Felisha Legette-Jack’s lessons of self-reliance fueled Buffalo’s journey to its first Sweet 16
Legette-Jack and Dawn Staley, the last two black coaches left in the women’s tourney, face off Saturday
Buffalo may very well be the only basketball team going into the Sweet 16 without any team managers. The Bulls players collect their own rebounds when they run through drills, their assistant coaches take on the responsibilities typically doled out to student managers, while the team’s athletic trainer keeps the clock.
And frankly, that’s quite all right with them, and it’s especially fine for coach Felisha Legette-Jack. She didn’t want people around her team who thought the job was something they could do part time or only when they felt like doing it. She had a “Bye, Felicia!”-type attitude about those kinds of people being around the team she was building.
“We do have a different kind of way we do things,” Legette-Jack said. “I’m passionate, and if it’s gotta be done, they know I’ll do it. If I have to sweep the floor, I’m sweeping the floor.
“We just want people around us that want to be around us. There’s no big thing; there’s no ‘I’m mad at you.’ You just don’t belong on this team because you don’t want to be here full time. … We don’t have any extra help, and that’s who we are. Our kids understand it can get done. It might be hard, but everything is possible if you just do the work.”
Buffalo’s historic run continues with Saturday’s matchup against No. 2 South Carolina, where Legette-Jack and Dawn Staley, the only two black coaches left in the NCAA women’s tournament, will meet.
Not only is this the first time in Buffalo’s history that the team has made it to the Sweet 16, it’s also the first time the Bulls have made it to the NCAA tournament with an at-large bid. In doing so, they became the first team from the Mid-American Conference to earn an at-large bid since Toledo and Kent State in 1996. And just like both of those teams, Buffalo won its opening-round contest.
At 29-5, Legette-Jack has coached the Bulls to their best win total in program history, with their first MAC East Divisional title, a school-record 16 conference wins and an unscathed 12-0 record at home. The team’s success in the regular season and postseason can be directly attributed to the Bulls’ reliance on themselves and no one else.
They went into Tallahassee, Florida, and mauled No. 6 South Florida, 102-79, in 11th-seeded Buffalo’s first-round matchup. After defeating what was essentially a home team in their opener, the Bulls then made light work of No. 3 Florida State, which was playing in front of its home crowd, 86-65.
Buffalo achieved those upsets by not looking across the aisle at what its opponent was doing and playing its game extremely well. The Bulls will obviously review film, but they’re taking the same energy that it’s all on them to do whatever they need to do to win into their contest against the Gamecocks.
The team had a day off Tuesday, and yet Legette-Jack bumped into one of her players dripping in sweat after an early morning workout. She doesn’t have to explain to her players how big the moment is — they already know and are putting in the extra time and work necessary to give themselves a chance to make this run last.
“South Florida was supposed to be an overmatched team for us, and Florida State was supposed to be an overmatched team for us,” Legette-Jack said. “We’re not misunderstanding how great South Carolina is, the national championship team of last year, and they had the No. 1 team in the country. They are amazing, and so if we look at them and look at how great Dawn Staley is … then we can get overwhelmed and it can be too much for this little team called Buffalo.
“So what we choose not to do is look at our opponent. We’re going to look at personnel and tell them this kid is good and this kid can shoot and all that stuff, but we’re not going to put a lot of emphasis on that. We’re going to put a lot of emphasis on who we are and what we’re trying to become. … We’re going to lock into that, and if that takes us beyond South Carolina, great. If that stops us at the door, all right, that’s the end of the road, but we’re not ever going to be afraid of competition, nor be overwhelmed by it.”
For too many reasons, the accomplishments of this Bulls team have significance outside of the game itself. Six years ago, Legette-Jack came to upstate New York after a stint at Indiana, where she suffered three consecutive losing seasons and never felt like she was at home.
When Buffalo reached out to her about taking over its program, she made a promise that she would trust herself and wouldn’t compromise her values and the knowledge she can bring to the game and her players. She speaks her mind without hesitation, and over six seasons she has transformed Buffalo into a consistently successful team.
Her journey to this game is what makes her team’s success so enjoyable. The other thing she hopes her achievements will do is open doors for African-American coaches to be given opportunities. When the NCAA tournament started, there were 10 black coaches who’d led their team to a berth in the Big Dance. Now there are only two: Legette-Jack and Staley. Georgia’s Joni Taylor was the only other black coach to lead her team to a second-round appearance, but Duke defeated Georgia in that game.
Legette-Jack and Staley are all too familiar with one another — they’re on the same women of color committee and know if the other calls, they’ll get an answer anytime. As it stands now, the few black coaches typically get together and have an opportunity to let their hair down and address the lack of diversity in the coaching ranks.
According to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, headed by Richard Lapchick, black head coaches in Division I women’s basketball make up 16 percent of the leaders, which was a 0.8 percent decrease from the season before. Black players, by contrast, make up 43.4 percent of the sport.
“I hope that what people see in me is an African-American coach who failed at the highest level,” Legette-Jack said. “I got a second chance, and I’m making good of my second chance. There’s a lot of great head coaches who are now assistant head coaches that failed and felt like they couldn’t become a head coach again. I hope they see me and say, ‘I want to try again.’
“I don’t know what that answer is — I don’t have a crystal ball to say this is how we’re going to get it done. I pray a lot, and I ask God for my guidance, and I hope that I can inspire some people as I go along my way and help somebody and that my path here wasn’t in vain. But me being a failed person, that was broken and became, my hope is that others see that and they can too become.”