They came to see her and to talk about basketball.
The minute she and her coaching staff walked into the Clinton Club at Mizzou Arena on Wednesday, the atmosphere at the Sixth Stripe Club luncheon had new energy.
Instantly, she went to tables where members of the MU women’s basketball booster club were waiting. She shook hands and answered questions. She listened intently. Her smile came from her eyes as well as her mouth. The top of her nose crinkled when she thought what she was listening to was especially amusing.
She romanced the crowd like a politician on the campaign trail, maybe better, because the crowd believed in her and genuinely liked her.While plates of buffet food were emptied and condensation fell down the sides of glasses of iced tea and lemonade, she worked the room.
Missouri women’s basketball coach Cindy Stein entices recruits just like boosters.
“She’s just got great charisma,” said Tanya Warren, a former assistant coach. “Moms, dads, kids — they fall in love with her. She knows exactly what to say. She’s very honest.”That honesty is what sold Missouri to senior center EeTisha Riddle.“She told me right off the bat,” Riddle said, “‘There’s going to be six post players. You have the capability to play.’ She didn’t promise me anything. She didn’t tell me I’d be the go-to player that first year. She told me there were six people ahead of me and I would have to work my way up. At least she was honest.”
Warren said she can’t quantify how much she has learned from Stein, both on the court and off the court. Now an assistant coach at Creighton, her alma mater, Warren said leaving MU was a tough call for he
“A story, a single word, she’s able to get you ready to play,” Warren said.
“I would have loved to have played for her. That would have been a lot of fun. I think she does a nice job of developing her kids, as well.”
Senior point guard Blair Hardiek said a visit that Stein and her staff made to her home in Effingham, Ill., made her want to be a Tiger.
“A lot of coaches came through my doors and were just, like, real fake and kind of salespeople,” Hardiek said. “It seemed like she was genuine in telling me about the pro-gram instead of being like a sales-person.”
* * *
They were waiting for her speech. They came to talk about basketball and laugh. That’s what she is good at.
She stood at a podium at the front of the room with a microphone in her left hand. She was still the center of attention. She told them about her debacle getting her trash out on time for pick up and the less-than-captivating full athletic department meeting she attended earlier.
The boosters collectively chuckled when she told them she woke up at exactly 3:38 a.m. when something she had seen in Kansas’ game film rocked her in her sleep.
She introduced athletic director Mike Alden when she noticed him in the back of the room, called him a tremendous guy. Although hidden by the soft lighting in the Clinton Club, Stein’s blush was still evident when she realized Alden was present for some of her jokes about the earlier meeting he was in charge of.
* * *
That sense of humor is balanced with firmness.
Stein isn’t at ease when she’s crouched on the sidelines of the basketball court in her pants suits, popping up to full stance to coach the floor. She used to wear skirts and heels for games, but she was too demonstrative in her coaching for those choices to be practical, she said.
Stein keeps an ongoing conversation with the referees during a game. She occasionally gets mad at them and their decisions, but she won’t talk about it in public for fear of being reprimanded by the Big 12 Conference. But she really wants to sometimes.
Stein isn’t afraid to call out a reporter for asking a negative or cominane question during a postgame press conference. She is discouraged by the media climate in Columbia that she says is too negative. She says TV crews only come when the team is winning. And if it is winning, reporters criticize the team’s strength of schedule.
It’s ranked fourth-toughest in the Big 12, she points out over and over again.
“I hear a lot of times that I’m intimidating,” Stein said, “but I don’t understand that. I really don’t.”
When Hardiek first came to Missouri, she said she sometimes felt daunted by her coach and the program. Hardiek said she thinks she’s got her coach figured out now.
“I know at first, she would call you on the phone and she’d be like, ‘Hey, I need to see you in my office in 10 minutes,’ and you’d be like, ‘Uh,’” Hardiek said. “You know, the boss needs to see me, is what it felt like as you’re going in. You may be in trouble, maybe not.”
Assistant coach Kerensa Barr played for Stein for four years and was one of Stein’s first recruits when she started at Missouri in 1998. Barr said, with perspectives of Stein as both player and coach, that Stein has found a balance in her method.
“She’s found the way she likes to do it,” Barr said. “She can be very direct and stern, and the next sentence might be a joke about one of the players, or joking around. I think they know that she yells at them, but it’s not personal. She still likes them as people.”
Riddle said her coach isn’t the tough person everyone makes her out to be, but that she has a reason for making it seem that way.
“In this business, you have to be very strong in front of people, and you can’t come off as weak to any-one,” Riddle said.
Stein said even as a player, she was intense. A junior college recruit from Peoria, Ill., she played at the University of Illinois and still holds several assist records for the Illini.
“I’m very competitive,” Stein said. “I used to get teased as a player, people that would watch me that knew me, they would be shocked at how serious I was on the court. I would never smile on the court because I was that competitive.”
