Talk about sweet: Imagine being the only school in North Carolina to win a national championship in basketball this year, smack in the shadows of perennial basketball powerhouses Duke and Carolina, and, a little closer to home, up and coming N.C. State.
The Lady Bears of Shaw University no longer have to imagine. It’s a reality: They’re the first national champions in Raleigh since the late Jim Valvano led the Wolfpack to victory in 1983.
“It’s a struggle fighting for that attention with those three when you feel like your program is on the level of those other three schools,” coach Jacques Curtis said. “Whether it’s Division I or Division II, national-level programs are national-level programs.”
Since Curtis was named coach of the Lady Bears in 2000, he has amassed an overall 264-113 record, with seven CIAA championships. This past season ended with a 15-game winning streak and 29-6 record. Shaw, the South’s oldest historically black university, has made numerous Elite Eight appearances – four since 2005. Twice, Curtis led the team to the Division II national semifinals.
“It’s indescribable,” Curtis said. “We’ve won numerous CIAA championships, but coaches are defined by winning a national championship.”
When Carolina’s Dean Smith won his first national title, he was labeled a great coach. Georgetown’s John Thompson won one national championship, and it defined his career. And so it goes, Curtis said.
“To win a bunch of CIAAs but not a national championship would have left me at the point of ‘Can you win the big one?’ ” Curtis said. “It qualifies you in an elite group, and it put me in that category of not too many people who have won championships.”
A lot has been said about Curtis’ style.
My chat with Curtis unveiled a regular guy with an undeniable passion for sports – and winning, an admirably confident man who knows his worth, yet gives due credit.
“A good coach has to be confident in their abilities and what they’re trying to do,” Curtis said, adding some coaches are afraid to bring in other coaches who know as much or more than they know. “That holds people back. I’m very confident, and I’m very comfortable with who Jacques Curtis is and what I bring to the table.”
His three assistant coaches now include the husband of UNC women’s basketball coach Sylvia Hatchell and two others he has worked with during Hatchell’s summer camp.
While some assistants and other staff over the years have gone on to other programs, Curtis said, “the one constant over these 12 years has been me, and I’m willing to say I have a good team and I’m willing to talk about the type of players I have and I’m willing to say I’m going to win.”
But, Curtis adds, he’s not alone.
“No coach can have a successful program if the institution doesn’t want it to be successful,” he said.
That certain, Curtis said, building a solid staff with a strong commitment to recruiting is next.
“As a coach, you can have all the plays, all the Xs and Os,” he said, “but it depends on who’s running those plays, and you’ve got to have a good staff working with you to execute the plan you have in place, and to recruit young women to commit to Shaw University academically as well as athletically.
“It’s never a one-person show.”
‘He expected our best’
I also wondered what the Savannah, Ga., native is like off the court, when he’s at home with his wife, Michelle, and their sons, Jacquim and Jamile. The Jacques Curtis they know is a connoisseur of chicken wings, ribs and crab legs; a man who likes to read, catch a good flick or take a jaunt to the beach. He enjoys TV shows that make us think, such as “CSI: Miami” and “Criminal Minds,” and a mix of music, including jazz, R&B and rap.
His players know a coach with a military background who is a stickler about time and details, one who stresses the importance of life after basketball and believes young female athletes develop lifelong habits of health and balancing daily demands.
The meaning behind his one acronym, WIN: What’s Important Now.
“He’s very no-nonsense when it comes to playing. It’s all business,” said Tavia Clemendor, who played for Curtis from 2004 to 2008, winning three CIAA championships and reaching the Elite Eight twice. “He expected our best, and he always stressed we were student athletes.
“That’s why we had so much success during the four years I was there,” said Clemendor, 25. “I’m proud to see them win because we got close. I always knew Coach Curtis could get them there.”
With that success, word is spreading.
“Winning the national championship has really thrust the university and our athletic program into the spotlight,” Shaw athletic director Al Carter said. “We’re going to take it in stride and do what we need to do.”
Carter said he hopes it translates into an increase in enrollment and increased awareness that “we’ve got some good things going.”