KNOXVILLE – This spring the Tennessee’s women’s basketball coaching tree has really sprouted.
Former UT All-American Nikki McCray-Penson’s head coaching career continued its stunning growth. Meanwhile, Lady Vol alums Nicky Anosike and Semeka Randall Lay went down new career paths.
Each case has served as an example of the profession’s mercurial nature. Raise your hand if you foresaw the retirement of Hall of Famer Muffet McGraw at Notre Dame this spring. Anyone?
Vic Schaefer’s departure from Mississippi State was stunning as well. He left State to fill the opening at Texas left by Karen Aston’s dismissal. In eight seasons, he had built the Bulldogs into a national power that twice played for the national championship.
His move created an opportunity for McCray-Penson. She had flourished in just three seasons as a head coach, rebuilding Old Dominion during that span from eight victories to a 24-win team last season.
Listening to an interview with McCray-Penson earlier this month on Knoxville radio station WNML’s “Sportstalk” show, it struck how much she has matured. She had a blithe spirit while playing at Tennessee. She sounds so much more earnest and forceful now.
Her experiences with UT coaching legend Pat Summitt have been amplified by playing on the 1996 U.S. Olympic Team with Dawn Staley and then serving for nine years on Staley’s coaching staff at South Carolina.
“There’s a certain discipline that they bring to the table,” McCray-Penson said. “It’s the fundamentals. The game is going to be played a certain way, hard with intensity.”
Anosike, on the other hand, intended to make a life-altering commitment in April. It didn’t involve coaching, however.
She was supposed to be in Nigeria, exchanging wedding vows with her husband-to-be Uzochukwu Chidinma Chima. Those plans were delayed by the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting travel restrictions.
Instead she made a much shorter trip up I-75 to Anderson County High School and became the Lady Mavericks girls’ basketball coach.
“I can always have my wedding,” she said. “But I think if I would’ve missed this opportunity, another one might not have come around for awhile. So I’m happy with how things turned out.”
Anosike’s coaching resume involves three years at the middle school level while living in St. Petersburg, Fla. She also coached for two years as a high school assistant and has AAU coaching experience.
Anderson County Principal Ben Downs said that the interview with Anosike outweighed her Lady Vols background. That’s saying something, considering she helped UT win two national championships.
“Take all of her accolades and her pedigree and everything away, she was the best interview,” Downs said. “She answered all the questions thoroughly. She’s passionate. I think that’s what really stuck out, too, super passionate, very knowledgeable.
“You can tell she wants to have an impact on our girls just like Pat had on her. She made that a point: I want to impact these young ladies like coaches have impacted me.”
Finally, Randall Lay, her husband Matt and their dog huddled together in the back room of their townhouse apartment in Dayton, Ohio, on May 27 of last year and hung on for dear life. A tornado, one of several that ravaged southern Ohio that night, took nearly everything else.
At that time, she was searching for next coaching job.
She eventually caught on as the associate head coach at Winthrop. Earlier this month, she was named interim head coach.
Randall Lay said that she was “extremely grateful” for the opportunity. Given all she’s experienced in the past year, her gratitude knows no bounds.
Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who covered University of Tennessee athletics from 1988-2019. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.