Coach Marianne Stanley watches the game from a perpetual baseball catcher's crouch on the sideline. The scoreboard says her unbeaten, top-ranked Old Dominion women's basketball team has a 15-point lead. She rolls her eyes. The Monarchs obediently increase the margin to 20. She wrings her hands. As the lead decreases to 15, she throws them up in disgust. Time out for a tongue-lashing.
Stanley is a 5-foot-6 drill sergeant with a rare but engaging smile. In eight seasons, she has built one of the leading programs in women's basketball. Harried and determined, she has acquired a not-very-becoming reputation as a tough-minded coach and demon recruiter, but the payoff has been a 220-30 record, the best winning percentage in the college game, men's or women's, over that period.
"I'm intense," she said. "We have gifted athletes, and I expect them to perform that way. If that's being tough, then I guess I am."
The Old Dominion women's basketball team is nearly as venerated in Norfolk as one of the monuments that decorate the old town, home of the world's largest naval base and near the site where the first English settlers touched down in the New World in 1607. With an unusually fast-paced offense, a pressure defense and some of the few recognizable names in the women's game, the Monarchs long have been leading the movement to turn what was perceived as a slow game for fat girls into a spectator event.
Over the past six years, the Monarchs have ranked among the top five teams each season, capturing two national championships. They draw an average following of about 2,500 to their small, oncampus field house, but they have been known to outdraw their male counterparts, who play in a modern downtown arena. Deafening, more-than-capacity crowds of 5,000 are not uncommon for the women. Their followers are diehards, some of the abuse hurled at visiting teams belongs in roller derby, and on big-game nights, the largest city in Virginia, which still is the kind of place where you can get a decent meal at a drugstore counter, turns into a college town.
"It's surprising sometimes," said Ben Brooks, sports editor of the Mace and Crown, the school paper. "When the men play first in a doubleheader (at the Scope, the downtown arena), you'll see people strolling in right around the end of the game. When you say, 'Hey, you missed the game,' they say, 'No, I didn't. I got here just in time.' "
This year might belong exclusively to the Monarchs after being eclipsed the last couple of seasons by Southern Cal's stunning Cheryl Miller and a great supporting cast. ODU's national championships came in the now-defunct AIAW, and the team is eager to re-establish dominance in the larger, tougher NCAA.
An NCAA title is one of the few remaining prizes for Stanley, an all-America guard who played on the Immaculata (Pa.) championship teams of the mid-70s. She took over at Old Dominion in 1977 from Pam Parsons, although at 23, Stanley was barely older than her players. In her first season as a head coach, she took a young team starring Nancy Lieberman to a 30-4 record. The same squad returned to win national championships in 1978-79 and 1979-80.
Stanley explains her success with typical dourness, and a sense that no one has worked harder for it than she has.
"A lot of programs have good teams and good coaches and say they're interested in the game, but they aren't really striving to be the best," she said. "We have a commitment here, and that sets us apart from 99.9 percent of the country."
It's that kind of talk that has given her a drill sergeant image. Critics say she is overzealous, and she was slapped with a two-year AIAW probation in 1979 for an illegal visit to the home of a prospect (the AIAW did not allow offcampus recruiting). Others say she simply is among the first to recruit and coach with the same intensity that is applied to men's programs.
The Monarchs (16-0 this season) have been outscoring opponents by an average of 17.5 points a game and already have beaten most of their top competition, including second-ranked Long Beach State, third-ranked Texas, and USC, which has fallen on hard times with the graduation of 6-3 twins Pam and Paula McGee.
Medina Dixon, the team's star forward, initially was intimidated by Stanley's methods.
"On the court, she's tough," said Dixon, who transferred to ODU after one year at South Carolina. "But you have to be if you want to win. It's not to the point that you can't deal with her. She's just always like that, she's involved until the last second ticks off the clock."
Lieberman, who arguably was the most dominant woman to play the game until Miller came along, called Stanley "the best coach I have ever worked with." She was recruited by Parsons, who also brought in all-America centers Inge Nissen and Anne Donovan before leaving in 1977 to go to South Carolina.
