Sharon Dawley fostering family atmosphere in Amherst
She wouldn’t be able to hide it even if she tried.
Sharon Dawley’s considerable Massachusetts roots are unmistakeable to even the most casual of acquaintances. It takes only a subtle hint of the Revere native’s accent to tell you that much.
But there’s more to the Massachusetts women’s basketball matriarch than meets eye. Or ear, for that matter.
Behind the steely gaze and stoic demeanor of the Minutewomen’s third-year head coach is a woman of resolute passion – for both the young women she toils tirelessly for and the sport she’s dedicated her life to. Dawley is a basketball lifer, through and through.
And she wouldn’t have it any other way.
Dawley enters the 2012-13 season with clear goals, both on the court and off it. The former are straightforward enough: win games and establish UMass as a perennial Atlantic 10 Conference power. The latter are more nebulous, but decidedly more ambitious.
“I said this to someone a couple years ago and I think they thought I was crazy,” she said, cracking a smile. “We’re doing a really, really good job if we’re getting Christmas cards in the mail with pictures (and notes) of ‘Here’s my third kid.’
“I feel like we’ve made an impression on somebody (if) they’ve had a good four-year run, and they’re 35 years old and we’re still communicating at Christmas or another holiday about their family and how they’re doing. Then I feel really successful.”
And why shouldn’t she? To instruct an 18-year-old on proper shooting form or defensive rotations is one thing, but to instill a sense of pride, community and dedication in a young girl starving for some sense of direction in an increasingly confusing world?
That’s something else entirely.
For Dawley, who was drawn to the game as a child in part because of a sports-crazed family, basketball represented an opportunity for personal growth. The game afforded her an outlet for both physical exertion and social exploration.
“I was kind of smitten with it,” she said. “A workout kind of thing, a team chemistry kind of thing, and then connections – just meeting really cool people doing it.”
Playing in those AAU-style tournaments may have helped to teach Dawley about the intricacies of basketball game play, but her love and appreciation of the sport was refined in the home amongst loved ones.
For decades upon decades, the Boston Celtics have embodied basketball royalty in America. The names, numbers and championships are deeply ingrained in New England sports lore and don’t bear repeating here. But for a young woman growing up in the Boston suburbs, those legendary teams helped to shape a life in basketball.
“I can remember sitting in the living room listening to it on the radio because we couldn’t get it on TV,” she said. “I could actually visualize Dave Cowens diving for a loose ball.
“He was my ultimate, favorite player.”
Cowens’ unique blend of talent, grit and work ethic left a strong impression on Dawley, especially when he took over as last player-coach in NBA history for the 1978-79 season.
“I found that fascinating,” Dawley said. “How can he do both? I don’t think anyone would try to do it now.”
She couldn’t know it then, but after years spent exploring the region with youth travel teams and a four-year playing career at St. Anselm’s College, Dawley would soon find herself managing a tricky juggling act of her own.
Foundations of a career
By the fall of 1984 – at just 23-years-old – Dawley found herself a first-time head coach at Tufts University. Taking charge of a collegiate basketball program for the first time at any age is difficult, but doing so just a few years removed from the social circles of her senior players proved especially difficult.
“I had six seniors that were a year and change younger than I was,” Dawley said. “So, aside from deciding what (schemes I) wanted to run, I felt like I had to act like I was 30.”
To say the green, but eager Dawley was balancing a full plate in her first year at Tufts would be an understatement.
A drastic understatement.
“When I started at Tufts, I was head basketball coach, assistant volleyball coach (and) became assistant lacrosse coach,” she said. “Then I was intramural coordinator, strength coach – I taught strength classes – and taught step aerobics.”
That’s on top of holding down a part-time job as a computer programmer at Raytheon Company.
“But it was great. I got to try a lot of things in a really short period of time,” she said.
Whereas such a demanding work schedule might derail a young coach’s career before it can really pick up steam, that hectic time instead laid the foundation for Dawley’s coaching ethos.
“I think it’s an enormous skill to be able to juggle multiple things,” she said. “Sometimes, I find it easier to juggle than to sit down and focus on one thing, and I think that’s from years of having done that.”
