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WomanOf the Month 1-03: Coach Ceal Barry

With a 18-4 season posted as of mid-February, University of Colorado women’s basketball coach Ceal Barry and her team were on their way to a strong showing in her 20th season. Having lost five seniors—four of them starters—from the year previous, Barry pronounced herself pleased with the team she’d pieced together out of the puzzle that is coaching.

Barry’s experience in women’s basketball spans the pre- and post-Title IX eras. Raised in a large family with five brothers and two sisters, she attended Catholic schools where girls’ sports were well organized, well attended by parents, and competitive. When she entered the University of Kentucky in 1973 as a player, however, it was a huge step backwards from her high school experience. The sport operated at almost an intramural level, and scholarships didn’t appear on the scene until her senior year, when Title IX took hold.

Despite the newborn status of women’s collegiate basketball, however, Barry knew she wanted to coach. Dissuaded by her father from majoring in physical education, she majored in accounting. A month after graduation her college coach informed her of a graduate assistant coaching position at the University of Cincinnati. She took the job while earning her master’s degree in education. When the head coaching position opened up, she became one of the youngest coaches on the college scene. After several successful years in Cincinnati, she came to Colorado in 1983.

Barry’s players today reflect the opportunities Title IX has created for women athletes. "They are getting the opportunities that other generations didn’t get, so they are more serious-minded," says Barry. "They’ve had better grooming, better instruction, better understanding of competition across the board. The athletes on my team are the survivors, so they are really motivated. From the time they were born they knew scholarships were available."

The advent of the WNBA has further focused today’s players, along with increased fan support and media attention. "The players are more committed to training rules than the players of the late ‘70s, early ‘80s," says Barry. "They understand that when they sign for a scholarship it is a contract. They value it more in some cases than do male athletes, because women have had it less time."

Barry characterizes this year’s squad as "smart". She rattles off the starters’ grade point averages, all over 3.0. "They are smart off the floor and they don’t make a lot of mental errors on the floor," she says. "I really like that kind of team. They’re getting better physically and their chemistry is improving. It’s a process, like a puzzle, putting it together."

While this team is not the most confident bunch Barry has coached, she says their confidence will build through skill and accomplishment. "I’m probably better at instilling decision making than confidence. I’m a little bit more mechanical and analytical. I believe you breed confidence through results. If you work hard and get it, you’ll be confident for good reason, and no-one will be able to take your confidence away."

Barry’s goal is to help her players mature physically, mentally and emotionally. "Not that they are necessarily immature," she notes, "but to go out on the court and play in front of 12,000 people and make decisions under pressure requires maturity. The older I get, I’ve become more patient in understanding that some kids are mature in certain areas when you bring them in and others aren’t. It’s a matter of recognizing what they need and being demanding but knowing their limits—what they’re capable of taking in today.

"I’m not a big rah-rah motivator, I’m more of a psychologist. The players have to trust you, because they are putting their lives in your hands. That’s a trust that you really care about them as a person. If they do trust that, they’ll believe in you.

"It’s not always easy, because they don’t always get to play, and their only motivation may be a scholarship. I think our players really appreciate the fact that I’m fair. They know everybody has an equal chance. They are equally interested in one another. If everybody wants to win, then it’s my job to pick the ones that can help us win."

Not all the changes in women’s basketball have been for the better. Through the years Barry has watched the number of women collegiate basketball coaches shrink. She estimates that in 1979 females coached nearly all collegiate teams, while today they may coach fewer than 50% in all divisions.

"It used to be all high school teams were coached by women, all college teams were coached by women, and the majority of the officials for women’s games were women," she recalls. "The appeal of the salary is greater now, there’s more attention, prestige and power. There’s more reason to want to be a women’s basketball coach now than in 1979."

In the larger conferences, Barry notes, more women basketball coaches remain. There is generally more pressure in such larger settings from the community to have a female in at least one of the more high-profile athletic positions.

And despite strides in women’s participation in athletics, inequities continue in such areas as coaching opportunities for women. "In athletics there’s still the stigma that women are weaker and that a female couldn’t handle a men’s team," notes Barry.

In terms of media coverage, media follow women’s teams "if they are in the top 25, while they follow the men regardless," she says. "It probably won’t change much until we have more females in positions such as sports editor or sports anchor—decision-making positions as to what’s important." She notes that the strongest pockets of support for women’s collegiate sports are those areas that lack professional teams. Women’s teams can outdraw the men’s in towns such as Manhattan, Kansas, with as many as 10,000 fans.

Barry’s achievements over her two decades with the Buffs have earned her many accolades. As of 2002 she had led Colorado to a 372-207 overall record and had appeared in 10 NCAA tournaments, and five Sweet 16 and three Elite Eight contests. She was the assistant coach for the gold-medal U.S. Olympic women’s basketball team in 1996, and was asked to be head coach for the 2000 team, an offer she turned down because she would have had to leave her CU job. In 1995 she was honored with the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association’s most prestigious award, the Carol Eckman award. Beyond coaching expertise, it recognizes sportsmanship, commitment to the student-athlete, integrity, ethical behavior and dedication to the purpose.

In her spare time Barry likes to travel and visit family and friends. She is also an avid golfer.

Reflecting on what sports can give to athletes, Barry points to setting goals, working hard to attain goals, and accepting and understanding there will be roles in a group situation such as a team sport. "You learn to accept your role on the team and understand that your role is important. You learn to handle adversity and defeat—not being the best. You learn to bounce back and get back up in personal or professional situations. Sports can help you with coping tools. Also there is the physical aspect. Women might struggle with weight control or depression, and staying fit can help with that through the years. Many of my past players still run—they don’t fear going out and running to stay fit. "

As for those who participate as fans, Barry says, "Sport gives people something to look forward to, cheer about, get great entertainment. And theoretically it’s supposed to be fair, players playing by the same set of rules, with a time limit. There’s no ulterior motive. It’s the purest competition we’ll find in our society. For the most part, collegiate sport is pure."