UNC’s Hatchell closing in on win No. 900

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Sylvia Hatchell’s office can be best described as organized chaos.

Not unlike many big-time coaches, Hatchell has many stacks of items from gear she will eventually get around to signing, notebooks of ideas she’s jotted down, magazine articles, and even letters from her many fans.

There are photographs, even one on a coffee table of her on horseback just inches from a picture of her and Michael Jordan. The photo with Jordan wasn’t even framed and was already beginning to curl up on the ends.

Decorations around the office note her success as North Carolina’s women’s basketball coach for the last 27 years and of her beloved golden retriever, bred from a Westminster champion. But also among the more neatly displayed photos is one of the first basketball team she ever coached.

The 1974 Talbott School girls’ team of 7th and 8th graders fit into a smallish frame, but Hatchell wastes no time in locating it on her shelf.

“This is the first team I coached,” she said, recalling the players as if the season ended just weeks ago. “We played three-on-three, I had two all-conference players, and we went 16-4.”

Hatchell was a senior star on Carson-Newman’s team and stepped forward when the Talbott School needed a coach. She was fine as long as practice didn’t interfere with Carson-Newman’s because game days were always different.

Hatchell couldn’t wait for practice because she loved teaching the girls. Winning was great, teaching was better.

“I was hooked after that,” said Hatchell, who will go after the 900th victory of her coaching career Thursday night when the Lady Tar Heels visit Boston College.

The next year, Hatchell was in graduate school at Tennessee where she worked under Pat Head (Summitt), who would later become the winningest college coach of men or women after 40-plus years at Tennessee. Head was just getting started at Tennessee and let Hatchell coach the women’s junior varsity team.

From there, Hatchell quickly landed the gig at smallish Francis Marion in Florence, SC, where in 11 seasons she led the program to the 1982 AIAW national championship and the 1986 NAIA national title. Relationships with Head, who had married and changed her last name to Summitt, and North Carolina State coach Kay Yow helped Hatchell rise in the coaching ranks.

Hatchell was on the event staff for the 1984 Olympics, coached by Summitt, and two years later was in the running for the vacant job at North Carolina.

Yow and Summitt, both of whom are enshrined in the Naismith Hall of Fame, put in a good word for Hatchell, but the nerves were still churning inside.

That summer, Hatchell and Yow were suitemates in Russia at the Goodwill Games when Hatchell received a phone call. She took the call in another room, and upon returning looked at Yow and said, “I got the job.”

“She (Yow) said ‘Oh no,’ I said, ‘Kay, everything’s gonna be alright.’ She said, ‘Silly, I ain’t worried about you and me, it’s our fans that don’t understand.’ And she was right.”

The heat between UNC and N.C. State fans is well documented, but it never impacted Yow’s and Hatchell’s relationship. In fact, Hatchell was an assistant for Yow with the 1988 Olympic team, which helped establish her as an up and coming coach with an eventual payoff in recruiting.

“It’s hard for me to talk about my success and my past coaching without including Kay in there,” said Hatchell, who will turn 61 later this month.

But Hatchell certainly had her own style, and it’s at that time when it began taking off for her. By 1994, a strong senior class headed by Tonya Sampson had UNC .7 seconds from winning a national championship, but it required the coach drawing up something special to win it.

Hatchell’s greatest on-court moment as a coach followed, and it remains one of the most amazing and thrilling plays in NCAA Tournament history, men or women.

The legendary coach easily rambles off platitudes when talking about Sampson, many have nothing to do with basketball. But she opted to used her star and leader as a decoy for that final play, and Sampson never complained.

Trailing Louisiana Tech 59-57 and inbounding the ball underneath the Bulldogs’ basket, Hatchell initially called for a lob to center Sylvia Crawley. But she called another timeout and scrapped that idea.

“I said, ‘Okay, we’re gonna go for the win, not the tie,'” Hatchell recalled. “I knew they had a lot of confidence in the play, so I told them we were going to run ‘32′. Told (Charlotte) Smith to go out behind the 3-point line about 8-10 more feet when she curled. It was an unbelievable pass… Charlotte caught the ball, stepped right into it and made it.”

Asked how often she’s run the play since, Hatchell laughed and replied, “Not much.”

A diagram of the play rests in the basketball Hall of Fame and is displayed in the women’s basketball office at Carmichael Arena at UNC.

To last as long as Hatchell has, though, requires more than drawing up clutch plays or using status to lure players to campus. Hatchell lives by several creeds, but one is a constant in her job and continues to shape her.

“The longer you coach the more it is about the kids than it is the coach’s wins and losses and records,” she said, before pointing to a few hand-written messages by next year’s freshmen class on a marker board in her office offering her words of inspiration in pursuit of No. 900.

“When you’re a young coach you’re trying to prove yourself, you’re trying to make a name and gain credibility. But the longer you coach the more it is about the kids.”

Hatchell’s teams have always been fast and athletic and they always play with passion. Her record currently stands at 899-317 in 38 seasons – she’s 629-237 in her 27th season at Carolina. Only Summitt (1,098) and former Texas coach Jody Conradt (900) have more victories in women’s basketball than Hatchell.

Born in Gastonia, NC, Hatchell has led UNC to three Final Fours, six Elite Eight appearances, 15 Sweet 16s and eight ACC championships. She’s a three-time national coach of the year and was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2004.

“Where Sylvia is as a coach, approaching that kind of success, that’s pretty amazing stuff there,” Duke women’s coach Joanne P. McCallie said after beating UNC on Sunday. “I think that’s great for women’s basketball, more than anything else… All I can say is congratulations to be in that position. That’s a lot of years, that’s a lot of dedication right there.”

Hatchell has no timetable for her departure from the game she so dearly loves. She works out regularly and proudly showed off her toned upper arms. She also has 5-and-a-half more years on her contract and says she’s as excited as ever. It helps with the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation coming to Chapel Hill next season, headed by Diamond DeShields, the daughter of former Major League Baseball player Delino DeShields.

“As long as I feel good and feel like I’m doing a good job I’m going to keep it up.” Hatchell said. “I’ll know when it’s the right time. But I feel great, I’m loving it, I’m passionate, and when that fire is gone I’ll know it’s time to move on. But that fire is burning hot.”

Spend some time with Hatchell and you’ll know it’s true.