How Edniesha Curry became Division I men's basketball's only female coach

Maine hired Edniesha Curry in March, making her the only female assistant coach in all of Division I men’s basketball. (via Maine athletics)

The man who hired Division I men’s basketball’s only female assistant coach didn’t set out to draw attention or push for gender equity.

Maine coach Richard Barron merely wanted to find the most qualified candidate to help him tackle a notoriously difficult rebuilding job

In the 97 years that Maine has fielded a men’s basketball team, the Black Bears have never won a league title, never qualified for the NCAA tournament and never reached the NIT. They’re 30-123 over the past five seasons, a run of futility exacerbated by a threadbare budget, the absence of an on-campus arena and the distance separating the university from any of the Northeast’s traditional basketball recruiting hotbeds.

Maine hired Barron this past March because he showed an ability to overcome many of those same obstacles as coach of the university’s women’s basketball team from 2011 to 2017. He transformed the Black Bears from laughingstocks to league champs by avoiding recruiting battles in the Northeast that Maine was unlikely to win and instead identifying and developing international talent or undervalued American prospects who had no other scholarship offers.

Convinced that the same blueprint offered the best chance to revitalize Maine’s men’s program, Barron sought to find an assistant coach who had worked for him before and understood his philosophy. He wanted someone with a savvy basketball mind, strong communication skills and a knack for player development, someone who could help the unheralded recruits he landed blossom as upperclassmen.

In truth, he had a specific coach in mind. He wanted Edniesha Curry.

“I hired Eddie because she’s a perfect fit for our program,” Barron said. “She picks up on the things I’m trying to do really quickly, she does a great job of skill instruction and she has a knack for connecting with kids. Recently, she had a lot of experience working with guys as part of the NBA development program for coaches. That contributed to my comfort level with the decision.”

Whereas many of women’s college basketball’s foremost coaches are male, Curry’s presence on Maine’s bench next season will be exceedingly unusual.

There has never been a female head coach in Division I men’s basketball. Only three women before Curry have ever even served as full-time Division I assistant coaches, Bernadette Mattox at Kentucky from 1990 to 1995, Stephanie Ready at Coppin State from 1999 to 2001 and Jennifer Johnston at Oakland from 1999 to 2002.

While Curry wants to be known for her accomplishments rather than her gender, the magnitude of being the lone female coach in Division I men’s college basketball is not lost on her. The 38-year-old former WNBA guard is hopeful that by thriving in men’s basketball, she can debunk the stereotypes that have hampered past female coaches and inspire future women to attempt to cross gender lines.

“It has been a slow journey getting women into these seats at all levels of basketball because sports has always been so dominated by men,” Curry said. “I’m hoping there will be more women after me, and I’m glad that I’m part of the change. I know eventually there will come a time when there won’t be a bias that leads to questions about women being able to coach men or lead men in basketball or any sport.”

Edniesha Curry played nearly a decade of professional basketball including several seasons in the WNBA. (Getty images)

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If someone had told Edniesha Curry a decade ago that she would be coaching men’s basketball at the University of Maine in 2018, the Southern California native admits she probably would have laughed at the idea.

For most of her playing career, Curry had no interest in pursuing a career coaching in women’s basketball, let alone becoming the rare female trailblazer in the men’s game.

Curry first dabbled in coaching in 2001 when ex-Cal State Northridge coach Michael Abraham coaxed her into serving as a part-time skill instructor for the high school girl’s travel team he founded in his native Oregon. Abraham had Curry demonstrate proper shooting, passing and dribbling techniques and then put the players through drills designed to help them master what they had just learned.

“Eddie would take her group of 20 elite high school kids, and I’d never have a parent complain that I wasn’t the one teaching them,” Abraham said. “Generally, she’d end up with 5 or 6 of them wanting private lessons with her.”

Even though Abraham often told her she had the knowledge, passion and communication skills to someday become a great coach, Curry always shot down that notion.

To Curry, working for Abraham was just a fun way to make a little extra cash in between stints playing professionally in the WNBA or overseas. She insisted to Abraham that she intended to play for as long as she could, earn a master’s degree in business and parlay that combination into a career in sports marketing or management.

