This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of MemphiSport.
A majority of the estimated 3,000 blue-and-gray clad fans had filed into the Elma Roane Fieldhouse for the University of Memphis women’s basketball team’s recent pivotal Conference USA game against Alabama-Birmingham in which the No. 2 seed in the C-USA tournament was at stake.
Music was ringing through the loudspeakers.
Player introductions had been announced.
That meant it was time for the Lady Tiger coach Melissa McFerrin to partake in her customary pregame routine that includes her walking from one end of her team’s bench to the next, high-fiving each player and member of her coaching staff.
After all, if she ever slips up and balks at displaying her usual competitive drive to her players, there’s a good chance she will never hear the end of it.
“I tell them I want to hear from them on the sideline,” said McFerrin who, prior to replacing Blair Savage-Lansden at Memphis, coached four years at American University. “If I don’t do it (high-five her players), they will find me.”
To get a clear understanding of why McFerrin’s players have come to embrace her unparalleled brand of coaching, look no further her efficacious body of work in her brief time in the Bluff City.
In just four seasons, McFerrin, the 2008 Patriot Coach of the Year while at American, has gone to great lengths to bring a sense of relevance back to a Lady Tiger program after years of futility, something that has been virtually nonexistent since former Memphis and current Southern Miss coach Joye Lee-McNelis won nearly 60 percent of her games (a 229-156 mark) in 13 seasons as the Lady Tigers’ coach from 1991-2004. Prior to this season, McFerrin compiled a 53-45 record at Memphis, or a .541 winning percentage.
And, after having produced the most single-season wins (23 victories) this year heading into the C-USA tournament hosted by Memphis, it’s clear that McFerrin has successfully revitalized a program that, in recent years, was a distant memory on Selection Sunday.
The way things have played out this year for McFerrin’s ballclub, the possibility exists that could change when ESPN televises it annual NCAA Women’s Basketball Selection Show March 13. Win the C-USA tournament and it’s on to the Big Dance for the eighth time in school history and for the first time since the Lady Tigers advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament in 1995.
“That’s been our goal from the beginning,” McFerrin said. “I’ve said this from our very first press conference, that we will be the class of Conference USA. And I think the room (of reporters) went silent. I remember after the press conference, someone said what I said was pretty bold. But that’s the kind of system we want to run. And we want to recruit players with that mantra.”
Among the players who have adjusted comfortably to McFerrin’s nuts-and-bolts style of coaching is Jasmine Lee. Lee, a 6-foot-2 redshirt senior and University of Georgia transfer, was the Lady Tigers’ leading scorer during the regular season with 14.5 points per game. Lee, to her credit, filled in nicely when her roommate and fellow Georgia transfer, Brittany Carter, suffered a stress fracture in her foot near the season’s halfway point.
Take, for instance, the consistent numbers she registered after Carter went down.
Lee was second in the conference in scoring at 15 points per game, as well as in rebounding with 10.6 boards. Additionally, she is the lone C-USA player to record a double-double in conference games with 15.0 points and 10.6 rebounds per outings, all of which ultimately led to her being named C-USA Player of the Week three times this year.
Lee said McFerrin’s guidance, by and large, enabled her to become more efficient offensively and, most importantly, the catalyst of a team that won four consecutive games to end the regular season and seven of their last eight.
“I think coach McFerrin is great when it comes to getting players to adjust to her system,” Lee, who was rated the 78th player in the country by most recruiting analysts coming out of high school, said. “She’s a big influence to me and Brittany Carter personally. After playing at Georgia, I was sold on coming here and starting a tradition in Memphis. It definitely starts with (McFerrin). Over the years, she’s talked about playing with team unity, so it’s definitely starting to show.”
Next year, McFerrin, a former assistant coach for the WNBA’s New York Liberty and Washington Mystics, will have the chance to exhibit her coaching abilities on a larger stage, one that will include several of the most prominent coaches in America. That’s because Memphis has accepted an invitation to join the Big East Conference in all sports, news that prompted the usual-upbeat McFerrin to joke about having received an unexpected job promotion.
“I said, ‘I just got a new job and I didn’t have to sell my house,” McFerrin, also a former Mystics general manager, said, laughing. “It’s exciting. We’ve just signed the one of the top 10 classes in the United States. That class is good enough to play in the Big East. If you look at UConn, Louisville, and Notre Dame, those are high caliber teams. So no doubt, my job just got harder. But I know what that job looks like. And it’s about winning.”
Something about which the Lady Tigers can identify with this year. Win the C-USA tourney, and there’s no doubt that McFerrin’s pregame high-fiving will continue.
Only this time, it will be on a much larger stage.
Written by Andre Johnson, photo by Joe Murphy Photography