Nancy Darsch remembered as a 'trailblazer, a pioneer, a promoter' of women's basketball

ByMechelle Voepel ESPN logo
Thursday, November 5, 2020

No one enjoys studying basketball film more than Tara VanDerveer. But she grew frustrated while scouting a game in person between Russia and China years ago. Between the chaotic sets, or lack thereof, being run and marginal familiarity with the players, she wasn't getting much out of it. Her USA Basketball assistant, Nancy Darsch, who was supposed to focus on China while VanDerveer had Russia, offered a suggestion.

"She said, 'Tara, go get the popcorn. I'll do both teams,'" VanDerveer recalled. "As far as X's and O's, she was in a league of her own."

VanDerveer, the longtime Stanford coach who guided the U.S. women to the 1996 Olympic gold, spoke for so many in fondly remembering Darsch, who died Monday at age 68 after battling Parkinson's disease the last several years.

"She really had a great basketball mind," VanDerveer said. "But everything about Nancy was understated and subtle. She was a sincere and extremely loyal friend. It's just hard for me to believe she's not with us anymore."

Darsch is best known for the dozen years she was Ohio State women's basketball coach -- leading the Buckeyes to their lone Final Four appearance, in 1993 -- and her four seasons as a head coach in the WNBA, with the New York Liberty and then Washington Mystics. She was the first coach to win a WNBA game, leading the Liberty past the Los Angeles Sparks in the league's inaugural matchup in 1997.

"I loved her willingness to teach and her patience to bring out the best in us as people and basketball players," said Las Vegas Aces assistant Vickie Johnson, a starting guard on that first Liberty team who spent nine of her 13 WNBA seasons in New York. "That first game, she said, 'Don't allow the pressure, with the start of the league, to get to you. You're here for a reason; have fun and embrace it.' That was huge for me. I've carried things that she said and her mindset into my own coaching."

Darsch was never a big personality. One of her closest friends, Memphis coach Melissa McFerrin, said Darsch would have rolled her eyes at being called one of women's basketball's "heroes." Yet humble as Darsch was, she was a part of a generation of coaches who were instrumental in guiding the sport to where it is now.

Darsch was like a character actor who diligently perfected her craft and was in all kinds of movies, but you don't realize the full breadth of her work until you really look over her credits. The story of Darsch's career was essentially the story of modern-day women's basketball. She grew up in an era with patchwork, unequal opportunities for girls in sports. She was in college when Title IX was signed into law in 1972. Then she was on the ground floor of building both the women's college game and the WNBA.

"She understood her role as a trailblazer, a pioneer, a promoter of the game," said Minnesota Lynx assistant coach Katie Smith, who starred for Darsch's Buckeyes teams in the 1990s and continued a Hall of Fame playing career in the pro ranks.

Darsch ended up working and crossing paths with many of the best players and coaches in the sport's history, in the United States and internationally. Her many years of USA Basketball helped her transition to the pro game when the nascent WNBA needed all the coaching credibility it could get. Darsch was one of the most prominent names from the college side to go to the WNBA for its launch. She also was as comfortable in an assistant's role as she was as head coach, understanding the demands of both jobs.

"Nancy was just a beautiful soul," former Seattle Storm and Australian national team star Lauren Jackson said. "She just had a really calming, practical sense about her that reflected in me when we spoke."

Darsch was adept at all aspects of coaching, but had a knack for mentoring post players. That included Jackson, the WNBA MVP in 2010, when Darsch was an assistant for the Storm's championship team. Jackson remembers Darsch being there for her during the hardest times, too.

"She was such a source of support for me through my injuries, in those last few years of my career, when I felt like things were falling apart," Jackson said. "She became a friend of mine just through consistency and caring, and I will always have such fond and warm memories of her."

Former Texas Tech coach Marsha Sharp recalled Darsch's tactical skill, but also her dry sense of humor and good sportsmanship even in disappointment. Sharp's Lady Raiders defeated Darsch's Buckeyes 84-82 in 1993 in one of the best NCAA women's finals, with Texas Tech's Sheryl Swoopes scoring a title-game record 47 points.

Four years later, Sharp was in Houston, watching Swoopes and the Comets defeat the Liberty for the first WNBA title, a single-game championship in 1997, rather than a series. Sharp went down to congratulate Swoopes, and encountered Darsch near the locker rooms.

"I gave her a hug and told her how excited I was about the success she was having in the WNBA," Sharp said. "And she smiled and said, 'Dadgum Swoopes and dadgum state of Texas,' because they'd cost her two championships."

Hold on -- the Plymouth, Massachusetts, native and proud New Englander Darsch didn't really say "dadgum," did she?

"Well, that's probably my word for it," the Texas native Sharp said, laughing.

Former Tennessee coach Holly Warlick chuckled remembering how Darsch and the Lady Vols' Pat Summitt, a Tennessee native, used to joke that they couldn't understand each other's regional accents. Darsch's entry into the college game was as Summitt's assistant in 1978, after coaching multiple sports at the high school level for five years.

Summitt was six months younger than Darsch, and had taken over Tennessee's budding program at age 22 in 1974. During Darsch's time in Knoxville, the Lady Vols went to the Final Four five times -- three in the AIAW era and two in the NCAA. Warlick was a standout player for Tennessee during that time, finishing her career in 1980.

"Nancy and Pat were alike in many ways," Warlick said. "They were both pretty intense and serious about basketball, and I think they held each other accountable. She was very good for Pat. Nancy was a big part of the early success of Tennessee basketball."

They also collaborated on another milestone in the sport, with Summitt as head coach and Darsch one of the assistants for the U.S. team in the 1984 Olympics. Darsch was also on VanDerveer's USA staff at the 1996 Atlanta Games.

The Americans will be going for their seventh consecutive gold medal and ninth overall at the upcoming Tokyo Games, and that success started in '84 at the Los Angeles Games. In a photo of the 1984 U.S. Olympic team, kneeling in the front row are Summitt, Darsch and the other assistant, N.C. State's Kay Yow. All passed away in their 60s after dealing with difficult illnesses; Summitt died of early onset-dementia, Alzheimer's type, at age 64 in 2016, and Yow of cancer in 2009 at age 66.

Sharp, 68, recalls last seeing Darsch at a golf fundraiser for the Kay Yow Cancer Fund. Golf was one of Darsch's passions outside of coaching, along with following her beloved Boston pro sports teams. VanDerveer, 67, had been reflecting on the many years of friendship she and Darsch shared. Smith, who like Darsch, had a stint as the Liberty's head coach, said she had just been looking at photos from the 1993 Final Four.

"It just seems like we've lost several influential people who were such a big part of our history in women's basketball," McFerrin said. "The game now is in good hands. But so many people were impacted by Nancy Darsch, and we're feeling the loss of another person who was instrumental in our game."

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