“I never wanted to coach. I fought it so hard,” Curry said. “He kept saying, ‘You were born to coach. You were born to coach.’ I kept saying, ‘You’re crazy, coach. This is cool for a couple months during the offseason, but I do not want to do it.’ I was totally against coaching. That’s what makes this journey even funnier for me. He saw something in me I probably was denying at the time.”

There was no seminal moment that persuaded Curry that coaching was her calling. Her aversion to the idea instead gradually thawed at the end of her decade-long professional career as she dabbled more and more in coaching and recognized she found it gratifying.

She assisted Abraham part time until 2009, holding clinics and offering private lessons on the side. While playing in Jerusalem in 2012, she also worked to bridge tensions between Israelis and Palestinians by helping run an all-inclusive basketball program for Arab and Jewish girls from the West Bank.

“At around 33 or 34, I started realizing I’m good at this, it comes easily to me and I actually like it,” Curry said. “It was easy to develop practice plans and skill development plans for players and I was actually having fun with that too. The same passion that I had waking up to play, I also had waking up to coach.”

Unable to immediately land a job in women’s college basketball, Curry instead bided her time training elite young pro prospects in China and members of the national teams in Taiwan and Vietnam. Her first big break arrived in spring 2015 when renowned basketball skills instructor Ganon Baker recommended her to Barron as a potential candidate for an assistant coaching vacancy on the Maine women’s basketball staff.

They spoke via Skype, Barron from Maine and Curry from Vietnam. Barron emerged from his conversations with Curry so impressed with her knowledge, enthusiasm and attention to detail that he hired her without ever meeting her in person.

“Some of it was gut feel,” Barron said. “The library of knowledge she brought to those conversations was impressive right off the bat. Then just her personality was a really good fit. I felt we were hiring above our pay grade. I thought she was someone who quite honestly was going to bring a lot of value to the position.”

In her first season with the Maine women’s program, Curry helped the Black Bears win 26 games and capture a share of the America East conference title. When she left Maine after an 18-win second season, Curry had no idea she’d be back again just a year later — and in a groundbreaking new role at that.

Richard Barron shouts instructions to the Maine women in December 2016 as Edniesha Curry looks on from the bench. (Getty Images)

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The chain of events that led to Curry’s return began in December 2016 when Barron announced that he was taking an indefinite medical leave of absence from the Maine women’s basketball program.

A mysterious ailment left him off balance, disoriented and so ultra-sensitive to sound that the slightest noises were audible and everyday clatter was paralyzing.

“I heard my blood rushing through my veins,” Barron said. “I heard my heart beat. I heard my eyeballs move. I heard my toes wiggle. Life was a cacophony of sounds and for the longest time I couldn’t tell why it was happening or where it was coming from. It was terribly scary. I thought I was dying. I didn’t know what else it could be.”

For months, Barron laid in bed day and night to shield himself from noise while doctors tried to figure out what was wrong with him. When his wife or kids entered the bedroom to speak with him, they did so one at a time so the sound of their voices wouldn’t be too overwhelming.

At first, doctors floated some terrifying potential diagnoses including ALS, Lupus and MS. Only after Barron flew to Los Angeles in July 2017 and underwent testing at UCLA medical center did the truth become clear: He required surgery to repair a slight fracture in his skull above his inner right ear.

“The benefits of that surgery were tremendous,” Barron said. “The day I was released from the hospital, my wife and I walked around campus and we walked the Santa Monica pier. Obviously I had a bandage on my head, but immediately I was comfortable again being in loud environments. I had been wearing earplugs to protect my ears from sound. I didn’t have do that anymore.”

Aside from significant hearing loss in his right ear and some occasional balance issues, Barron felt like his old self again by the time he came home to Maine. He returned to the university last December with the intention of serving as a temporary special assistant to athletic director Karlton Creech for the rest of the school year and exploring a return to coaching thereafter.

Barron didn’t feel comfortable unseating former top assistant Amy Vachon as Maine women’s basketball coach with the Black Bears in the midst of a 23-win season that ended with an NCAA tournament bid. Creech instead approached Barron about replacing men’s basketball coach Bob Walsh, who did not seek a contract extension in March after going 24-100 in four seasons at Maine and 6-26 this past winter.

When Barron accepted Creech’s offer, he already had an idea who he wanted to hire as one of his assistant coaches.

