Washington relishes shot to help others

Coquese Washington is such a delight, plus she’s the rare individual in sports that you just know would be successful at anything she chooses to pursue in life, even if it had nothing to do with athletics.

The Penn State women’s basketball coach spoke Friday afternoon to the Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic Marauder Club luncheon, sharing stories about her philosophies for building a winning culture in a college basketball program.

She’s an engaging speaker, of course – one doesn’t reach that level of the coaching profession without the skill – and Washington’s goal to turn the PSU program back into a consistent power has been realized with three straight Big Ten titles.

But listening and talking to Washington, one quickly realizes she’s far, far more than just a basketball coach.

She’s a role model of the highest degree, and basketball just so happens to be her outlet to help young women.

“For the players on my team, I see myself as a dream maker,” Washington said. “My job and what I’m passionate about is finding out what their dreams and what their goals are and making them come true.”

What an eloquent answer to a simple question of how the coach sees herself. Go back and read it again, and you’ll notice that she’s not talking about basketball. She’s talking about life.

“We get to use basketball as a vehicle to teach them how to chase their dreams and live the life that they want to live,” Washington added.

She recently finished her seventh season at Penn State, taking the Lady Lions to the Sweet 16 for the second time in three years, but to describe Washington merely as a basketball coach is short-changing her.

She has a law degree from Notre Dame. How many coaches anywhere can boast that?

She’s not only a board member of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association, she’s also vice president/president-elect of that group’s executive committee.

This is a born leader who, again, could be a star in any profession. The fact that she’s an emerging star in the game of women’s basketball is a huge benefit to Penn State, where she also just so happens to be the first black female head coach of a program.

Washington relishes all of her leadership positions and values because, collectively, they can help her make real change in people’s lives.

“I absolutely embrace the notion that we have to give back and give ourselves to others,” Washington said. “So for me, that’s what it’s about. It’s not about stockpiling trophies and all that stuff. Don’t get me wrong, those are nice. But that’s not the end goal.

“The end goal is to have an impact on people’s lives and to inspire people to do more, live more, be more. And I do take that responsibility very seriously.”

Washington represents so many things about the modern world, not just the modern world of college athletics. She’s a highly successful woman, a highly successful minority, a person of vision, a person who cares greatly about others around her and, one thing that cannot be overlooked, a person of tolerance.

In that last regard, she’s exactly what Penn State University needed following how Rene Portland’s tenure ended in disgraceful bigotry.

Talking to the BG group Friday, Washington stressed over and over how forming a successful basketball team is as much about having everyone respect each other as individuals and treat each other like family as it is about talent.

“If you have the right kind of culture, the talent will want to be a part of it,” she told the crowd.

Things didn’t start out well for Washington as Penn State as she went 24-36 her first two seasons. But she knew she had the right plan in place and never lost faith in herself, and she established a warm, welcoming, winning culture that has helped the program return to prominence.

But while winning a lot of games is great, that doesn’t define Coquese Washington.

This statement she made is a far better indicator.

“It’s so gratifying to get the calls or texts from a kid like Maggie Lucas, who says, ‘Coach, I’m living my dream.'”

To a self-described dream maker, that’s as good as it gets.

Cory Giger is the host of “Sports Central” from 4 to 6 p.m. daily on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM. Reach him at 949-7031 or @CoryGiger on Twitter.