Stephenie Wheeler-Smith encourages young athletes to follow their dreams.
So when she had a chance to pursue one of hers, a most difficult choice became a little easier to make.
Stephenie and her husband, Derrick, sacrificed a multitude of securities to take a sizeable step closer to her goal of coaching college basketball as she becomes the director of operations for the University of Oregon women’s team.
Together, with Stephenie as head coach and Derrick her top assistant, they coached the Cleveland High School girls to three Class 3A state championships the past five years, including back-to-back titles in 2013 and ’14. She enjoyed a successful, nine-year career as a buyer for Boeing. He is the National Director of Youth Engagement at World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organization, a position he must give up next month because he no longer can work out of the national office in Federal Way.
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They have a 1-year-old son and a second child due in November.
When new Oregon coach Kelly Graves offered Stephenie this opportunity, there were plenty of reasons to stay, but none as compelling as the one to go — a goal etched on Stephenie’s 10-year vision board to coach in college.
“What do you want your autobiography to be about? It really comes down to living a courageous life,” Derrick said. “And that’s what we encourage our kids to do, to chase their dreams. How does it happen for you and then you don’t model what you’re always preaching to your kids?”
Cleveland players make their own vision boards, and when they came to the Wheeler-Smiths’ Skyview home for a dinner in early May, Stephenie showed them hers as she told them of her decision. No one took the news seriously at first.
“We thought we were getting punked,” said senior-to-be Jayde Christopher, who recently committed to Kansas. “Then everyone was really shocked and we all started crying.”
Eventually, they smiled for her.
“We’re all really happy for her because she’s pursuing her dream,” said Joyce Harrell, another high-profile senior expected to make her college choice in the next couple of weeks.
One big adjustment for Stephenie is that the position of director of operations is highly administrative and limits actual coaching — a definite drawback for now, she admits.
“Kelly knows I want to coach,” she said. “I will be a part of everything they do strategically and meetings and that sort of thing, but I’ll have restrictions. … It’s a short-term sacrifice for a long-term goal, in a prominent program with some pretty amazing coaches to learn from and glean from.”
Graves, who guided Gonzaga to prominence before taking the Oregon job, has high praise for Stephenie and said she will be considered if an assistant coaching position opens on his staff.
“I’ve seen her teams play for years and always admired the talent she’s coached and the way she coaches the team,” he said. “I just love her manner and the way she works with her team. I just think it’s perfect. The way she coaches is the way everybody should coach. You can tell she has a great rapport with the team. They really respect her, they listen to her, they obviously play hard for her. She’s always kind of been on my radar.”
Graves likened the director of operations to the Chief of Staff in the Oval Office and called it a “great steppingstone” into fulltime coaching.
A big step closer to her ultimate dream.
Sandy Ringer: 206-718-1512 or firstname.lastname@example.org