"Pam might have recruited some of us, but Marianne molded us," Lieberman said. "She treats her players like family. You're tougher on the ones you love the most. The key is not taking it personally.
"First and foremost, she's honest, almost painfully so. She switched me from power forward and made me a point guard. At first I though my life was over, I wouldn't score any points or get my name in the papers. But I trusted her, and it made me a better player. She took the gamble, and that's important."
There's no question this year's team is all Stanley's, right down to the well-drilled attitudes. "There are no head cases here," guard Marie Christiansen said. "At other schools, a lot of the players want to be the stars. Here we just want to play."
If there is a star, it's Dixon who is 6-1, nicknamed "Ice Woman" and averaging a team-high 17.9 points. She is a likely candidate for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul after just missing the cut for the 1984 team. Her partner at forward is 6-foot Tracy Claxton, averaging 14.5, another potential Olympian, who with Dixon forms the wallop in the lineup. At center is the reliable 6-4 Dawn Cullen, and guards Lisa Blais and Christian are distinguished ballhandlers.
But the real testament to Old Dominion's resurgence under Stanley is her freshman class. Two first-year players have seen considerable playing time. Forward Donna Harrington, from Lanham, Md., already has a reputation as a physical player, and guard Adrienne Goodson is a dazzling talent who is being called the Cheryl Miller of her class.
Another of Stanley's reputations is one of determined self-reliance. A vague story that makes the rounds in Norfolk has it that she once chased an intruder from her home. She is a single working mother, raising her 8-year-old daughter Michelle from a brief marriage in college that ended before she got into coaching. She doesn't acknowledge questions concerning family and career. "I don't want to talk about my personal life," she said.
There are clues, however. If nothing else, the dual roles are time-consuming. Although members of her family live in Philadelphia, she recently saw them for the first time in a year, in a brief midweek visit. On her return just before last week's victory over South Carolina, she rushed home to pick up Michelle, deposited her in the basketball office, pointed to some schoolwork and left her with instructions, "I want to see that done before the night is over."
Stanley says she has no athletic aspirations for Michelle, a winsome blond who is tall for her age. "Whatever happens, happens," she shrugged. And according to Lieberman, "The kid wants to be a cheerleader," she said. "I can't believe it. I told Marianne, 'Where did you go wrong?' "
Stanley couples her devotion to Old Dominion with a commitment to popularizing the women's game, which only recently has begun to win its battle with anonymity. She has seen some of the best talent in the country pass through Norfolk and leave unrecognized, but neither does she like the star system she sees developing.
"There's this phenomenon in women's basketball where the media has a collective need to find a heroine, like Lieberman or Cheryl," Stanley said. "It's a pyramid thing, where one woman has to carry the banner.
"In men's basketball, there is more attention to the program than the individual. But as much as people like the men's game, there's room for another. How many guys do you see walking down the street who can slam-dunk? A guy sitting 10 rows up might find that exciting, but how much can you identify with it? The people we appeal to are the people who say, 'Now, here's a successful team.' You see more team play in the women's game because we don't have anybody who can slam-dunk it if they want to."
The extensive coverage of the U.S. gold medal-winning team, in the Los Angeles Olympics was a start, Stanley said.
"The visibility helped. A whole generation of little girls viewed the Olympics," she said. "When I was learning the game, my idols were male. Now my daughter can follow Anne Donovan. If nothing else, it's very subtle. It wasn't there 15 years ago, and it wasn't there in the last Olympics. It was a big step."
Stanley still is fighting the battle at home. As well as the Monarchs have done compared to many other women's programs, most of their support comes from local businessmen and families, not from the student body, and the less-successful men's team still tends to get more attention. Ironically, one thing that has hurt the Monarchs is winning. Students, who are mostly commuters since the urban campus has limited housing, know the probable outcome and tend to stay home.
The men's team is 10-5 and averaging crowds of 4,800 in the 10,000-seat Scope, which is more accessible to commuters. Part of the student attendance problem could be that there is a surplus of good basketball to watch. Frequently, there will be four games scheduled a week, two women's and two men's, on alternating nights.
"A lot of students say, 'Why should we come when we know you're going to win?' " Dixon said. "That's tough to argue with."