Norman — Six years into her stint at Oklahoma, Sherri Coale had an epiphany. The women’s basketball coach told a small room full of supporters at a preseason banquet that the Sooners needed some help.
“There were about 35 people there,” John Gibbs recalls. “She said she wanted to start a booster club as a fundraising entity. They needed some money to buy equipment and stuff that was not in the athletic budget.”
From that idea, the Fast Break Club was born. In its eighth year, the booster club for the OU women’s basketball team has become the poster child for other women’s programs across the country. With the Marita Haynes scholarship endowment, banquets, road trips and other fundraising efforts, the club is the sixth man on the Sooner squad.
“It’s here to support women’s basketball,” said club board member Mike Goodman. “Everything we do is in support of our student athletes. That’s our whole mission.”
As the stature and prominence of the women’s program have grown, so has the size of the Fast Break Club. When it first began operations in 2002, membership topped out at 159. Eight years later, it’s close to 500. Club membership hit its peak two years ago at 660.
Those who have been around since the beginning are surprised at how big the club has become in such a short time. And even during a down year financially for most athletic programs, officials for the Fast Break Club said they have had modest gains.
“I’m surprised,” Goodman said. “This is a year when pretty much across the board a lot of our sports are having a difficult time. Attendance is down pretty much across the country, not just OU. And our attendance is down. But virtually everything from the bus trips to the Clinton Lounge to our lunches to our events, we have shown an increase in everything we are doing.”
According to Goodman, who organizes the Clinton Lounge and the bus trips to road games for members, the club would not allow a slumping economy to be an excuse for not continuing to support the team as they have in the past. It’s an attitude they learned from the players.
“We thought it would be a down year,” Goodman said. “We were ready for a down year. The Paris twins left and they were an attraction. We loved them. And when Whitney Hand went down, we decided we were going to be like the players. We were going to step up. And we were going to help carry that team through their losses. I think that was part of the stimulus and interest behind our growth that has taken place in spite of the odds.”
In its eight years, the Fast Break Club has had three presidents. Robert Young was tapped by Coale the first year. His wife, Linda Young, took over in 2003. The very next season, Gibbs earned the title and has been in charge ever since.
Gibbs will step down after this season. He will be replaced by Amy Logan.
But regardless of who is president or who sits on the board, the members of the club say their passion for supporting the women’s game will never die down.
“We wanted to support the girls team,” said Coleman Harris, who joined the club four years ago. “And we have been glad ever since that we did it. A lot of fellowship in here. We have met a lot of people that have a common interest, which is women’s basketball. Now we have started going on the bus trips. And they are great for fellowship.”
The culmination of the Fast Break Club’s work is being seen with the 2010 NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Championship coming to Norman with the first- and second-round games at the Lloyd Noble Center.
“One of the reasons OU is hosting the first two games is because the NCAA is trying to increase awareness of women’s basketball,” Gibbs said. “And they know OU draws fans. Two years ago we had the third largest attendance in the nation behind only UConn and Tennessee.”
Since its formation, Fast Break members have taken part in Big 12 Championships, Final Four runs and individual records being broken. However, it’s the relationship they build with the players that sticks out the most.
“You get to know these student athletes,” Goodman said. “They are a great group of people. I’ve watched them join the military, go to Afghanistan. I’ve watched them become lawyers, doctors. I’ve watched them get married. I’ve watched them battle cancer. These are all women’s basketball players that I have gotten to know since I have been here. When you have that kind of a connection, you can’t help but want to be involved.”
Michael Kinney 366-3537 firstname.lastname@example.org