* * *
She had elicited all the laughter she could from the crowd. She thanked the people she needed to thank. She handed the microphone to Edith Thompson, director of basketball operations, who was the master of ceremonies for the luncheon.
She interrupted Thompson, who was in the process of giving away door prizes, with the announcement that it was Thompson’s birthday.“Who sings?” she asked the crowd.
* * *
What most people see in Stein on the court is the independent woman who commands a basketball team. But there’s lots more to the job.
There are the pregame speeches.
Hardiek said she eagerly anticipates Stein’s random stories that somehow relate back to the moment. They have a moral and are told especially for each game. They often combine wit, humor and motivation.
Riddle said for one pregame speech, Stein told a folk story involving eight pigs. “She related that to basketball,” Riddle said. “That’s how good she is.”
This season has been filled with war stories. Riddle said when the movie “Seabiscuit” was popular, the famed horse was the subject of a story. At halftime, the coaches handed out snack crackers, and the players were told to get their biscuits and get back to the court.
“I think we won the game,” Riddle reflected.
And there’s the rare days off that aren’t really a break.Stein started her free day on Monday by heading to Schnucks to buy hamburger. She got side-tracked at Inside Outlet and came home with a cherry wood kitchen table, complete with black leather barstools, that she had to put together herself.
“That was my day off,” Stein said. “I had this list of 14 things to do. Buying a kitchen table and putting it together took most of my day and wasn’t on my list.”
* * *
After tantalizing the crowd with stories about spectacular upcoming recruits and milking Thursday’s rivalry game with Kansas for all it was worth, she shook a few more hands as the crowd filtered away.
The buffet line had closed by the time she was finished with the crowd, so she took an empty Styrofoam plate to the kitchen to fill up before trekking the hallways of Mizzou Arena back to her office.
Her time was limited, and she was hoping the reporter who came to the luncheon would forget about the follow-up interview. It was her players who should be written about, she had said.
* * *
Even if she wanted to, Stein finds she can’t get away from basketball.
“There isn’t a time that is not focused on basketball,” Stein said. “If you go out to dinner with friends and you see people or even go grocery shopping, you’re always being asked about your team, your players.”
A Sunday off might be spent talking basketball after church or watching games on TV. Stein said there is rarely too much talk about basketball; if people care enough to ask, she’s happy.
Her team is her priority, and that priority doesn’t open up much for a personal or social life. Stein said it was hard to keep good friends because of her busy schedule. But she has a small group of friends, her family and her Christian faith to keep her going.
Warren said she and Stein have remained friends despite having to face each other in games. They text message more than they talk on the phone. She came back to Missouri in April 2006 for the wedding of Tracy Benne, coordinator of basket-ball operations and a former Tiger, and stayed with Stein.
“We don’t talk a lot about basketball, because it’s time to be outside of that,” Warren said.
The season hasn’t gone the way Stein predicted. The Tigers were picked to finish ninth in the Big 12. She said over and over again that No. 9 was too low. The naysayers almost got it right. The Tigers finished 10th.
Two four-game conference losing streaks weigh heavily against the team and the coach. People seem to have forgotten that this team tied for the best start of any season with a 12-1 nonconference record.
Only after a loss, with her face hardened by the stress of the game, can Stein’s 46 years of age be believed.
There’s little job security for a basketball coach.
“In this profession, especially as a head coach, you’re under a lot of pressure, a lot of stress, just because you’re judged at how many wins you get,” Barr said. “People don’t look at how many players you graduate and what you do in the community.”
Hardiek said one thing about Stein is her consistency, and that she never felt a moment where her coach changed her demeanor based on tough losses. Her emotions are steady and her sternness is countered by enthusiasm.
“Her confidence in us has never wavered, and sometimes as players your confidence is down and you’re frustrated,” Hardiek said. “But with her, it’s still consistently like cheering from the sides and encouraging words. That’s like exactly how it is.”
Each year, Stein said, the goal for the team is to win the Big 12 Tournament.
It hasn’t happened yet in her nine years at Missouri, but she’s optimistic despite a 5-11 conference record this season. Winning the tournament this week would be the only way the Tigers will make it to the NCAA Tournament.
In June 2006, Stein’s contract was renewed until 2010 for an annual salary of $200,000. She said Wednesday she didn’t even know her exact salary.
“I know that’s horrible, but that’s not important,” Stein said. “Got it done, signed it, put it away.”
“There’s a lot of people that don’t get paid as much as I get that deserve a lot more money. But I believe in this place, and I’m going to get this place rolling.”
No matter what, she always says, she believes in her team. She believes in the program. And she believes in her own abilities.
“I know I am working as hard as I can to be the best person and the best coach I can be, the best friend, whatever I got,” Stein said. “I know every day that I really try to work hard, but I also know the effort’s there. At some point, if that’s not good enough, I can accept that.”