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Adia Barnes, Arizona coach and breastfeeding mom, lost a game but won Final Four weekend

“You can be great at all these things. You can be someone representing, and doing it with class, and professionalism, and doing well at your job. You can be a mom; you don’t have to stop coaching,” Arizona Coach Adia Barnes said. “You just have to have support, and a village.” (Elsa/Getty Images)
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Of all the things Adia Barnes had to consider Sunday during halftime of the NCAA women’s basketball championship game as the Arizona coach’s team trailed Stanford by seven, the needs of one member of the school’s entourage were most pressing.

Capri Coppa, Barnes’s 6-month-old daughter, needed to be fed, and Barnes had to multitask. So during the most important game of her career, Barnes took a few moments to pump breast milk.

As Barnes returned to the floor a bit tardily at the end of halftime, ESPN’s Holly Rowe could not let the moment pass. “For those of you who think this is too much information,” she told viewers from the sideline, “let’s normalize working mothers and all they have to do.”

Capri contentedly nursed on her bottle, kept warm by the team’s heating pads, in the second half, and Barnes focused on her work as her team rallied before falling, 54-53, to the Cardinal.

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It was not the first time Barnes brought attention to being a mama coach during Arizona’s remarkable tournament run. Before Arizona’s upset of Connecticut in the national semifinals Friday, Barnes tweeted, in a message replete with poop, chaos and “Scream” emoji: “So I have been spit up on and pooped on prior to 5:00 a.m. So does this mean I am going to have some good luck today.”

The 44-year-old knows she has it easier than many moms in balancing job and family, which includes son Matteo. “I’m like, ‘Wow, there’s a lot of hats.’ It’s the former WNBA [player], it’s the Black woman, it’s the mom,” she told reporters Friday. “But it’s a privilege for me. You can be great at all these things. You can be someone representing, and doing it with class, and professionalism, and doing well at your job. You can be a mom; you don’t have to stop coaching.

“You just have to have support, and a village.”

The “village” includes her husband, Salvo Coppa, a Wildcats assistant coach whom she met while playing in Italy. There was a nanny, too, although that arrangement ended in a terribly timed coincidence just before the trip to San Antonio for the tournament. That put more on Barnes. Capri and Matteo had to be counted in a team’s 34-person travel party within the restricted environment of the NCAA tournaments. Because she is breastfeeding, Barnes’s decision was made for her, just as it was when she gave birth amid pandemic restrictions in September. “You know you’re a coach when you are sending work emails and text messages an hour before you go to have a baby. We are CRAZY,” she tweeted on the day Capri was born.

Coaching meant a crying baby was sometimes part of Zoom calls with her players. “I had a baby right when the season started. Took like a week off,” she told reporters after the championship game Sunday night. “It says I took a month off, but I did not. I was on Zoom calls four days after having a C-section. It was hard, but my team loved on me. I missed a couple weeks. I got a little sick. They fought for me. I came back. They were patient.

“I’m happy. I represented moms and I have a baby here — I can hear her crying, ready to feed. You can be a coach at an elite level. ”

In San Antonio, she drew attention for other reasons, too. The Wildcats were left out of the NCAA’s Final Four promotional video. The NCAA apologized for what it said was a mistake, but it helped motivate players. “I re-watched it a couple of times. It was frustrating. I definitely took it as a sign of disrespect,” star guard Aari McDonald told ESPN.

That disrespect fueled Barnes on Friday night, when she was shown using an expletive and making a middle-fingered gesture as she talked to players during a timeout in the game against Connecticut. She didn’t back down, explaining in a tweet to Gary Parrish of CBS Sports: “Gary, I was so pumped up it was the heat of the moment and it was supposed to be a private moment with my team! I told them WE BELIEVED IN US! FORGET EVERYONE THAT DIDN’T, I WILL GO TO WAR WITH U ANYTIME ANY PLACE!! Not the best look, but I was loving on my team.”

The women’s tournament will be remembered as one that featured two Black head coaches in the Final Four (Barnes and South Carolina’s Dawn Staley) for the first time, as well as for Barnes’s candor, “just because I’m me,” she told reporters Sunday night. “Sometimes maybe I’m a little too transparent. I think we saw that the other day on the court. But I do what I feel for my team. That’s all I care about. If I’m passionate about something and I believe in it, I’m going to talk about it. It’s just who I am.”

Barnes acknowledged that she “represented a lot of things” Sunday, just as there were “a lot of hats to fill” for her during Arizona’s run. “I can tell you, representing moms, former [college and WNBA] players, women of color — these things made me coach a little harder.”

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