Following in Maggie's footsteps
Like Dixon before her, Boston College coach Crawley carries on legacy
NEW YORK -- The stage directions seemed to call for anonymity. Stand inside arguably the world's most famous basketball arena, and share the sideline with two Hall of Fame coaches and another who owns one of the two national titles since 2002 not claimed by Geno Auriemma or Pat Summitt and coaches freshman phenomenon Brittney Griner.
But at 6 feet, 6 inches, it's not easy for Sylvia Crawley to do anonymous. Dressed in brilliantly white pants and a matching vest Sunday in Madison Square Garden, Boston College's second-year coach didn't even try. And while Crawley's team lost to No. 6 Baylor 68-55, her role in the Maggie Dixon Classic was in some ways as symbolically prominent as those played by legendary peers like Summitt, C. Vivian Stringer and Kim Mulkey.
Dixon almost surely would have been a voice at the forefront of a new generation of female coaches looking to build on the foundation laid by people like Summit and Stringer. Crawley and so many others around the country now carry on that legacy.
As a representative of her generation, Crawley was aware of the significance of sharing the stage Sunday with some of the biggest names of the sport's NCAA era.
"It was [significant] just because they are mentors for me as a young coach and very encouraging to me," Crawley said. "They keep up with my schedule, surprisingly. They all knew what our record was and what we've been doing, and they know about the recruits that we have coming. So they were just telling me that they're very proud of me for what I'm doing with this program. So it was a huge honor for me to just even be on the same floor with coaches who have paved the way for me and served as mentors for me."
Crawley is already a curious mix of experience and youth. She is only six years removed from playing her last game with the San Antonio Silver Stars in the WNBA, the culmination of a professional career that spanned a decade in the ABL, WNBA and numerous stops around the globe. Yet as a result of launching her coaching career at the same time she played with the Portland Fire at the start of the decade, she also is nearing 10 years on the bench, first as an assistant at her alma mater, North Carolina, and then at Fordham before becoming the head coach at Ohio for two seasons and Boston College before last season.
Coaches throughout Crawley's youth told her she saw the game like a coach, but she didn't buy into it; she didn't see herself going down that path. However, a leadership role on the North Carolina team that won a national championship in 1994 planted a seed. By the time Crawley took her first coaching role at North Carolina in 2000, Tar Heels head coach Sylvia Hatchell sat Crawley down and told her she wasn't a good assistant coach. Crawley was offended until her old coach clarified, explaining that she had a head coach's mentality and offering chances to hone that.
"I figured out that as a player, I had a relationship with each and every player," Crawley said. "So that when I had to get on them, when I had to just grab them by their shirt, they could receive what I had to say because they knew at the end of the day I genuinely cared about them. And so that's what I was missing as a coach. I wasn't taking the time to get to know each and every single person on the team. I was just thinking, 'OK, you're a coach; yell at them.'"
All of which led to Madison Square Garden, where the Eagles rallied from an early 21-6 deficit and pushed what was a more talented Baylor team at times in the second half. And even as Griner did her part for Baylor, Stephanie Murphy answered for the Eagles with 18 points on 8-of-11 shooting off the bench. The 6-4 junior worked on the block -- at times against Griner -- pulled defenders away from the basket as she dropped in midrange jumpers and, yes, got her shot swatted trying to attack off the dribble.
Along with center Carolyn Swords, who led all players with 14 rebounds, Murphy gave Boston College a way to remain competitive inside and therefore in the game. The Eagles weren't going to win this game, but they showed something in playing to the end.
Murphy and Swords are ideal post players in a half-court offense. True to her roots in Chapel Hill, Crawley would like to eventually make the Eagles a running team. For now, she's working with the team she has, and if Murphy's effort is any indication, it with her.
"I've challenged Stephanie Murphy to step it up," Crawley said. "I've taken her out of the starting lineup. It's been a tough year for this kid because she was [ACC] rookie of the year her freshman year. But she just was coasting on mediocre. And it's tough because she plays with Carolyn, so when they're both in together, Carolyn tends to be the go-to post because she shoots 70 percent from floor and Murph is an incredible passer who loves to pass it in to Carolyn, in her defense. [But] had I let her keep cruising and just kind of being mediocre, she would have graduated from Boston College scoring six points and four rebounds. I just think she's better than that."
It's what coaches do.
After her team held off Rutgers in the day's second game, Summitt recalled a conversation she had with Dixon before the teams met in the 2006 NCAA tournament, the latter's final game. She recalled how impressed she was with the way Dixon talked about the toughness and drive she wanted out of her players.
"We don't know why sometimes the Good Lord takes some of the best first," Summitt said. "She was just special in a lot of ways. So to be a part of this today meant a lot to me."
From the first generations of WNBA players like Crawley, Teresa Weatherspoon, Cynthia Cooper-Dyke, Jennifer Rizzotti and others, to young coaches like Illinois State's Robin Pingeton -- who moved directly to the coaching ranks just as Dixon had -- the landscape in women's college basketball offers hope. Hope that whenever Summitt and Stringer call it quits, and whenever Mulkey, Gail Goestenkors and others of the next generation follow suit, there will be more ready to pick up the flag.
"We've been in what they're going through -- you got to juggle being a student and traveling, and it's a lot," Crawley said. "But we're living examples that it can be done. You can graduate and you can play basketball and you can win a national championship, and it's possible to get all these things done with good time management."
Crawley's particular story is her own, but she is blessedly not unique in the coaching ranks. And in that respect, win or lose, she was the coach in whom it was easiest to see Dixon's legacy on a Sunday afternoon at Madison Square Garden.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.