WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Basketball is not an easy sport to play without the proper footwear. But, playing "Barefoot Basketball" is a different story. It's an attitude. A swagger. A passion for the game brought on by Karen Barefoot, a veteran college basketball player and coach now leading the UNCW Women's Basketball program.
"This is my fifth head (coaching) job, and I've kind of been the lady of 'firsts'," Barefoot says. "I always like to build programs, start programs, resurrect programs. Just help build it to the top. That's what I've done everywhere I've been. I want to do that. My vision is to celebrate the first ever Women's Basketball championship here at UNCW with everybody in the community. It's a great place to be."
Barefoot became the 11th head coach of the Lady Seahawk program in May, succeeding Adell Harris who left after five sub-.500 seasons. Barefoot spent the previous six seasons as the head coach at Old Dominion. Her teams won 103 games, with only one losing season during her tenure. The opening at UNCW provided the opportunity for Barefoot to work with someone she respected, in a place close to her heart.
Barefoot's basketball talents developed early in life. Barefoot says she made the first shot she ever took, at the age of six, and immediately fell in love with the orange ball. Playing with her older brother Johnny and his friends forced her to improve.
"He's the reason why I was a great player," Barefoot says of her brother. "I always had to play with guys my whole life until high school, there was no girls basketball teams. He had me up there, blocking my shot, telling me I couldn't do this and couldn't do that. Then one day I started kicking his butt, and I said, 'it's over now'. I started getting the outside shot, learned how to be smarter, and I became a good player."
Barefoot won several awards playing at Menchville High school, and received scholarship offers from several college programs. But she chose instead to stay close to home and attend Christopher Newport University with her twin sister Sharon. The coach of the Captains' program was Cathy Parson, who went on to have a hall of fame career.
"I just knew in my heart that I was going to be a coach one day, and I wanted to be one of the best coaches out there," Barefoot says. "She (Parson) was a good teacher, so I was like 'maybe I can learn from the best'."
Barefoot's freshman campaign at CNU became a Cinderella story. The team finished the season with an appearance in the Sweet-16 of the NCAA Tournament. By the time she graduated in 1995, Barefoot was a three-time All-American and two-time South Atlantic Conference Player of the Year. She also became the first player, male or female, in the NCAA to score 2,000 career points with 1,000 career assists. That mark earned Barefoot a mention in the famous "Faces in the Crowd" section of Sports Illustrated magazine in April of 1994. Offers to play professional basketball came in, but Barefoot wanted to be a coach. Barefoot talks about making the career decision at 6:10 of the podcast, including a conversation she had with an eight-time national champion coach.
Going from player to coach was not easy. Barefoot worked to instill her love of the game to the players, while also teaching them to be better individuals. That part of our conversation comes at 8:00 of the podcast.
"It's more than just teaching basketball," Barefoot says. "They've got to do the right thing. There are certain ways you want to do things, defensively, offensively. You want them to be in the first three rows of their classroom. So, when they don't do it, you've got to put the hammer down and say 'it's unacceptable, because that's now how it is in life someday. You can't do that'. So, it was really hard for me, to be honest with you. For two years, it was really, really tough for me.
Barefoot started the Women's Basketball program at The Apprentice School at 22-years-old, and in her sixth season the team won the 2001 National Small College Athletic Association's national championship. That started Barefoot's travels in the coaching profession, and her penchant for resurrecting programs. Winning records and post-season tournament appearances came at Lenoir Rhyne, Elon and at Old Dominion, where Barefoot replaced legendary Wendy Larry in 2011. She talks about all of those stops during the podcast.
One of Barefoot's personal inspirations was Sara Jones, a fellow basketball player she met in college. When doctors diagnosed Jones with cancer, Barefoot made her an honorary coach. She became a full member of Barefoot's staff in 2011 at Old Dominion, but lost her cancer battle two years later. Barefoot says ODU players have told her one of the best things about being part of the program was being around Sara. That part of the interview comes at 20:15.
"I keep her legacy going because that was part of my life when I was trying to build Old Dominion back," Barefoot says. "She came in and she showed our team a lot of courage and what it took."
The coach started "Barefoot Basketball" camps for younger players years ago. But, the players learn more than just the x's and o's of the game. They learn life skills, and lessons they can use for the rest of their lives. Barefoot says camps are where her love of the game grew, and she wants the same for her campers.
The Lady Seahawks open their 2017-18 schedule with an exhibition against Greensboro College on October 29 at Trask Coliseum. The season starts on November 12, when the team hosts UNC Pembroke, followed by games with East Carolina, Coastal Carolina and UNC. Barefoot says she already sees the players adapting to her style.
"I think we've turned the corner, I really do," she says about the players on her first UNCW squad. "I think they're playing harder. I can see it in their eyes. I don't think I felt that the first couple weeks, and now I can see it. I see that they see that things can happen. We are a different style than what they are used to playing, so that's an adjustment. I can tell that those five seniors want to experience a winning season. They haven't had a winning season since 2011."
You can listen to the entire interview with Karen Barefoot on the free "1on1 with Jon Evans" podcast:
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