At around 5 p.m. July 23, Bill Sheahan signed a one-year contract as the new women's basketball coach at Mount St. Mary's College in Emmitsburg, Md. Three hours later, Sheahan, now home in Silver Spring, picked up the phone and began calling team members living in the Washington area.
"I expect to reach them all in a week or so," he said the next day. "Why am I doing this now instead of in the fall? Well, my daytime job is in the insurance business. I think if I were getting a new boss, I'd like to hear from him right away. I want to get to know my players as soon as possible."
To those familiar with Bill Sheahan, his first day as coach at Mount St. Mary's was no surprise. He was merely continuing a mix of discipline, self-motivation and belief in communication that had made him the top girls basketball coach -- and one of the finest prep coaches in any sport -- in the Washington area.
In six years at Holy Cross High School in Kensington, Sheahan's teams won an amazing 162 of 166 games, including the last 108 in an row, an area record. Several of his players never lost a game. Two of them, Chrissy Reese (now at Virginia) and recently graduated Karen Elsner (headed for Richmond), were named player of the year by The Post.
In the process, Sheahan helped revolutionize girls basketball in the city. Drilled to near-exhaustion in fudamentals, his teams attacked their opponents rather than waited for them. They pressed, trapped, double-teamed, denied opponents passing lanes. On offense, he accentualed inside play instead of jump shots. Most Holy Cross games were routs, over the first quarter. Holy Cross was that far ahead of its opponents.
"Bill got a running start on all the other girls coaches in the area," said Morgan Wootten, the highly successful boys coach at De Matha and a close friend. "Everybody else was playing zone when he came in, but Bill had his kids playing man to man right away. They were driving, getting the ball inside. He taught his big girls the elements of pivot play.
"This is not meant to sound chauvinistic, but he got them playing like boys were, with his tactics and his strategy. He really was way ahead of his time, like Adolph Rupp at Kentucky and Phog Allen at Kansas."
Sheahan's efforts to play down the 108-game winning streak appear genuine, but he readily admits he is proud of the impact the Holy Cross program has had on women's basketball in the Washington area.
"Looking back, I think the chief importance is that Holy Cross has given recognition to girls basketball -- attention it didn't have before," Sheahan, 42, said. "All the approach, too. Girls basketball here has changed tremendously for a lot of reasons, the major one being Title IX. But I think we had a little to do with it, too."
Sheahan had not thought seriously about coaching college ball until about five weeks ago, when he heard Fred Carter, a former Bullet guard, was quitting the Mount St. Mary's job to become an assistant coach for the Atlanta Hawks. The opening stirred his interest, and the more he thought about the situation at Mount St. Mary's, the more he liked it.
"I knew it would have to be a special situation for me to leave Holy Cross, because I had spent six years there and it was a big part of my life," Sheahan said. "First, it couldn't interfere with my insurance job. Second, in the philosophy of the school, the women's program had to be very important.
"Mount St. Mary's is only an hour from my house, so that's no problem. And I found they were enthusiastic and proud of their program. All the things seemed to add up, so I applied."
Sheahan describes his coaching approach as "low key: I'm not a yeller or a screamer." He often reverts to favorite themes -- communication, respect, imparting goals and values -- and uses anecdotes to make his point. Some of his favorite people and biggest influences are other coaches, and several times during an hour-long conversation he credited coaches at Gonzaga High School, where he was a three-sport star in the late 1950s, as being major influences on his life.
"People like Joe Kozik (his baseball coach, now Gonzaga athletic director) gave me more than they'll ever know," Sheahan said respectfully.
A practicing Catholic, he sees coaching as an extension of his religion; each of us has a calling, a ministry, he says, and each of us needs to give back to the community.
"But I don't make a big deal about it," Sheahan said, his slight uncomfortableness more attributable to revealing deeply personal thoughts rather than being embarrassed by them. "I don't tell people how to act. I teach, but I don't preach."