NORMAN — Colton Coale can be spotted in the same area every home basketball game. Whenever the University of Oklahoma women’s basketball team plays, he is situated six rows behind the home bench, watching with the rest of the Sooner fans.
However, unlike the hundreds that fill Lloyd Noble Center, Colton Coale has special insight into exactly what the Sooners are doing on the court. Not just because his mother is the head coach, but because he’s part of “The Fellas” — seven male practice players the Sooners bring in to run the scout team.
“I really enjoy it,” Colton Coale said. “Through her, I’ve developed a relationship with all the girls and it’s cool. It’s a form of hanging out with them. Just getting to know them at practice every day. It’s fun.”
Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale has had male practice players since she started coaching at OU 15 years ago. But she admits this year is special.
“Having my son around has been a nice bridge,” Coale said. “Obviously, he doesn’t live in my home anymore. And, so, at least I get to see him at practice every day. Obviously, not a lot of opportunities for lengthy conversation, but it’s nice to be able to go into practice and see him and have that interaction.”
Colton graduated from Norman High School in the spring. After a solid prep basketball career with the Tigers, he wanted to play college ball. But he also wanted to attend OU.
Colton had a decision to make.
“He loves to play and he loved to play in high school,” Sherri Coale said. “He had some opportunities to play at smaller schools in college. But he loves the University of Oklahoma and wanted to be here. So this sort of gives him the opportunity to continue doing the thing he loves to do, while going to the institution he wanted to. Ultimately he wants to coach. So it’s great exposure for him.”
The practice players are not paid, get no scholarships and work as many hours as the players themselves. It’s a hard job. But Colton is a basketball junkie at heart. And if he couldn’t play for Oklahoma, this was the next best thing.
“I seriously considered playing basketball in college,” Colton said. “I decided not to. And this is kind of filling the void of me not playing. I still love basketball, and I still love to play. So this is just another opportunity for me to do that.”
That opportunity includes going up against one of the premier college basketball players in the country every day. Often, Colton’s job is to keep All-American guard Danielle Robinson from getting to the basket for a layup.
He said that’s easier said than done.
“She can get to the rim better than anyone I’ve ever seen,” Colton said. “Even guarding people in high school, she is different. Her angles are different than others. Her speed is really tough. You have no idea until you actually have to guard her. Seeing her blowing by people is one thing. But when you get blown by, you are sitting there going, ‘Wow.’ The first time it happened to me, I didn’t even know what happened. I said, ‘I guess I gotta get used to this.’”
If certain groups get their way, this could be the last time Colton or any other men can be used as practice players for a women’s team. Last year, the NCAA Committee on Women’s Athletics called for a ban on the use of male players. It was never enacted.
“The increasing use of male practice players is a threat to the growth in female participation at all levels,” said the Committee on Women’s Athletics, which called for a ban on the practice. “To have talented, capable female student-athletes stand on the sidelines during practice while the team’s starters practice against `more talented men’ is a lost opportunity.”
Sherri Coale knew exactly what type of practice player she was bringing on board. She had watched Colton from the stands throughout his prep career and had worked up a nice scouting report on her son.
“He is a great passer and has great vision,” Sherri said. “And I can say, there is nothing better than watching your kids play. It’s awesome. I enjoyed every moment of that.”
While this is Colton’s first year as a practice player, he’s always been part of the Sooners in some capacity in the 15 years his mom has been head coach. That knowledge of the program gives him an advantage most practice players don’t have.
“It’s also nice because he’s always been very involved in our program,” Sherri Coale said. “I got to watch film with him every day. Even when he was in middle school, he watched film with me after games and stuff. He’s been watching practice since he was a little-bitty kid in elementary school. So he knows how everything moves. So he can jump into drills without much instruction and know this guy is going to need to pass here, this guy is going to need this here. He can anticipate those kinds of things.”
It is generally assumed that when most teenagers head to college, they try to put as much distance between themselves and their parents as possible. But Colton enjoys being around his family, and they can’t think of a better way than to use the sport they love as a way to stay connected.
“Not seeing her at home anymore, then coming to practice and seeing her here is pretty cool,” Colton said. “In practice, we’ll make eye contact, and we’ll know exactly what we’re thinking. It’s really cool to share it with her.”