UH women’s basketball coaching staff relied on culture in chaotic season
In a year as tough as the COVID-19 season, the Houston women’s basketball program has had to look for cheerful moments any way possible.
From cracking jokes at breakfast before practice to sharing about their struggles, the coaching staff has relied on each other and their players to turn these times of uncertainty into times of triumph.
The Cougars had their best season in years, finishing 15-6 and 12-5 against the American Athletic Conference. They were perfect through February, which included taking down No. 13 South Florida. The highest-ranked opponent UH defeated in 17 years.
To do her part, assistant coach Tai Dillard adjusted to a busy schedule during the 2020-21 season. She usually got to her office at around 7:45 a.m. to check off a full to-do list marked with responsibilities ranging from recruitment to scouting.
Of course, there were also practices, both in the morning and afternoon. Then there was debriefing, and anything else left to do before leaving.
For Dillard, the busy life was worth it. Her main concern was the team.
“The most rewarding part is just really seeing the girls grow up in the four years that you’re with them…and the growth that they’ve made on the court and as young ladies,” Dillard said.
From Mississippi to the West Coast, Dillard has coached in different places, but she’d always had an eye on Houston. Soon, things seemed to fall into place.
“When Hughey got the job here and he called me, I was like ‘wow look at God.’ You know, it’s an opportunity to get back home, (UH) is growing, and it’s becoming a powerhouse,” Dillard said. “It’s a testament that sometimes if you put things into the universe, it can come back to you.”
Since then, it’s been a really good ride for Dillard, she said. She has been with the program since 2014 and has worked closely with the rest of the staff to get the Cougars to where they are today.
“Every day is a memory with this coaching staff,” Dillard said. “I think we work really well together, we have really good chemistry together.”
Like Dillard, UH women’s basketball assistant coach Deneen Parker was excited to lead at UH after coaching at other schools.
Parker had many years of coaching under her belt, but when she stepped away from the competitive atmosphere, she was eager to get back to it.
“Every night I was on my knees praying that I would get back to Texas,” Parker said. “Four years later, the opportunity arose.”
Parker said she couldn’t be happier with the way things turned out, working with head coach Ronald Hughey, the rest of the coaches and the players.
“The staff, they’ve brought the fun back into it for me,” Parker said. “There’s something about the family bond, you just know ‘this is it, I can see myself here with this crew.’”
The Cougars have a newer addition to the team in assistant coach LaSondra Barrett. She jumped in prior to the 2019-20 season, during a pivotal time for UH.
Despite only having a couple of years under her belt with the Cougars, she’s already experiencing the benefits of being a coach.
“These are kids who have worked their butts off, and you’re enjoying them seeing the reward,” Barrett said. “If that’s a diploma, a championship, whatever that is, and I just want that for so many of these kids, because they’re good kids.”
Like her other coaches, Barrett has picked up coaching experience outside of Texas. But it seems as if each assistant coach ended up finding their way back home.
“In our conversation, and knowing him (Hughey) from recruiting on the road and all that good stuff, and knowing the kind of guy he was, I chose to come on board and join the family,” Barrett said.
Hughey’s character and leadership are things the assistant coaches believe anchor the program.
“I think that he leads with love…you see him ask about their families, staff and players. You see him care about the different hairstyles the girls have, it’s just a different relationship,” Barrett said. “He has the biggest heart, one of my favorite people in the world.”
Hughey often talks about the importance of energy, especially on the court. He has attributed it to some of his team’s most dominant wins.
The energy he speaks of oozes out of him, his assistant coaches all agreed.
“He has this clap, I swear he does it every day, he just claps really loud, like five, six times,” Parker said with a laugh. “ It’s just his energy, his competitiveness…that’s why I’m on that bandwagon with him.”
When Dillard thinks of Hughey, along with his work ethic, she thinks of one of his signature traits.
“When you see him, he’s always smiling,” Dillard said. “And he’s just a hard worker…just putting the girls and everyone else in the best position.”
One of the main themes Hughey has reinforced throughout the season is family. It has become the coaches’ favorite thing about this year’s UH women’s basketball team.
“It’s like a sisterhood, truly, and I love that about our kids,” Parker said. “It’s comforting, they’re the reason why we come into work every day.”