Blair turns Texas A&M into contender
Coach leads Aggies to their first Final Four, his second trip to the national semifinals
DALLAS -- Gary Blair led Texas A&M to the women's Final Four on Tuesday, but he still had to do some scrambling. It's like this almost every year because his wife's birthday is April 1.
"We coaches are usually at the Final Four then, and I'm always getting last-minute gifts," Blair said. "My wife wouldn't be there except for that time at Arkansas. She'd always tease me, 'If you were any damn good, your team would be at the Final Four more so I could go, too.' So this time, I'm flying her to the Final Four on her birthday. Still don't have a gift yet. I gotta figure out something."
If you talk to the soft-spoken Dr. Nan Smith-Blair, you figure she probably might not have teased her husband in quite the way he presents it. But even if she did, it's only because they have the kind of relationship where she could.
The Blair Bunch is going to the Final Four again -- they also did it in 1998 when Gary was head coach at Arkansas -- so it's another chance to spend time together. Which is a luxury for Gary and Nan, and has been since he took the job at Texas A&M in 2003.
Smith-Blair is the director of the Eleanor Mann School of Nursing at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. Gary has been an 8½-hour drive away at Texas A&M for the past eight years.
"I think if we'd had to do it early in our marriage with small kids, we couldn't have done it," Smith-Blair said. "But he's always been very supportive of my career. We just meet halfway. We have family in Dallas, so a lot of times we meet there. Or I'll be able to go to College Station for the weekend. Occasionally, he can come to Fayetteville. We just make it work, and we just believe in each other."
The Blairs' children, daughter Paige and son Matt, are grown and living in Arkansas. So Gary has spent plenty of time being lonely in Texas.
"Nan designed our house that we have in College Station. It's a French country style. Beautiful, on the golf course," Gary said. "But it gets old -- eating out, coming home and watching TV and talking on the phone.
"Neither one of us is small talkers. We don't talk five times a day on the phone. Sometimes, it might be every third day we talk. Because we've got our lives to live. But that's how much we love each other, that we're allowing the other person to do their thing. She's really great at what she does. She's got tenure. And why hold somebody back who is as good at their job as you are?"
Blair's true calling
Gary Blair, in the first wave of baby boomers heading to college in the 1960s, went to Texas Tech with thoughts of becoming an architect. Found out that wasn't his thing.
He went to work in the restaurant business. Next, he spent time in the Marines and was stationed in Japan. Returned to college in Lubbock. And then he found his true calling: He was born to coach.
Blair took over the girls' basketball team at South Oak Cliff High in Dallas, his hometown. This was 1973, only a year after the passage of Title IX, yet Blair very quickly formed ideas about how a successful team should be run at any level.
"The bar of excellence for me in basketball was set with Gary Blair," said Fran Harris, one of Blair's former prep players who went on to win a national championship competing for Texas. "South Oak Cliff did things most schools in Dallas were not doing. We had good uniforms, we played in high-quality tournaments. He built that program like a college program."
Blair went 239-18 in his time at South Oak Cliff, and that's when he also met Nan, who is from Abilene, Texas. A partnership began that has lasted through Gary's coaching jobs as an assistant at Louisiana Tech, then head coach at Stephen F. Austin, Arkansas and now Texas A&M.
He got as far as the Elite Eight at Stephen F. Austin in 1993, when the school was hosting the regional in Nacogdoches, Texas. The Ladyjacks had No. 1 seed Vanderbilt a bit on the ropes in that regional final when, of all things, the shot clocks malfunctioned.
The game was halted nearly 20 minutes while makeshift clocks were brought in. That gave Vanderbilt a chance to regroup, and the Commodores were able to pull out a 59-56 victory.
Thus, Blair's first trip to the Final Four as head coach was delayed until 1998 -- he moved to Arkansas after the '93 season -- when he took the Razorbacks as a No. 9 seed. They benefited from No. 1 seed Stanford, beleaguered by injuries, falling in the first round to Harvard but still, Arkansas remains the lowest seed ever to make a Final Four.
Blair's record at Arkansas was 198-120, and he had taken the Razorbacks to the 2003 NCAA tournament, when another opportunity knocked. Texas A&M athletic director Bill Byrne wanted Blair to try to spark life into a moribund Aggies program. Arkansas, inexplicably, did not try to keep Blair. Instead, the school all but helped him pack his bags.
Arkansas has not been to the NCAA tournament since. At Texas A&M, Blair has won two Big 12 tournament titles, made the 2008 Elite Eight, and is now taking the Aggies to the Final Four for the first time in program history.
