Up in the mountains, a former North Carolina women’s basketball walk-on is making history.
Next season at Watauga High School, Laura Barry will become a rarity in high school sports: a woman coaching a major male sports team.
Last week, the Boston Celtics hired former Tennessee star and Olympic gold-medalist Kara Lawson. She’s the fourth woman to become an NBA assistant.
“I guess I’ll tell you what this is like in about nine months,” said Barry, who will also coach Watauga’s girls team at the same time. “It’s going to be the having the energy of back-to-back practices and more importantly, back-to-back games. There’s absolutely a little fear there, but having people around me I can trust and feel confident giving responsibilities to is important.”
Barry, 33, is believed to be the second female head coach of a boys basketball team in North Carolina. Sheila Boles coached at Wilmington Hoggard from 1989 to 1998, then became the first female athletics director in New Hanover County. She was later inducted into the Greater Wilmington Sports Hall of Fame.
“Since Sheila, I do not know of another female coaching a major (male) sport such as basketball or baseball. I don’t know of a female who’s coached men’s golf,” said Que Tucker, a N.C. High School Athletic Association commissioner. “It’s pretty exciting and says a lot about a principal and a school system that would feel comfortable and confident in the ability of a female to lead the men’s program.”
Barry has coached the Watauga girls team for three seasons. The Pioneers’ girls had gone through at least 10 straight losing seasons before Barry arrived. In three seasons, Barry’s teams have gone 19-9, 22-5 and 17-10.
“I have no doubt that she has the ability to coach the boys’ team,” principal Chris Blanton told the Watauga Democrat. “I think she’ll do well. Laura has proven through her collegiate coaching experience, through her high school coaching experience and also through her playing career that she is capable and has the basketball knowledge to do well.”
In high school, Barry was a two-time, all-conference star at Cary High School. At UNC, she was part of two ACC champions and a Tar Heels team that reached the Final Four in 2007. After college, Barry became an assistant coach at Division III Allegheny College, St. John’s and East Tennessee State.
After she left ETSU and moved to Boone, Barry took the vacant Watauga girls job. Her first team started 0-4.
“I’m like, ‘Gosh, we’re going to stink,’” Barry said, “but we had a great season and turned it around. It was about making them work everyday and being consistent about it.”
That no-nonsense approach — and the success — caught Blanton’s eye. And when Rob Sanders stepped down as boys coach in March, Blanton began to think outside the box.
“I thought he was joking.” Barry said. “But early on, he said, ‘You should think about this.’ I said, ‘I’m not leaving the girls to coach boys. That’s a terrible look. That’s not me.’ He just kept saying, ‘Keep an open mind.’”
And that’s how Barry became a part of state history, even if she admits she doesn’t want a whole lot of publicity “for just doing” her job.
But that’s not how some see it.
“It’s a landmark move on the part of Watauga County Schools,” Tucker said. “And I hope this will be an ‘open-the-door’ moment and cause folks in leadership in other school systems to take a look more closely at the (female) candidate, even though the the candidate may be coaching a male sport.”
Tucker said no one blinks at a man coaching a girls sport.
“We’ll take a chance on a man coaching a female sport,” Tucker said, “but for some reason, there seems to be a hesitancy to do it in reverse, not just in North Carolina, but in other states as well.”
And Tucker hopes that fans and parents will give Barry a chance.
“The biggest issue she’ll have to address is the impatience of folk,” Tucker said. “If she doesn’t come in and win right away, there will be those who say, ‘It’s because she’s a female.’ The same record could exist at the end of the season if it were a man and no one would say a word. But because it’s a female, some will question her decisions.”
Few women coaching boys in Mecklenburg County
Locally, there are more than 400 high school varsity coaching jobs within the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Of those, there are 102 men coaching girls sports, but only 23 women coaching boys, mostly in sports like track and swimming, where one person often will coach both the boys and girls teams.
Retired longtime CMS athletics director Vicki Hamilton called Barry’s hiring a step in the right direction.
“Is this a milestone? I’m not so sure,” said Hamilton, a longtime advocate for women in sports administration. “If you told me, we had a female football coach, yes. But we now have women that are professional referees in the basketball arena. We have women in the NBA that are assistant coaches, so ... we’re just a little slow on getting on the bandwagon on the high school level. But, my goodness, when one gets hired, pretty soon we’ll turn a corner and another female will get hired, maybe in a different sport. Maybe we get more female athletics directors.”
Hamilton said there’s been some progress made since she was hired as CMS system athletic director in 1994. Back then, she was the first – and for five years, the only – female athletic director of a city/county district in North Carolina. Hamilton retired in 2011.
“When I was first appointed AD, the calls would come in,” Hamilton recalled. “I would pick up the phone and the caller would say, ‘I would like to speak to the men’s athletics director.’ I would say, ‘Hold on a minute,’ then come back and say, ‘How can I help you?’ So (is Barry’s hiring a) milestone? Maybe not the right word, but it’s definitely opening up more of the ceiling. I’m thrilled to hear that.”
Right now, there are two female athletic directors in CMS — Berry High’s Tricia Barnes-Parkins and Olympic’s Stephanie Wilkerson — and Hamilton was followed in her job by Sue Doran.
And Hamilton doesn’t think the reason there are not more female ADs or women coaching boys sports is because there are not enough who want to do so.
“They’re out there,” she said. “That’s hogwash. We haven’t opened the door enough.”
More doors opening for women coaching
Like Hamilton, Doran hopes Barry’s hiring will spark more of those doors swinging open.
“I do not know Laura, but am pleased Watauga did not let gender get in the way of hiring the individual they determined to be the right fit to lead their boys basketball program,” Doran said via text message. “I look forward to the day when hiring a qualified woman to lead a men’s program is not a ‘story.’”
Barry, for her part, certainly doesn’t want it to be one. She said she’s got enough to worry about.
Watauga’s boys haven’t had a winning record in four years, and she’s got to figure out staffing, how to handle running two practices a day, and how to coach two games a night.
And what if both teams make the playoffs and are playing in different places?
“I’ll be leaning on my assistants,” Barry said. “But we thought through a lot of things, through game days, how to manage the playoffs, where teams are in different places. That’s the biggest hurdle. I can’t be in two places.”
Barry said she hasn’t heard any backlash since she was hired but is sure there has been some, both toward her gender and with her coaching two teams. But Barry thinks she’s ready and just wants to coach.
She said she doesn’t want to be the story.
“I immediately shy away from that kind of stuff,” she said. “The example for young girls, though, it’s awesome they can see a woman coaching guys because you don’t see it much.
“But in terms of making history, I don’t want any of that. It’s about helping and serving kids. That’s why I decided to do this.”