Dawley stayed at Tufts for another eight years, all the while picking the brains of her fellow, more experienced coaches for new teaching techniques and drills. With the considerable workload came considerable success, including a 137-62 overall record and a Northeastern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championship in 1986-87.
Eventually, though, as with all ambitious men and women, she got the itch to move onward and upward.
“Then (I) just got this thing, almost over night: I want to see what Division I is all about,” Dawley said. “So I just threw out some applications.”
Though it would not be for the head coaching gig she very much coveted, one of Dawley’s D-I feelers landed her an opportunity in 1993 to be an assistant under long-time and suddenly returning coach Chris Wielgus at Dartmouth College.
Dawley was crestfallen.
“I fell in love with the place,” she said. “I really wanted that job. I went from one of the top candidates to ‘you’re out’ because Chris Wielgus was coming back.
“That was upsetting, but I have a strong belief in fate. Everything happens for a reason.”
Over the next decade, Dawley, who was eventually promoted to associate head coach in 1997, tapped into Wielgus’ wealth of basketball knowledge whenever possible. Slowly, she paid her dues. Steadily, she welcomed new faces into her basketball family. And though she felt content to stay in Andover with the girls of Dartmouth forever, Dawley once more discovered her thirst for change needed slaking.
“And then I was at that same point again,” she said. “I (was thinking:) ‘I’ve got to try something (new)’.
With that in mind, Dawley fled the Big Green northward for the Green Mountains.
“Then, (I) got the opportunity at Vermont and it tied everything together. I experimented with stuff at Tufts, I learned some new stuff at Dartmouth, and it was time to just try it on my own again.”
Dawley, now in total control of a respected program and with experience on her side, took her lumps early on with the Catamounts. Though she was hard at work recruiting the kind of passionate, respectful players that form the bedrock of the Sharon Dawley basketball system, the wins weren’t yet flowing as they had in the past.
Vermont struggled to a 37-46 regular season record during Dawley’s first three seasons in Burlington.
“We had some lean years in there,” Dawley said. “That was stressful, because Vermont has such a rich history.
“But (it) felt that much cooler when we got it back to where we wanted it to be.”
As it so often has in her life, Dawley’s hard work would pay off. Countless hours spent in instruction on the floor, in scouting in the office and in recruiting out on the road eventually translated into wins.
A lot of wins.
Before the 2009-10 season, Dawley was rewarded for her years of patience and diligence with one of her profession’s highest honors: enshrinement in the New England Basketball Hall of Fame.
Dawley was stunned.
“It was a huge honor,” she said. “I didn’t expect it. It was kind of one of those out of the blue phone calls.”
Again, even when being bestowed a tremendous personal accolade, Dawley’s thoughts were focused on family.
“It turned out being probably one of the more special weekends that my family’s had,” she said. “My entire family went (to the induction) and stayed the night. We all stayed up all night and crashed in a couple hotel rooms.
“It was amazing that it was one more basketball event that my family enjoyed as a family.”
The Catamounts put together one of the finest seasons in Vermont history that year, racking up 27 wins, including a 64-55 upset of seventh-seeded Wisconsin in the first round of the 2010 Women’s NCAA Tournament. Dawley, it seemed, was at her apex, at the pinnacle of achievement. No one could fault her for wanting play out the rest of her coaching career as the face of Vermont basketball. She’d earned as much.
But the itch returned, intensified by her status as a newly inducted hall of famer.
“It was an honor, but when something like that happens, it drives you to get better,” Dawley said. “Since that point (I had) been thinking ‘That’s an honor and that’s great, but I’ve got to get better.’
“I was an inductee, but I was inducted with people that I want to be just as successful as they are. That drives me.”
A decision that wasn’t
So when an opportunity arose for Dawley to replace the outgoing Marnie Dacko as head coach of Minutewomen in April 2010, there was little doubt about her intentions.
“It was huge,” she said. “I had no aspirations, really, of leaving Vermont. (But) the only thing that struck a chord was being able to coach at the University of Massachusetts.”
