Vanessa Blair-Lewis arrived in Daytona Beach in 2008 with 120 wins and a .591 conference winning percentage as a Division I Head Coach. She was tasked with rebuilding a Bethune-Cookman program that had not had a winning season during the seven seasons prior to her arrival. The three-time MEAC Coach of the Year’s hard work paid off in 2015-16 when she guided Bethune-Cookman to a share of the program’s first MEAC Regular Season Championship and the program’s first post-season berth (WNIT). In 2016-17, her team maintained the success achieved the previous season, as they clinched their second consecutive MEAC Regular Season Championship and WNIT berth.
What have been some keys in rebuilding a Bethune-Cookman program that did not have a winning season the seven seasons prior to your arrival?
It has long been said that administrations wins championships long before a coach is hired. With that being said it, My Athletic Director, Lynne Thompson, had a vision for our program long before he called me with this amazing opportunity to serve this great University. Upon accepting the challenge to turn a program around that had been in the doldrums of the MEAC, it was all about changing the culture and the mindset. Winning is done in the mind well before it is done on the court. We began pouring into our ladies on a mental level and recruiting the correct winning mindsets that it would take to win. Slowly but surely, as the culture and the mindsets changed, the wins followed.
You are currently leading Bethune-Cookman to the most successful back-to-back seasons in program history, what have you attributed to the success of your program the past two seasons?
I believe several factors have led us to the most successful seasons in program history. First, it has been the veteran leadership of our seniors. These four have exhibited the tireless work in the gym and the weight room. They have been locked in to the goals that they have set for themselves as a team and as individuals. Secondly, The ability to have consistency in my staff has had a major impact on this team. They have been able to trust and develop a bond with this staff that has allowed them to blossom both as athletes and young women. Lastly, the support from our President, my Athletic Director, our SWA, the Compliance, Marketing, Academic, Student Affairs and Chaplaincy staffs have been phenomenal towards allowing this program to grow and make the necessary changes to have the continued success we are enjoying now. These administrative departments pour into these young women’s lives on a consistent basis while they matriculate through their college years. They know that they are valuable to all of us, not just as athletes, but as students first.
What did you learn as a Head Coach at Mount St. Mary’s that helped you become a better Head Coach when you took over Bethune-Cookman?
My time at Mount Saint Mary’s, The Mount, was a very special time for me. I was named the Head Coach at just twenty-five years old. I was very young and was given a huge responsibility not only as a new young Head Coach but following a legendary coach, William Sheahan. I learned from Coach Sheahan that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. He spent a lot of time with my as a player and a coach teaching me more about life and the love of Christ than we ever talked about X’s and O’s. I have carried that with me my entire career.I had the support of my administration, especially, now Athletic Director, Ms. Lynn Robinson. She allowed me to grow and always opened her door and offered me her couch to talk to her as I navigated the waters as a young coach.
I learned how to recruit to a niche. The Mount is a very special place nestled in the Catoctin Mountains in Emmitsburg, Maryland. I learned how to recruit the right young person to fit that niche. With that being said, I was blessed to come to another special University, Bethune-Cookman, which is located in sunny Daytona Beach, Florida. It is an HBCU, (Historically Black College and University) and I have to recruit the right person to fit this niche. When you have a young student athlete that is confident that they are in the right place and have made the right decision on their next four years, I believe that’s when you can get the best out of them. When they are comfortable, they can thrive.
What do outsiders not realize about the MEAC?
The MEAC is full of some of the best coaching I have ever been around. Our coaches are hard working, dynamic and passionate people. We are not only in the business of winning basketball games, but making sure our young people win in life. Our place in history is important to us and the young people we recruit. We are committed to making sure that our student-athletes graduate and become productive and active members of society. We stand on the shoulders of some incredible giants in African American history and we impress upon our young people to not only graduate but to thrive long after they leave our campuses. There have been many sacrifices made for them to have the freedom and benefits that they now enjoy. From the words of our Founder, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, “Enter to Learn, Depart to Serve”.
What advice do you have for aspiring Head Coaches based on your successful experience?
My advice to aspiring young coaches is to not jump around looking for the next biggest thing. You have to spend time to learn your craft. One job may not have everything that you have to learn but give yourself time to learn something at each stop you make. Each Head Coach you work for may do things differently, but get all the golden nuggets that you can before you make that slide over 12 inches to the Head Coach chair. Attend professional development conventions and learn something each time you go to be applied where you work. Bring ideas to your Head Coach. Lastly, find a mentor, someone that you look up to that you can call and check in with on a frequent basis. Don’t be afraid to open yourself up to people, there are some amazing coaches in our business.
Written originally for CollegeInsider.com on April 3, 2017.