Commentary

At 65, Blair puts together best season

Originally Published: April 5, 2011
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

Senior Maryann Baker talks about what it means to the A&M community to win an NCAA basketball championship, and what Gary Blair has accomplished in College Station.

INDIANAPOLIS -- Much of the time, they really don't remember. Texas A&M coach Gary Blair stays so energetic in his job that his players aren't usually thinking about the fact that there are plenty of people who retire (or want to) at his age.

"Actually, during practice he's a pretty active guy," Aggies senior Maryann Baker said. "He might not work out that much, but he tries to stay up with everything we're doing. So it really doesn't sink in with us that he's … kind of old. Not to be disrespectful."

Hey, no disrespect taken. Blair calls himself a senior citizen, which at 65, he is. But he probably felt about 25 on Tuesday night when, after nearly four decades of coaching, he had his greatest triumph.

Blair's Aggies beat Notre Dame 76-70 for the NCAA title. If he couldn't win the championship in his native state of Texas, then this was the next-best thing: doing it in Indiana, a state that worships basketball as much as Blair does.

[+] EnlargeGary Blair
AP Photo/Amy SancettaGary Blair's national title is Texas A&M's first NCAA basketball championship for men or women.

On Saturday at Conseco Fieldhouse, as his team readied for its Final Four appearance, Blair mimicked the scene in "Hoosiers" where coach Norman Dale, played by Gene Hackman, measured the height of the rim to show his players it is no different anywhere, regardless of how big the arena or the game is.

It's exactly the kind of gesture you'd expect from Blair, a showman who also has substance. He is the type to toss candy to the crowd and compliments to his opponents. The latter doesn't just come in the easy times after victories. Even after his most difficult defeats -- such as the 2008 Elite Eight loss to Tennessee -- Blair never fails to credit the other side.

That's because he believes so much in the sport of women's basketball that he is always on voluntary duty as its goodwill ambassador. Anyone who has covered Blair's teams at Stephen F. Austin, Arkansas and Texas A&M will tell you that he's the same guy, win or lose. Happier winning, of course, but consistent in how he treats everyone and how he always talks up whomever played well -- whether that's his players or the opposing team's.

On Tuesday, he could do both after a highly entertaining game with stars on both sides, including Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins, Brittany Mallory and Natalie Novosel.

"The state of Indiana should be proud of [them]," Blair said. "They gave us fits out there."

But the Aggies also gave the Irish fits, especially on offense, which is Blair's primary emphasis. The defense is presided over by associate head coach Vic Schaefer. Blair got to know Schaefer when both were head coaches in Texas many years ago.

"He was at Sam Houston State. I was at Stephen F. Austin," Blair said. "We played golf together. He was a good friend, because he wasn't a threat to me."

Leave it to Blair to be so blunt. Back then, Stephen F. Austin under Blair was the ruling power of the Southland Conference, and indeed, the Bearkats of Sam Houston State didn't have the talent to rattle him often.

But the friendship and mutual respect forged was such that after Blair moved to Arkansas in 1993 and later had an opening on his staff, he brought Schaefer to Fayetteville. Then both went to College Station in 2003 when Texas A&M -- Schaefer's alma mater -- wanted to upgrade what was a dreadful program.

In the first seven seasons of the Big 12, the Aggies were 22-90 in league play, never winning more than five conference games in a season. It wasn't just that the Aggies were going absolutely nowhere nationally … they didn't even seem to have any hope that they'd be able to compete in their own conference.

It wasn't the easiest thing for Blair to go to Texas A&M, since his wife, daughter and son had school and job commitments and needed to stay in Arkansas. But Arkansas did nothing to keep him, and Texas A&M wanted him.

Blair's son, Matt, was in the locker room after the game Tuesday, smiling along with the rest of the family. They've all been a part of this journey with Gary.

[+] EnlargeTexas A&M
AP Photo/Amy SancettaGary Blair and the Aggies' title Tuesday marks the school's first championship in a major sport since 1939 (football).

"If you look into his eyes, you can see what this means to him," Matt said. "He's one of a kind. He's our hero."

Blair, a Dallas native, believed in the potential of Texas A&M, just as he has always believed in the potential of women's basketball. He is the eternal optimist: Give him a glass that's half-full, and he'll say, "I bet you I can fill it up the rest of the way."

Blair was 2-14 in the Big 12 and 9-19 overall in '03-04, his first season at Texas A&M, but those who watched the conference could tell a distinct difference even if the record didn't show it. The Aggies were 16-15 the next season and made it to the WNIT. They've been in the NCAA tournament every year since, making the school's first Final Four appearance in either men's or women's basketball this season.

Blair was also at the very first women's Final Four, at Norfolk's Scope Arena, in 1982. He was an assistant then with Louisiana Tech, which won the NCAA title that year with Kim Mulkey at point guard.

Since 2000, Mulkey has been the coach at Baylor, which won the national championship the last time it was here in Indianapolis, in 2005. This season, the Lady Bears were the No. 1 seed in the Dallas Regional and had beaten Texas A&M three times, but the Aggies prevailed in an Elite Eight matchup.

That put Blair into the national spotlight, and he took the opportunity to joke around, tell stories, shake hands, spread Aggie traditions, give women's basketball history lessons … and win an NCAA title.

Blair brought Schaefer with him to the postgame news conference Tuesday, insisting he get his due and have the chance to address the media, too. That's just Blair's way.

"He loves what he does, and he just signed a contract extension, so he's not going anywhere anytime soon," Baker said of Blair. "He wants to stay 'hip,' as he says. Maybe not on the technology end, for sure, but he tries. He's such an easy guy to play for.

"And he does a good job in giving his assistants a lot of responsibility. I know there are a ton of successful coaches out there, but just the way he runs this program makes it a great atmosphere."

Thanks to the program Blair built, the women's Final Four got a chance to see maroon-clad fans "sawing Varsity's horns off" to their catchy fight song. They saw the beautiful collie Reveille VIII, the official mascot of Texas A&M, make an appearance at the final. They saw a team that plays in the Twitter era win a title for a guy who started coaching in the Watergate era.

"All I can be is thankful, appreciative," Blair said. "To Texas A&M, we won this thing. We won it for 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.