out on the court. Cheryl Miller can't play. Her eligibility is up. The McGee twins, they can't suit up and help you. I can't put on a uniform and help you.'
"I wanted them to take ownership. Because the one thing about magic ... you can't count on it. Sometimes it happens, and sometimes it doesn't. But you can count on yourself. And you can count on the hard work that you put in. And you can count on your teammates. You can count on being focused, setting goals and going for it."
Her office inside the Galen Center reflects just how settled she's allowed herself to get in this first year on the job. Retired jerseys from her career and a picture of Nelson Mandela are on the walls. Girl Scout cookies to take home to her 12-year-old twins are on a desk. Papers are piled up. Television and video equipment are front and center. The book from the airport is next to her computer.
There will be time to decorate in the offseason. But since taking the job in April, there has been too much to do.
"When I got to SC, I dove in," she said. "I'm here. I'm here in the mornings, I'm here at night, I've got to place another call, send another email, recruiting, donors -- whatever I have to do for us to be successful, I'm going to do. Because I'm not here to just be the head coach at USC. I'm here to win."
At USC, that means finding a way to conquer Pac-12 power Stanford. The Trojans had the Cardinal on the ropes in the regular season. They finally beat them in the semifinals of the conference tournament with the kind of stingy, aggressive press that would have made coach Sharp and her teammates from the glory days proud.
Cooper-Dyke waited for the second half to throw the press at the Cardinal so they wouldn't have the opportunity to adjust at halftime. It worked beautifully, throwing Stanford out of rhythm, shortening its shot clock and creating fast-break points for USC.
With less than a minute to go and USC clinging to a four-point lead, senior forward Cassie Harberts, USC's All-American candidate, fouled out. Cooper-Dyke replaced her with a fourth guard, Jordan Adams. It was an unorthodox move, but one she felt strongly about.
Adams is a good rebounder for a guard and a great passer. With Harberts out of the game, having a solid inbounds passer was critical. Cooper-Dyke slid 6-foot-1 guard Kiki Alofaituli to the block and told her to get every rebound.
It was different, but it worked -- a subtle adjustment from a seasoned coach who has learned a few things along the way.
It's taken a long time to get to this place, longer than it probably should have with her résumé and skills. But the journey just may have been worth it in the end. She picked up more than a good book to read on the way to where she is now.
She learned how to coach.
"Now, I see it. This was the perfect time. I've matured as a coach," she said. "I was a little wild in the beginning, almost like me as a player. I was a little rough around the edges. But I matured over the years, and by the time I got to the WNBA, I was so dialed in and focused on one thing and that was winning and becoming a champion.
"I went through that same process as a coach. All of my passion, I had to tame it and tone it down a little bit. I had to cultivate and grow it the right way, so that I would be ready for an opportunity like the Pac-12 and USC."