Commentary

T-spoon takes on mentors at Baylor

Weatherspoon trying to return tradition to former powerhouse Louisiana Tech

Originally Published: December 3, 2009
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

It will be inspiring, emotional, fun and yet … weird. Very weird. Saturday, Louisiana Tech coach Teresa Weatherspoon will look over at the other bench in Baylor's Ferrell Center and see two of the most important people in her life. And they will be "the enemy."

[+] EnlargeTeresa Weatherspoon
AP Photo/Terrance ArmstardTeresa Weatherspoon's Lady Techsters nearly upset No. 11 LSU on Tuesday before falling 77-74.

"I have butterflies, like I'm about to play," Weatherspoon said of the matchup against Baylor coach Kim Mulkey and assistant Leon Barmore. "I've always gone to battle with them. Now, I'm going to be on the opposite side -- going against them. That's the word that's really bothering me: against. Because they mean the world to me.

"When the ball goes up, it's about the game. But tears will roll at some point, because I have such respect for them."

This is one of those "cycle of life" sports stories you don't need to hype. The history and emotions behind it are profound.

Many women's hoops followers, of course, know this story chapter and verse, but the quick background: Barmore was the X's and O's expert who powered Louisiana Tech first as the associate head coach and then as the head coach. He retired in 2000, and it was thought longtime assistant Mulkey would take over.

She felt the administration failed to give her enough respect by not offering a five-year deal, and she left for Baylor. Where, in 2005, she won a national championship.

Barmore ended up not retiring and stayed on at Tech for two more seasons, but then did step down and was replaced by Kurt Budke. He then left for Oklahoma State in 2005, and Chris Long took over. He took Tech to the NCAA tournament his first season, in 2006, but the program hasn't made the field since.

Weatherspoon came "home" to Tech in the spring of 2008. A former standout with the New York Liberty, she'd loved her time in the Big Apple. But returning to Louisiana felt so natural, she vowed during a basketball awards ceremony at Tech to do whatever she could to help the program regain its status. She joined the coaching staff, and when Long was released this past February, Weatherspoon was elevated to replace him.

Mulkey and Barmore, who last year took the offer to become an assistant at Baylor, pledged their well-wishes and support. And now these three -- who won the 1988 NCAA title together at Louisiana Tech when Weatherspoon was the senior point guard -- face off Saturday.

Baylor, ranked No. 8 and picked to win the Big 12, is 6-1 with its only loss to Tennessee. Louisiana Tech is 3-1 and is coming off a near upset of No. 11 LSU on Tuesday. That 77-74 loss in Ruston, La. -- in which 2009 WAC Player of the Year Shanavia Dowdell had 26 points for Tech -- showed some of the old spirit is coming back.

That's what Weatherspoon wants more than anything. When she was at Tech, women's basketball was the biggest thing going at the school. It was what Tech was known for.

"It had changed tremendously," Weatherspoon said of returning in 2008. "The student body wasn't coming to the arena. You didn't hear that buzz. The question for me at first was, 'What happened here?'

[+] EnlargeKim Mulkey
G Fiume/Getty ImagesWhen Louisiana Tech failed to offer Kim Mulkey a five-year contract, she left for Baylor, which she led to the '05 NCAA title.

"But I decided it didn't matter. The question needed to be, 'How can we go from here to regain what we once had?' So our slogan is, 'The tradition returns.'"

Sure, some things are irrevocably changed. Like Tech no longer wearing the sleeved jerseys (which it held on to longer than any other program) and the fact that the school plays, bizarrely, in the Western Athletic Conference (a football decision).

But Weatherspoon thinks the success of the past can be recaptured, at least to some degree. She is certainly not naive. She realizes it's a far different world for collegiate women's basketball now than it was 25 years ago when she first came to Ruston from Pineland, Texas.

Then, Louisiana Tech was a powerhouse. There was no talk about it being a "mid-major," because it was as major as it got in women's hoops. But as more of the so-called power conferences put resources into the sport, the hierarchy changed across the country.

And programs such as Louisiana Tech and Old Dominion -- once at the top of the totem -- found themselves in this mid-major category. ODU's last Final Four appearance was in 1997, while Tech's was in 1999.

Weatherspoon knows that a program like Tech can no longer realistically be a perennial Final Four contender the way it once was. But it can be a player on the national stage, a school that does have a chance to make the NCAA tournament every year and hope to take advantage if the draw is in its favor.

What she wants her players to understand is how to be ready for it if such an opportunity knocks.

"It's a mindset of, 'If I persist, I will win,'" she said. "That's what I teach: true dedication to what you do. Knowing you will be held accountable. That is the key word every day, plain and simple: accountability."

When Weatherspoon was playing at Tech, she didn't have many exact role models. That is, African-American women as head coaches. C. Vivian Stringer and Marian Washington had some national recognition, but no one beyond them did.

Weatherspoon, understandably, never wanted it to be about that. She wanted only to be judged on skill, ability and effort -- not as carrying any banner about race and opportunity. Yet she also acknowledges that African-American players today think they can do anything -- because they see it being done.

"They know that they can understand this game, they can be those leaders, they can teach the game and develop their own philosophies about it," she said. "A lot of people my age -- we never thought about being the head coach. It was just a few of us that had that idea.

"Now that we're in a position to be seen in these roles, our kids can look at us and say, 'She played, now she's a head coach. How did it happen? What is the hard work I need to do? What's the path that the others paved before me?' That's what we're trying to teach them."

Weatherspoon credits much of her philosophy to Barmore, who she said is like a father to her, especially after her own father passed away. Barmore challenged her in college to become as committed a defensive player as she was a dynamic offensive player.

"Ever since then -- from being a collegian, to an Olympian, to playing overseas, to playing in the WNBA, to sitting in the seat he once sat in -- I think like he does," she said. "People even say to me, 'You act just like him.' That's the highest compliment. He taught me the game, but he also cared about us as people. I trust him about everything, not just the game of basketball.

"When he comes back here to visit, I can't sit in this seat [in the head coach's office]. I mean, this is his seat. I'm just trying to nurture things to get them back to where he once had it."

Just as he's proud of the amazing things Mulkey has done at Baylor, Barmore is filled with pride over Weatherspoon's accomplishments, too. In fact, the quickest way you might get him to tear up is to ask about her.

"But I do the same thing when you ask me about him," she said, chuckling. "He used to tell me, 'You are my coach on the floor.' And so I knew I had to think like him, figure out what he wanted even before he said anything. And Kim was my point-guard coach, and I got so much from her, too."

Certainly, Weatherspoon -- who next summer will join Mulkey and Barmore in the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tenn. -- already had that fierce desire to win. She learned as a player at Louisiana Tech how to keep the competitive motor running at all times. It will be in high gear -- on both sides -- Saturday once the game starts.

"And when it's over," Weatherspoon said, "then I will tell them, 'I love you guys. I respect you.'"

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.