By making the jump to UMass, Dawley was presented with the coaching challenge for which she yearned. But the move held immense personal weight as well.
“My family is here,” she said. “I think my family will always be here. It’s just something that brought back moments of growing up and having so much passion for where you’re from and being able to coach there.”
For Dawley, who has no children of her own, but often feels as though she’s “raised three or four thousand of them” since entering the coaching ranks, much of her life revolves around her Massachusetts relatives.
“My family is everything to me,” she said. “I have a brother and a sister that are unbelievable. Now I’m blessed with three amazing nephews, that I consider my boys. It’s those three boys that I look to spoil as often as I can.”
And doing so would be made all the more difficult while coaching and living just a short drive from the Canadian border.
“It was more to be in a spot where you love, and then get offered a job to go back home,” Dawley said. “Vermont was home at the time, but to back home-home was huge.
“So, there was just a thousand reasons (that) coming back to Massachusetts made sense.”
Home at UMass
It’s easy, then, to understand the natural extension of Dawley’s familial beliefs to the way she runs her basketball program at UMass. If blood relatives hold a special place in her heart, then the players and coaches she works on a daily basis aren’t far off.
Dawley, entering her third season in Amherst, is careful to judge the success of her program on wins and losses alone. Instead, she has a clear vision as to the persona she hopes her basketball family projects.
“Whether we’re (at) practice or a game, we get after it,” she said. “That we have a lot of enthusiasm. We’re passionate about what we’re doing, we’re good teammates, we’re all getting good grades and we’re role models in the community.
“We might struggle (and) miss shots, but my idea is to have a roster of 15 that has the same goal and it always has UMass written all over it.”
Reaching out to the Amherst community is a key cog in the plan to help grow the Minutewomen brand. Dawley sees the fan base as one that is more than ready to embrace a winning team.
“I don’t think I’ve been to Big Y (Supermarket) once without someone saying, ‘How’s it look for this season? Are we going to be better this year? Who do you think got better this summer?’” she said.
Dawley, whose daily routine often begins with the re-watching of old instructional or highlight videos to get her competitive juices flowing, is quick to point that she’s the “lucky one that gets to focus on basketball all the time now,” a welcome change from the frantic, do-everything pace she set as a young assistant. One of the things she focuses on is continually inventing new and improved drills to keep her players both learning and entertained.
“I think this generation needs to be entertained while they’re being taught,” she said. “It sounds crazy, but if the drills aren’t somewhat fun for them, I think we lose them.”
Ultimately, however, no matter how many successful mothers, sisters or aunts Dawley helps to cultivate, her time with the Minutewomen will be judged by the media and fans in the win column.
Her agenda for success on the court is a little less concrete.
“I don’t really have a time line,” Dawley said. “We were pretty much the bottom last year. This year, I’d love to bump (up) to the top ten, and then continue making that kind of leap each year. But a lot rests on what can the freshmen bring.
“I think we’ll know how close (we are) based on how quickly the freshmen grow up. The freshmen are bringing a lot to the table, and we’re going to have to put a lot on their shoulders.”
And when voices critical of the team’s progress – the team has struggled to a 15-44 record over the past two seasons – make themselves heard, Dawley knows her girls have her back.
“It teaches you to trust your voice and the voice of your family,” she said. “And your family being your biological family or your staff-family. When those low moments come, you listen to your family.
“We’re not going to be undefeated, so we’ll hit (low points) somewhere. But those are the voices that I’ll listen to when, unfortunately, we hit the them.”
To have attained unto the lofty position that she now finds herself, Dawley has had to prove her mettle, even in the face of criticism. The work ahead will undoubtedly be difficult, but with great challenge comes great opportunity.
She’s a coaches’ coach in the truest sense of the term.
“I think coaches can have a pretty big influence on who we become and what we become,” she said. “My end goal is that everyone that’s played for us has some really fond memories of their school, their program (and) their experience here.”
Back in Massachusetts and surrounded by family and friends, Dawley is in her element as the face of UMass women’s basketball.
Daniel Malone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @Daniel_Malone.