The first time I met my friend Amy, I said something brilliant like, hey you're short. I meant it as praise, but it may not have struck her as a compliment, since highly-successful basketball coaches tend to value height. So that's the first thing we know about her, she'll give you a second chance. I was awestruck by this amazing person. All these years later, it still amazes me to watch a college coach cope with the pressures. I simply cannot imagine doing the hardest part of your job with thousands of screaming fans watching your every move.
I know next to nothing about how the game of basketball is supposed to work, even though I've been to hundreds of games. I've even traveled on the team bus a couple of times, and from that I got a thrilling glimpse into the mystique. When Amy talks shop, her eyes flash fire. She might be smiling, but it really doesn't mask her intensity. On one of the trips, we lost a game. This is not a good thing. Amy can recount an entire game, every move every player made, and she can do this all day long, sort of under her breath. I suppose it is her way of coping with the annoyance of losing, but it makes for a long day.
Amy has a winning record to envy, has been inducted into halls of fame all over the country, been an invited coach at Olympic festival teams - more measures of success than you can shake a stick at. She expects to win every ball game, or checkers or card game. Tenacious might not be a strong enough word.
Oh, and do not let this be the person who teaches you to water ski. You will experience many new kinds of pain, and for hours after, you'll discover lake water in parts of your body that ought not have lake water in them. Hard as she might try, she won't be able to not laugh that you can't quite get the tow rope back between the two skis every single time you fall and have to start over, even though the water's quite choppy (no doubt from the many falls and all the circles the boat makes to get you again.) But she's a teacher at heart, and so you learn. Don't even think of quitting, she yells. You're not getting back into the boat until you ski. You've almost got it. On the other hand, when she comes for dinner, she can't keep herself from stirring whatever's on the stove and hanging out asking about the recipes and telling great stories. If you let her start doing dishes, your kitchen will never be cleaner.
I became a fan of women's basketball at North Dakota State University in the early 1990s, shortly after I started working at the university. I watched her coach her team through a tough semifinal to a national championship game and then battle through the worst game that very talented group ever played. Nothing worked. She tried everything. On our home gym. It was one of those games that just hurt to watch - so bad that I spent most of the second half behind the bleachers.
The next year she again coached her team to the national championship game. This time they were on fire and this time everything went right. We pounded the livin' daylights outta the same team that squeaked past us the year before. Her teams went on to win many more national titles, fight their way through all kinds of tough games. An amazing career. But I will always remember that exciting game all those years ago. After the win, she was back out shooting around, didn't want to leave the court. She didn't want the season to be over. I feel like I should be getting ready to analyze tape tomorrow, she said. A lesson in success.
Just a few weeks ago, Amy Ruley announced, to the astonishment of all, she was done being a coach. To the relief of all, she also announced she's staying with North Dakota State University, trading in her whistle to work as a fund raiser for athletics. I will miss watching her fire on the sidelines. But I look forward to watching and learning about stepping into new shoes.
Thank you for reading.