The unusual arrangement of co-head coaches Sara White and Martin Clapp in women's basketball ended in one of the best seasons ever for the Lady Cards, a second-round NCAA finish. The husband and wife team form a unique partnership that works.
The announcement on May 28, 1997, was one that raised more than a few eyebrows, not only at the University of Louisville, but also across the land-scape of women's college basketball. U of L had made it official: Martin Clapp and Sara White, two long-time assistants to departed coach Bud Childers, were being handed the reins of the women's basketball program. The arrangement was unusual in that Clapp and White were hired as co-head coaches, a move that had only been taken by two other schools in the nation.
To make the situation even more interesting, the two were engaged at the time of the announcement and planned to be married in 1998. Those plans quickly changed. "When we were approached about this job we knew we were going to have to move the wedding date, so we pushed it up to August 1997," says White. "I had three months to plan a wedding!"
The two coaches had followed different paths to Louisville, where they met. Clapp, a Benton, Kentucky native, played basketball at Southern Baptist College in Arkansas before beginning a career in coaching. He joined Childers at Murray State University and followed him to U of L. As a native of the Bluegrass State, he had often hoped for the opportunity to coach at one of its flagship universities.
"It's something that you dream of," he says. "Being a Kentucky boy, the two schools, U of L and UK, those are two that you would dream about but you'd never really think it would be a possibility."
For White, coaching was something of an afterthought. After graduating from Clarksville High School in Indiana, she was recruited by Childers but decided to play at Wake Forest University, where she earned a degree in broadcast communications. After an internship at a local television station, White decided that broadcasting wasn't what she wanted to do. Once again, Childers came calling, and this time White didn't think twice.
"We had to sell them on the idea," says White. "In this era of gender equity, they were interested in hiring a female head coach and wanted to put me in that position and hire Martin as associate head coach. We didn't feel that would be best for the program."
One of the bonuses for U of L in keeping the search in-house was Clapp and White's familiarity with the Lady Cards program. According to Clapp, that knowledge was a major factor when he and White were given the job.
"The players' support really helped us," he says. "I also think it helped in the community because people were used to seeing us and could associate with us. (An external search) would have been a long, tough process for the administration. Also, if they'd hired externally, we would have lost a year of recruiting and that would have set the program back."
Brent Stastny '93G, former publicist for the Lady Cards and now assistant sports information director at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, says the hiring of Clapp and White created a much easier transition for the program than would have been possible with a coach hired from the outside.
"It was an exciting time for all of us, especially the players," he says. "There was no change in the system. Had U of L hired an outsider, there would likely have been lots of changes and several players would have transferred. But with Sara and Martin as head coaches, no one left."
White says the week leading up to their hiring was hectic, to say the least. "It was a whirlwind," she recalls. "It was exactly one week from the time they approached us (about the job), to going through the interview and approval process. That was a week I wouldn't wish on anybody because it was incredibly stressful, but it was exciting, too. We hit the ground running. Luckily we had an advantage in that we knew what needed to be done."
Many fans enjoy the sense of family that surrounds the Lady Cards program. For the coaches, the motivation instilled early on by their own families is a key factor in where they are today.
"The biggest influence on me was my oldest brother, Jimmy," says Clapp. "He was an outstanding player, and trying to be like him got me going when I was growing up. My father was also a big influence."
Says White, "My biggest influence was my father, Bill. He got me involved with basketball at a young age and he pushed me in a good way. He played in college and coached at the middle school level. He coached me for two years in middle school, and how we survived that is beyond me! I owe a lot to him.
"I owe a lot to my brother Matt as well. We had some pretty ugly one-on-one battles out on the basketball court."
Childers also left his imprint on Clapp and White. Their current arrangement as co-head coaches developed from what each of them learned from Childers, they say. Clapp and White have distinct roles on and off the court. Clapp assumes the head coaching duties during games, while White handles many of the administrative tasks off the court.
"(Bud) always wanted the best for the players and he wasn't afraid to do something himself, or tick a few people off to get it done," says Clapp. "I learned from him that there is much more to being a basketball coach than just coaching."
White says that while she learned a great deal about the game and strategy from Childers, she also gained a new respect for what goes on off the court.
"I learned about discipline and organization," she says. "Realistically, only 20 percent of your time is spent on the floor coaching. The other 80 percent is spent on recruiting and administrative duties."
Even with all the positive feelings about the new coaching arrangement, the team struggled early in the season. There were injuries to top players like Allison Bass and guards Jill Morton and Jenny Knight, and Haley Harris left the squad for personal reasons. In the midst of that turmoil, the team started the season with a 2-5 record.
Then-publicist Stastny recalls how the new coaches handled that difficult period. "After we lost to Saint Louis, a team that hadn't been very good for several years, Sara and Martin were almost exasperated," he says. "We had never lost to Saint Louis before, and as we sat around in a hotel eating pizza after the game, the coaches wondered aloud, only partially joking, whether they had made the right decision. But the team went to Charlotte the next game and played very well. Things started clicking (after that) and they went on to the NCAA (tournament)."
Part of the reason for that success, Stastny says, is that Clapp and White "were flexible and listened to the players, who really felt they had a voice."
After that slow start, the Lady Cards finished the 1997-98 season with a 20-11 record and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. With a stellar recruiting class and the team's home games moving to Freedom Hall, the future of the program is bright. For the two coaches, it is an affirmation that the university's gamble on them is paying off.
"A lot of coaches spend their entire lives trying to be successful enough to get a head coaching job in their hometown," White says. "I've never had to leave it and that's been very exciting to me."
Clapp and White have now had a little over a year to settle into their new roles as both co-head coaches and a married couple. How do they manage to create a balance between those two roles?
White admits that it is tough for the two to get away from basketball, and that they have to force themselves to just be "real people" and talk about something else once in awhile.
"But, in truth, basketball coaching is something you have to live," she says. "Maybe it's a plus that we're both in coaching. When I come home and spend an hour or two on the phone making calls to recruits, I don't have to explain to my husband why I have to do that."
"In fact," she says with a smile, "we're on the verge of installing a second phone line in our home so we can both make our recruiting calls at the same time."
Jason Puckett is a staff writer for Louisville SportsReport, which produces Sports in partnership with UofL Magazine.