Gary Blair isn’t getting older. He’s getting wiser. Texas A&M’s head women’s basketball coach isn’t slowing down. He’s rejuvenated.
“I definitely plan on being back next year,” Blair said. “Until I’m told I do not have a job, I’m back. I’m coaching my team. I’m not going anywhere.”
The 74-year-old Blair has reached a precarious spot in his illustrious career. Every loss is because he’s too old with someone sure to say it’s time for a change. Every win is no big deal, because it was expected.
The 2019-20 season painfully reflected the no-win situation. The Aggies were sixth in the preseason rankings with visions of reaching the Final Four for the second time in school history. They finished 18th, though it seemed worse because of a three-game losing streak to end the season. It was a major letdown coming off overachieving back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances.
The season puzzled even Blair.
A&M had Final Four talent led by Chennedy Carter, the nation’s best guard at creating her own shot. She was complemented by four returning starters and an experienced sixth player, and the chemistry on the court seemed perfect..
“Our kids got along great,” Blair said. “Chennedy was being a good teammate. Chennedy wasn’t shooting 30 times a ballgame. She was doing a lot of good things. She’d grown up a lot in a lot of areas. Everybody was accepting who each one of us were.”
That wasn’t the case two years ago when shooting guard Danni Williams and power forward Anriel Howard, key cogs on a team that went 26-10 overall, transferred. The chemistry on that team was volatile.
These players this season, though, got along.
“We also didn’t have a large freshman class that we had to babysit,” Blair said. “You worry about their playing time and all that. Everybody blended in because it was a veteran team.”
All that camaraderie didn’t show up on the scoreboard with A&M going 2-5 against ranked teams, beating only 20th-ranked Arkansas and 25th-ranked Tennessee in that group. The last season A&M didn’t beat a higher ranked team came in 2005-06 when the Aggies started their run of 14 straight NCAA tournament appearances, which got put on hold when this year’s tourney was canceled because of the coronavirus.
While A&M’s season of great opportunity became a bigger disappointment, the Aggies aren’t feeling the blues over the big dance getting canceled like Baylor, Oregon or South Carolina. Those teams had established themselves as the top title contenders, and now we’ll never know if they’d have made the Final Four let alone won it all.
So if A&M had gone 26-4 and been a No. 2 seed for the NCAA tournament, it might have been tougher to handle than the ending the Aggies have to live with — 22-8 overall and a likely No. 5 seed.
If there’s a positive, it’s that A&M picked the right season to have injuries and bad luck. Blair was certain his team’s fortunes would have changed in the NCAA tournament but didn’t get the chance, so it’s onto next season.
A&M will open next season ranked in the Top 10 if Carter opts to return for her senior season if the WNBA season gets canceled, which becomes more of a possibility daily. But even if she leaves early, which is likely, the Aggies will be a solid Top 25 team.
A&M returns center Ciera Johnson, forward N’dea Jones and wing Kayla Wells, a trio that has combined for 196 career starts. Also back is guard Aaliyah Wilson, who started nine games in each of the last two seasons and guard McKinzie Green, the 80th ranked recruit in ESPN’s HoopGurlz’s class of 2020 rankings who will be primed for more playing time.
This summer A&M will add a trio of top 100 prospects from the class of 2020 in point guard Kayla Young of Chicago’s Whitney Young, Humble Summer Creek forward Maliyah Johnson and San Antonio Veterans Memorial guard Sahara Jones. The Aggies also add guard Jordan Nixon, a Notre Dame transfer who was ranked 38th in the class of 2018. Blair is extremely high on Nixon.
Carter was supposed to lead the program back to the Final Four, but Blair also prepared well for the future — so much so that things could be better without Carter, maybe a lot better. Blair would be a fool to walk away now, and he’s not. He has a dream of winning a second national title.
Blair remembers celebrating the first title by walking with President Barack Obama to the Rose Garden outside the White House.
“It was just him and me,” Blair said. “I said ‘to get all your programs in, you probably need to get elected to a second term,’” Blair said. “And he looked at me and said, ‘You’re right.’”
Blair wants that second title.
“For us to be considered one of the great programs, we need to win it again,” Blair said. “[Obama] got elected the second term. I’m still waiting to win it the second time. But while we’ve been waiting to win it the second time, we’ve competed to win it every damn year, every year.”
Blair’s experience has made that possible. The oldest women’s basketball coach in the Power Five conferences leans heavily on his staff. Associate head coach Kelly White-Bond is basically a second head coach. She’s been with Blair for 20 seasons, which is longer than most marriages last these days. Bob Starkey, who runs the defense, was recently named to the A STEP UP Assistant Coaches Hall of Fame’s second class. He’s that good despite the fact that he will never get his due in Aggieland because he replaced the popular Vic Schaefer, A&M class of 1984. Besides being a great teacher and sounding board for Blair, Starkey can help him commiserate after each loss when someone wishes that Schaefer would return as head coach. Amy Wright, the other assistant, is a former point guard of Blair’s, who can buffer the head coach’s tough love reserved for the team’s most important position.
It’s been a winning combination, and Blair makes it all work from recruiting to coaching.
“As long as I’m healthy, I got no virus right now,” Blair said. “I can’t putt worth a lick right now. I’m not used to playing golf in March and played [Monday] and didn’t make a putt over three foot. So I need a doctor for my putting more than anything.”
Blair’s chances of leading A&M to a second national championship are at best about 25-1. In other words, it’s probably not going to happen. Then again, when Blair took over the Big 12 Conference’s worst program, the odds looked closer to 1,000-1.
We’d be crazy to count him out completely. Blair is getting older, that’s reality, but he’s living in the future.