It wasn’t just Curry’s knack for skill development and familiarity with the challenges of winning at Maine that enticed Barron. It was also that she’d spent her year away from Maine preparing to bust through the coaching profession’s long-established gender barriers.

Edniesha Curry received opportunities to coach NBA prospects as part of the league’s training program for prospective coaches. (via Maine athletics)

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At the same time as Barron was fighting to return to basketball last year, Curry was exploring where her coaching talents might take her. In March 2017, she landed a coveted spot in the NBA’s yearlong training program for prospective coaches.

Originally created to help former NBA players develop the skills necessary to coach, the NBA assistant coaches program opened its doors to women four years ago around the same time that the Spurs made Becky Hammon the league’s first female assistant coach. Men and women chosen to be part of the program receive guidance from coaching mentors on how to scout opponents, teach players new skills, craft a resume and network within the industry. Participants also get hands-on experience coaching teams at the Portsmouth Invitational, the NBA Draft Combine, the G-League minicamp and other similar events.

When Curry first entered the program in March 2017, she was hesitant to speak up because she had less experience in men’s basketball than her male peers. Only after she gained the confidence to assert herself did she begin to separate herself from her peers with her knowledge, work ethic and teaching ability.

“At first she was very shy,” NBA vice president of player development Rory Sparrow said. “Being a woman in a predominantly male field she really wasn’t willing to offer her opinions.

“Her biggest improvement was being able to voice and articulate her insights and do it with confidence. She always had knowledge, but she would never really voice it with conviction so people would listen. Now she’s more confident in what she knows. That level of confidence that what she believes in will actually work at the pro level and with men is what gave her the push to become who she is today.

Earning an assistant coaching gig with a G-League team was Curry’s goal when she entered the NBA’s training program last year. Her only concern about accepting Barron’s offer to work for him again at Maine was that the detour would lead to her being pigeonholed as a college coach and make it tougher land a job with an NBA franchise if she sought to return to pro basketball someday.

Sparrow assured her that NBA teams would view any experience coaching men as a positive, as did former Toronto Raptors coach Butch Carter, Curry’s mentor with the NBA training program. Not only does Carter believe that Curry is talented and driven enough to someday thrive as a head coach or general manager, he also expects her to inspire other former WNBA players to consider trying to work in men’s basketball.

“Edniesha is a future star,” Carter said. “The best way to define a good coach is they win games that talent-wise they’re not supposed to. I think, given time, Edniesha will help Maine win games they’re not supposed to.”

While Curry’s return to Maine inspired considerably more media attention than the average assistant coaching hire in the America East Conference, there wasn’t nearly as much fanfare within the Black Bears program. Many of the players already knew Curry from her previous stint with the women’s team. To them, it was no big deal that she was Division I men’s basketball’s lone female coach. They were just excited to get to work with “Coach Eddie” for the first time.

Curry understands that how she performs at Maine could open doors for other female coaches to cross gender lines, but she insists that burden doesn’t faze her. After all, at this time last year, she was coaching at the NBA draft combine and at G-League showcases in gyms teeming with high-profile NBA executives.

When you’re coaching the next generation of NBA athletes and every general manager, assistant general manager, head coach, assistant coach in the NBA are the only people in an arena, that’s pressure,” Curry said. “There’s nowhere to hide. They can see that you’re prepared or they can see that you’re not prepared. They can see how the players are reacting to you or not reacting to you. There’s no pressure like that.” 

Where will Curry’s coaching career take her over the next 5 or 10 years? She’s really not sure. Maybe she’ll continue to gain experience in men’s college basketball in hopes of becoming a head coach someday. Maybe she’ll return to professional basketball in hopes of landing a seat on an NBA bench. Maybe she’ll choose a different track altogether and pursue NBA front office opportunities.

Whatever she pursues, Curry can only hope she encounters more open-minded men like Barron, men who see no reason that a savvy, hard-working female coach can’t thrive in men’s basketball.

“Some people have an assumption on a subconscious level that men can coach either gender and that women somehow aren’t as prepared,” Barron said. “That was blown out of the water for me when I started coaching women’s basketball. Maybe I once had those same sorts of biases, but I’m grateful that I’ve been exposed to what I needed to be in order to understand that someone like Eddie would be a good choice.” 

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Jeff Eisenberg is a college basketball writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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