Even after 900 victories, Sylvia Hatchell still coaches basketball with the same humility and hunger to win
It was the summer of 1975 and Pat Head and Sylvia Rhyne thought they had an unbeatable game plan for the coming year – up until the point it fell apart.
Both women had been hard-nosed basketball players. Rhyne, a left-handed forward known for her ferocious defense, lettered all four years she played at Carson-Newman College, a small Southern Baptist college in Jefferson City, Tenn. And Head earned All-American honors playing for the University of Tennessee at Martin.
The two women had formed an instant bond the previous fall while pursuing master’s degrees in physical education at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
They took many of the same classes and had plenty of time to talk. The subject was almost always basketball.
Head, as a 22-year-old graduate assistant had been named the head coach of the Tennessee Lady Volunteers basketball team.
She held open tryouts in fall 1974 that had attracted close to 80 women.
The bad part, Head told her friend, was cutting players with real potential.
Head talked administrators into establishing a junior varsity team to find out what some of those players could do.
But she needed a coach.
Rhyne can’t remember for sure, but she might have said yes even as her friend offered her the job.
The names Head and Rhyne might not be recognizable in the coaching world, but their married names, Summitt and Hatchell, certainly are.
Sylvia Rhyne Hatchell grew up in Gastonia in the foothills of western North Carolina.
When other girls were playing with dolls, she was beating up boys – or beating them in whatever sport they wanted to play.
Next to Hatchell’s bed was a cardboard box filled with a football, a baseball and bat, and a basketball.
Missing from that box was a right-handed ball glove, which she finally received as a present for her 8th birthday.
Before that, she had to borrow a left-handed glove from one of the boys she played against and that she squeezed onto her right hand.
That glove did not go into the box, Hatchell said. “I’d sleep with it under my pillow.”
All the boys in the neighborhood came to her house to play baseball, and her father kept sheets of glass in his workshop to take care of all the busted windows.
Hatchell was 10 when her mother told her she had to stop playing tackle football with the boys, but the boys thought she was too good at passing to let her quit. They made her the fulltime quarterback, and to appease her mother, introduced a “two-hand touch” rule that applied only to her.
But it was the mothers of the boys who should have been worried.
Rick Davis, a classmate of Hatchell’s at Hunter Huss High School, recently told the sports editor of “The Gaston Gazette” that Hatchell broke his finger during a softball game when she hit a line drive to him at third base.
She bested the boys in pick-up basketball games and “even beat everybody in horseshoes,” Davis said.
South Carolina bound
It almost worked. Hatchell got the job at Roane, but lost it that August because of budget cuts. The athletic director said he needed to hire a man who could coach the women’s basketball team and serve as the assistant baseball coach.
She took the only other offer she received – from Francis Marion College, a tiny school in Florence, S.C., that was created only six years before and was about to start its inaugural season for men’s and women’s basketball in the fall.
“Honey, listen, I did everything,” Hatchell said. “I drove the bus. I swept the floor. I washed the uniforms. If it got done, I did it. I taught classes. I was the cheerleading sponsor. I was intramural director.
“I loved every minute of it. I was in heaven.”
She stayed 10 more seasons, compiling a 272-80 record and winning two championships – the first in the 1982 AIAW Tournament, the second in the 1986 NAIA Tournament.
It was here, too, that she met her husband, Sammy Hatchell.
She had a great life there, and might have stayed forever. But Jennifer Alley, Carolina’s first full-time head women’s basketball coach, announced she was leaving at the end of her ninth season.
The former basketball player saw an open shot, and she took it.
As a native North Carolinian, she said, “This was my dream job.”
A rocky start
She was on Summitt’s administrative staff when her longtime friend coached the USA women’s basketball team to a gold medal in the 1984 Olympics.
Then, Kay Yow (the late women’s coach at N.C. State University who had served as assistant coach under Summitt in 1984) was named head coach of the USA team for the 1988 Olympics and named Hatchell as her assistant.
After the 1986 season at Francis Marion, Hatchell was serving as Yow’s assistant coach for the USA team that won gold medals at the Goodwill Games and the world championships.
“The day they announced I got the job at Carolina I was on an airplane going back to the Soviet Union, and I was gone for six weeks,” Hatchell said.
When Yow was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1987, she called on Hatchell to scout players for the 1988 Olympic team. That left Hatchell with too little time to work on building her program at Carolina, and her team finished 10–17, marking Hatchell’s first-ever losing season.
It got worse before it got better, with three more losing seasons, Hatchell said.
“We were working night and day and when I thought I could see the light at the end of the tunnel, several times it was a freight train coming at me,” Hatchell said. “You know how you have to walk before you can run? Well, we had to actually crawl before we could walk.”
In 1994, three years after finishing dead last in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Hatchell’s team won the national championship.
In the title game against Louisiana Tech, Hatchell called a time-out with 0.7 seconds left in the game and Carolina down by two. Then, Stephanie Lawrence inbounded the ball to Charlotte Smith who somehow lofted a 20-foot shot at the buzzer.
The huge poster behind’s Hatchell’s desk shows the scoreboard when the three-pointer swished through the net.
Smith went on to play in the WNBA, then served nine years as an assistant coach with Hatchell before she was named head coach of the women’s team at Elon University last year.
“Coach Hatchell is the same as she always was,” Smith said. “She is a competitor. She hates losing more than she loves winning, and she knows how to build a championship team. She is an incredible inspiration, just in terms of her focus, determination and drive.”
Zooming past 900
Before the start of this year’s season, the team was unranked and picked to finish fifth in the conference. The Tar Heels finished second and made it to the ACC championship game for the 15th time in the past 20 seasons.
The day after they lost the ACC championship to Duke, Hatchell said she told her players: “‘I want to thank you for having my back this week and I hope you feel like I had your back.’ They were all looking at me and shaking their heads. ‘You are all great kids. You are fun to coach. You listen to me. And you battle hard.’”
In 2006, in a game against her friend and mentor Kay Yow, Hatchell recorded her 700th victory. In 2009, playing again against N.C. State, Hatchell reached her 800th win, just 11 days before Yow lost her long battle with cancer.
And this season, in a blowout against Boston College, Hatchell became the second women’s basketball coach in history to reach 900 wins.
The first was Summitt, who amassed 1,098 wins and eight national championships. Summitt retired at the end of the 2012 season after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease (see go.unc.edu/f8P9N).
People over wins
The wins have added up, but for Hatchell, it has always been the people who count.
Kim Hawkins, who played on Hatchell’s ’86 championship team at Francis Marion, said Hatchell treats her players like members of her family. Even now.
Two years ago, when Hawkins was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame, she looked up in the crowd and was stunned to see Hatchell in the stands. Their eyes met and Hatchell’s face broke into a grin.
“No matter how big she gets, she doesn’t forget about you,” Hawkins said. “She is family. To me, she is like a second mom.”
Success at anything, Hatchell said, is about relationships.
That’s why, when the NCAA tournament is over, she plans to hit the road for what she is calling her 900-win thank-you tour.
It will begin in Tennessee, with the first stop in Morristown to see Tommy Northern.
Now in his 90s, Northern hired Hatchell to coach the 7th and 8th grade girls basketball team in Talbott during her senior year in college. “I am going to thank Mr. Northern and then I am going to drive down 30 miles to Knoxville and go see Pat,” Hatchell said.
No doubt they will still have much to talk about – basketball, the road it put them on and the long journey they have shared.