Looking back at a hoops career from outside the bubble

Photo courtesy of OSU Athletics

Tamika Williams-Jeter today finds college coaching better the second time around. She began her career in 2002 as an Ohio State graduate assistant women’s basketball coach and was promoted to full-time status in 2003. She is now in her first season back at the school as an assistant coach.

The Big Ten is a lot different today than it was in her first go-around, Williams-Jeter told the MSR last week after OSU defeated Minnesota at Williams Arena. “I think there’s more parity now,” she said. “The first time I was here, you had your dominant teams and your bottom feeders [in the conference].”

The Dayton, Ohio native was the nation’s number-one high school player back in the late 1990s and part of UConn’s “greatest recruiting class of 1998” along with Ashja Jones, Swin Cash and Sue Bird. The quartet in four years amassed a 136-9 record, three Final Fours, two national titles, and an undefeated season (39-0 in 2001-02). All four later were WNBA first-round picks and U.S. Olympians.

“We were told that we sucked every day,” Williams-Jeter joked. “We really thought we were awful. But it was so much fun.” The student-athlete also made the dean’s list, was Student-Athlete Advisory Committee president, and earned an interpersonal communications degree.

Williams was the sixth overall pick of the 2002 WNBA Draft by Minnesota and played six of her seven pro seasons with the Lynx. She hit the winning basket in the team’s first-ever playoff game in 2003, and she still holds the league’s single-season shooting percentage record (.668).

Her final season was in Connecticut, where Williams was a teammate of then-Sun point guard Lindsay Whalen before retiring in 2008. The forward scored 1,000 points, shot nearly 60 percent from the field, and grabbed 1,000 rebounds in her career. 

She began coaching during the league off-season, and after six seasons at Ohio State, she took a similar position at Kansas (2008-11). Then she took a career break and started her own insurance business, worked as an ESPN analyst, and was an ambassador for Women & Girls Against HIV/AIDS and the U.S. State Department.

It was the right time to step away from coaching, Williams-Jeter explained. Of her decision to return to coaching, she added, “My father got really sick, and [Coach] Matthew Mitchell had a job open at Kentucky. I had a different appreciation for the game [than] when I started. Sometimes you live in a bubble and think everything is about basketball.”

Now a wife and mother of one child, Williams-Jeter believes she’s now a more mature coach. “When I coached the first time, I was a player,” she admitted. “I was like, ‘Don’t do it like this, don’t like that.’ I’m a better teacher [now].”

She and her former UConn teammates and off-campus apartment roommates are as close now as ever after all these years. Jones is a Washington Mystics assistant coach on the team’s first WNBA championship this past fall. Cash is a New Orleans Pelicans front office executive. Bird, who also is in the front office of the Denver Nuggets, is a two-time W champion and a member of this year’s Olympic team as an 18-year veteran.

“I think the biggest thing looking back is you really don’t know how big it was until you’re 30-something and you are away from it,” Williams-Jeter said. “Look at Swin’s career—she’s up for Hall of Fame. Sue Bird is leading a whole revolution in gay rights and human rights on top of her basketball career. Ashja started an insurance agency and doing real estate.

“There’s no way we thought we would accomplish [this],” Williams-Jeter said. Asked if head coaching is in her future, she replied with a smile, “No. People ask me that all the time. I’m crazy, but not that crazy.”