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Feeling well, looking Weller: CHD interviews Hall of Fame coach Chris Weller

Chris Weller did a little of everything at Maryland: 3-sport athlete while in college, assistant to her former coach Dottie McKnight, first-ever assistant athletic director for women, then 499 wins during 25+ years as head coach.  As head coach she won eight ACC titles and was named national Coach of the Year in 1992.  CHD’s Jon Teitel got to chat with Coach Weller about her superstitions as well as her role in one of the greatest games in women’s history. 

weller

You went to college at Maryland where you played basketball, swimming, and lacrosse: what sport were you best at, and what sport did you enjoy the most? I was best at basketball so that is what I enjoyed the most. I played lacrosse because there was a group of us who were physical education majors who thought it was such an interesting game. I felt that if I wanted to really understand sports I needed to participate in as many different kinds that I could.

You became head coach at Maryland in 1975 and also served as the school’s first Assistant Athletic Director for Women: what did it mean to you to become coach at your alma mater, and how did you balance the two gigs simultaneously? I took the job because I was a PE teacher in Montgomery County for seven years and wanted to go back and get my Masters degree in sociology of sport. Dottie McKnight was my college coach and she asked me to coach the JV team: when Dottie later resigned I took over as head coach. I did not want the administrative job but they would only coach if I took both jobs, so I did. I hope that I helped us embrace the requirements of Title IX without demanding the complete compliance of cutting men’s sports. When I started we only had about three sports, but by 1980 it became too much so I decided to just stick with basketball. My goal was to only do things I was passionate about so that I never felt like I worked a day in my life.

You were known for having 1 player each year wear #12 and you always sat in the 4th seat: how superstitious were you back in the day? Everyone tells me I am ridiculous, even today! I would knock on my head and then knock on the court by the basket we were shooting at to take the lid off the basket. I had to have my house perfectly clean before games so that the only thing that would be on my mind was the game. 12 and 4 were my lucky numbers: our 1st Hall of Famer Tara Heiss wore #44. NC State coach Kay Yow used to tease me all the time and would wipe the floor with her hand after I knocked on it: we had a lot of silly stuff.

In 1978 you won the ACC tourney: how big a deal was it to win the 1st-ever D-1 conference basketball tourney for women? It was huge. I remember sitting in the stands and watching NC State win their semifinal game, and I said to my girls that there would only be 1 team who could ever say they won the 1st conference tourney in women’s basketball history. I rarely said stuff like that but I knew the team could handle it. After the opening tip everyone jumped off the bench and screamed: we made it a special thing. It is something I am very proud to have been a part of.

In the 1978 AIAW national tourney title game you lost to UCLA: how much of a home-court advantage did they have while playing in Pauley Pavilion, and where does Ann Meyers Drysdale’s performance (20 points, 10 rebounds, 9 assists, 8 steals) rank among the most dominant you have ever seen? That was the first Final 4 in women’s basketball history. We beat UCLA during the regular season that year but our player who totally shut down Ann in that game hurt her knee in our Final 4 win over Montclair State, and we had nobody else who could deal with Ann. We were okay for a while before she went crazy on us. I did not find the home-court advantage to be terribly significant.

In the 1982 NCAA tourney Lorri Bauman scored a tourney-record 50 points (21-35 FT/8-11 FT) in a loss by Drake: was it just one of those scenarios where every shot she put up seemed to go in because she was “in the zone”? I cannot take anything away from Lorri: it was an amazing performance.

In the 1989 NCAA tourney your team had a tourney-record 25 steals in a win over Stephen F. Austin: what is the secret to playing great defense? Having great players! We had Vicky Bullett, but the person who played the most minutes was Sabrina Rivers. She was a great athlete and her role was to be a great defender, which made her a great teammate. She always drew the toughest assignment defensively.

In the 1993 ACC tourney title game tourney MVP Dena Evans made shots to force the first and second OTs before Lena Patterson banked a shot off the glass at the buzzer to force a 3rd OT in a 3-point 3-point loss to Virginia: what are your memories of one of the greatest games in women’s history? That was the most frustrating loss of my career. We were up one toward the end but Virginia missed a foul shot on purpose and Evans made a game-tying shot that was just heartbreaking. They were two very good teams who played very hard. That was the year we had the first sellout in women’s history when we hosted Virginia during the regular season. I called Coach Vivian Stringer to ask her how to prepare for a sellout…and she told me to show up early because there was probably going to be a traffic jam: if she had not said that then I probably would have arrived late to the game! When I came out of the tunnel I refused to look up at the crowd, but I snuck a peek right before the tip: I had never seen anything like it.

Your 499 wins remains the most in school history: what made you such a great coach, and do you think that anyone will ever break your record? I think Brenda Frese will easily break my record. Nowadays teams will play 30 regular season games before they even get to the postseason, and records are made to be broken. My sister had been on my case because of my health: I said that 499 was kind of an odd time to leave but she reminded me that it was never about winning for me and she talked me into it. Tennessee coach Pat Summitt called me after she heard that I was retiring and said, “What are you doing?!” because she wanted me to win #500, but I told her that it was the perfect time to step down. It was good for the school and I really needed the break.

In 2010 you were inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame: where does that rank among the highlights of your career? That was quite an honor. There have been several highlights during my career: when a kid who struggled academically was finally able to get a 3.0 GPA, I told her that I thought it was awesome. I did not even know what to say at the Hall of Fame ceremony. I was stunned to get inducted into the DC Hall of Fame last year, and was tickled to get inducted along with my mentor Lefty Driesell. Another highlight was when Lefty once scrimmaged with my team when my scout team did not show up: he saw me in a tizzy and when I said I needed a big lefthander he volunteered to play.

JonTeitel