"When he walked into my office at Arkansas eight years ago and said, 'What do you think about A&M?' I said, 'You can win a national championship there,'" said Vic Schaefer, then Blair's assistant with the Razorbacks and now associate head coach with the Aggies. "Having gone to school at A&M, and grown up there, my father being in the Class of '41, I knew what A&M had to offer. I knew it could be done. It's been a lot of fun to be a part of that."
A part? Oh, Schaefer's been more than that.
"He's everything to this team," Blair said. "Sometimes we fight like brothers. But it works"
Smith-Blair said, "The two of them together, he and Vic, they both love to teach. And work, work, work."
But last summer, work was pushed aside by a near tragedy in the Schaefer family. Vic and wife Holly's teenage son, Logan, suffered a serious head injury while wakeboarding, even though he was wearing a helmet.
Blair; his other associate head coach, Kelly Bond; and assistant Johnnie Harris handled all the basketball business while Schaefer stayed at his son's side. Logan recovered at TIRR Memorial Hermann, the same facility in Texas at which Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords has been rehabilitating.
"July and August was really traumatic for us. We had 39 really challenging days, but Logan is a miracle," Schaefer said after the Aggies' victory Tuesday against Baylor. "If he walks down this hallway now, you'd never know anything happened to him. He was up there tonight with me cutting down the net. He's doing great."
Blair said, "Vic teared up when he gave his pregame speech tonight, and a lot of it was about Logan's journey."
Forty minutes before tipoff at each game, Schaefer speaks to the Aggies. Then Blair takes over at the 32-minute mark.
"We've always shared that," Blair said of the pregame pep/strategy talk. "We share so much, and he's given so much."
Mixing support with sacrifice
Blair has the confidence to allow his staffers leeway to do what they all do best without being threatened at how much they might excel at certain aspects of coaching.
With Schaefer, it's defense. He's the guy who studies film until he knows the opposing teams as well as they know themselves.
"In practice yesterday, I just looked at him and said, 'Coach Schaefer, you are the smartest man I know.' That guy is a genius," said junior guard Sydney Carter, A&M's top defender. "It just amazes me every day. When he brings that intensity and that passion to the game on the defensive end, we play like he coaches. It rubs off on his players."
Do you think Blair would be ruffled by Carter's praise of Schaefer? Nope. He'd agree with her. And just as Blair is so supportive of his coaches, he's the same way with his wife's career. When he was still coach at Arkansas, Smith-Blair made a regular drive to the greater Kansas City area as she earned her Ph.D. in 2000 through the University of Kansas School of Nursing.
"And that's when we both had to share responsibilities of taking care of our kids," Blair said. "Airline crews have to do this 'living apart' a bunch, and other professions, too. If your marriage is strong, you don't worry about it. You get through.
"But I gave her a trip to Alaska 11 years ago for a Christmas present. And we haven't gone yet. We're going to do it this summer, finally."
Wednesday morning, after watching the Aggies triumph the night before in Dallas, Smith-Blair was headed back to Fayetteville to work. Friday, it's on to the Final Four in Indianapolis. She says she'll stay in her current job at least another year.
"I don't know what we'll do then. We just play it day by day," Smith-Blair said. "He loves his job as much as ever. If he could, he'd go another 20 years."
Then she added, with a laugh, "But he's not going to."
How long might Blair, 65, keep going? He doesn't have to decide right now. He's at one of the peaks of his long career, and he should enjoy that.
"When we first got down here to Dallas, he introduced us to all the players he used to coach at South Oak Cliff," Texas A&M junior Tyra White said. "He's a great coach, and you know after basketball, he'll still be there for you."
Some of Blair's long-ago players now have their own college-age children. Yet Blair is still able to relate to this generation. As with everything else, he works hard at it.
"He's a funny guy," White said. "He said to us before the game, 'What's that word you guys say? Crunk? We need to get crunk!'"
That bit of hip-hop slang doesn't have the most, um, positive of origins, but Blair was using it to mean excited, exhilarated, ready to take on the world or at least the Baylor team that had defeated his Aggies three times this season and eight times in a row.
The Aggies got crunk, all right. They executed the game plan and came through in the clutch, beating No. 1 seed Baylor 58-46. The program that went 2-14 in Blair's first season in the Big 12 is now going to the women's Final Four.
Blair and his family have made sacrifices to do this. The coaching career that began for him 38 years ago in Dallas came full circle Tuesday in his hometown, and his wife, son, daughter -- and many, many "surrogate" daughters who played for him -- were all there to see it.
"My phone has been blowing up all day with emails and texts," Blair said. "This is where it started for me. I always said Dallas South Oak Cliff High School was the best job I ever had. Because in my formative years, it gave me the confidence to do what I'm doing now."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
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