By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
West Virginia women’s coach Mike Carey had just completed putting the finishing touches on cutting down the net, which came moments after he had almost dropped the Big 12 Conference regular-season championship, and now he was standing in front of the media.
Someone had asked him where the net was, it being the ultimate symbol of any basketball title.
“You know,” he answered, “I don’t know. I don’t know what happened to it.”
That, in so many ways, is all you need to know about Mike Carey.
He’s many things, but one of them isn’t the kind of guy that’s going to be hanging a symbol of yesterday’s triumph in his rec room because he’s into living life as it is presented to him today, and on this day he was living it to its fullest.
See, the Mountaineers had beaten Kansas, 67-60, before a crowd of 5,052 of the happiest fans you’ve ever come across, to take down a title that a dozen or so years ago Carey never could have imagined he would have.
He’d been a highly successful men’s coach at Salem, had chances to leave and step up, too, but they would have taken him out of state and if Mike Carey is anything, he’s a West Virginian and he wasn’t about to leave the state.
However, when West Virginia came calling offering the women’s coaching job, he jumped at it, so quickly that on the day he was introduced as coach, he hadn’t even gone down to take a look at the facilities.
Oh, he knew the team was 5-23 the year before but he had no idea how things really were.
“When we got done I asked where the offices were and they took me to them,” he recalled. “They had three assistants … and one office.”
That got his attention.
“Then I asked who had won the Big East and someone told me Connecticut. Hell, I didn’t know. I was paying attention to the men. So I asked to see the tape of the game against Connecticut. ‘You don’t want to see it,’ someone said.
“Man, show it to me,” Carey said.
“I was ready to go back to Salem,” he recalled. “They beat us by 70.”
Actually, it was only 63, winning 97-34.
At least, Carey understood, there was only one way to go and that was up.
But this far, tied with Baylor for the Big 12 title in the second season in the Big 12?
Knowing Carey, there are those who have trouble believing he has done this with women, for he always was a man’s man and coached like a man’s man, but early on in his career he had coached girls and, as funny as it may seem, coaching is coaching.
So here he was, not shaking hands with his players, but hugging them, able to win because … well, because, see, he understood women.
“People ask the difference between coaching men and coaching women,” he said, “and I tell them there’s three things.”
And this is what they are:
“First, girls want to be coached. Guys, they know it all.
“Second, guys get in a fist fight in the middle of practice, then after practice they go out and eat together. Girls, they get in an argument in the middle of practice and they don’t talk to each other for three months.”
“When I’m talking to the team, I never use names. Just, ‘You didn’t set that pick right or you made a bad pass.’ Well, when I get done doing that with girls, they walk out with their heads down, each and every one of them and I say ‘Why are you down?’ and they say ‘because I know you were talking about me.’
“But guys, they walk out saying, ‘Hell, he wasn’t talking about me. He was talking about you.”
In some ways you might think Carey was being funny, but he does have his hand on the pulse of the male and female athlete.
Mostly, though, Carey has been able to succeed because he cares and cares deeply about his players. There’s a lot of coaches who simply see their athletes as pawns in their own little chess game, but Carey is different.
He’s had to nurse an awful lot of young ladies through bad times, through injuries, and he’s done it in such a way that most of them have come back and been productive players, thankful for the way he handled them.
So it was in this Senior Night game. About a month ago backup point guard Brooke Hampton, one of the five seniors, suffered a knee injury that wasn’t terribly serious but required surgery.
She’s been healing, he’s hoping to have back before the NCAA Tournament, but she isn’t ready to play yet.
Still, this was Senior Night and if he could just get her into the starting lineup, then get her out it would make her whole experience worthwhile. He went back and forth and back and forth all day.
It wasn’t until 5:30 p.m. he made the decision, having talked to her about it three times.
He was going to put her in there for the opening tip, then either call time out if they got the ball or foul immediately. Think about it, this was a game for the Big 12 championship and he was willing to waste either a time out or a foul to give her a chance to be on the floor.
And that’s what he did.
“Just before the game everyone was coming up to me and telling me ‘You better win the tip,’” senior center Asya Bussie said. “I told them I would, but you better catch the ball.”
It worked to perfection. Hampton played two seconds, left to a standing ovation, and Carey breathed a sigh of relief.
“If she turns the wrong way and hurts it people are saying ‘How can you put her in?’ And if I don’t people are saying ‘How can you not put her in?’ You can’t win either way.”
But you know what, Mike Carey won every way.
Now, if he can just find the net …
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel