Chris Weller did not know she had won her 150th game as the coach of the University of Maryland women's basketball team until her players showed up at her room the other night with a bouquet of flowers. "I didn't care about the 150th win," she said. "What did mean a lot was the flowers. I carried those flowers all the way home on the plane. I wasn't gonna leave them in a hotel room."
Weller has coached at Maryland for seven years; five times she has taken teams to the national championship tournament, twice to the final four. The Terrapins will make their first appearance in the final four since the 1978 AIAW tournament when they meet Cheyney State Friday night in the semifinals of the first NCAA women's tournament. Still, there have been times during her tenure when her players probably would not have brought her flowers.
Four members of the 1978 team that finished second to UCLA ultimately tranferred. The departure of center Kris Kirchner, who left after the 1980 season, and after making her dissatisfaction with Weller public, "hurt a lot," Weller said. In some ways, she had lost contact with her players, and basketball, as everyone knows, is a contact sport.
"I just realized I was doing so much, I really didn't know enough about my team, to allow so many misconceptions to occur," she said. "I was not as careful about individuals as I should have been. I spread myself too thin."
So she gave up her job as assistant athletic director for women's sports. "I realized you can't coach, you can't teach, wihout being a little more human than I was," she said. "I wasn't aloof. I was busy."
There are those who say that Weller has always appeared tougher, harder, than she really is. Painful shyness and a fierce determination that her teams get the respect and recognition they deserve solidified the impression. "She tries to be hard but she's not," said Patti Flynn, a former player, now Maryland's assistant sports information director. "It's a facade . . . Now she's more relaxed. She's loosened up a great deal."
When the team returned from California Monday after winning the West Regional, "we were supposed to have a practice," said forward Debbie Lytle. "We said, 'We just got in the final four, c'mon Miss Weller.' We kinda talked her out of it. She kind of bent a little, which she doesn't do too often. She's a hard coach but a nice person . . . She is lenient when she has to be and hard-core when she needs to be."
"I'm glad people think that," Weller said. "I have time to be nice, nicer. That was the thing that got me upset about myself. I thought I was doing a good job. But I might have been so busy that I didn't have time to be nice. I was never rude. But you should always have time to be nice."
She is doing what she always wanted to do. The first day of first grade, she came home and told her mother she wanted to be "a phys'll ed teacher, in exactly those words." She went to Maryland, where she was the captain of the basketball team, then taught physical education for seven years at Kennedy High School in Silver Spring.
She was 31 and almost finished getting her master's degree when she became the coach at Maryland. She has grown into her job. She becomes excited about games now instead of nervous.
"I wasn't maybe as secure then," she said. "I had very little background when I got in. No women had much experience. Like everybody else, you want people to like you. At first people were fine. When you start winning a lot, people like to find fault. When you're successful and you start getting criticized, it can be devastating, especially when you do it enough yourself."
Her weight fluctuated in direct proportion to her sense of herself. "I've gotten a good perspective on life developed over the last year and a half," she said. "I had to go through some real hard times in the program. I blew up like a balloon. I feel better about myself, so I lost some weight."
She demands a lot, excellence, because, she says, "I think average is terrible." She will not tolerate a lack of self-confidence in her players. "If they show a lack of confidence, I get all over them," she said. "That's what life is about, having confidence to do your best."
If it sounds like she is coaching herself as well as her players, "I am," she said. People may think that basketball is her life, she said, "but I think maybe teaching is." Teaching the fundamentals, that is.