Gary Blair’s coaching career began when women were still playing six-on-six basketball, their opportunities across gender barriers as restricted as their movements across midcourt.
At South Oak Cliff High School in Dallas, Blair won three Texas state championships, coaching Debra and Kim Rodman when their brother Dennis “used to play Ping-Pong with me because he was only 5-11 and couldn’t play a lick” of basketball.
Three decades later, Dennis Rodman has just been voted into the Hall of Fame and Blair, 65 and gray, has won an N.C.A.A. championship at Texas A&M, guiding its women’s team to a gripping 76-70 victory over Notre Dame on Tuesday. Funny how lives crisscross likes strands of a net.
“He’s come full circle; to start where he started and have the stops he’s had along the way, I venture to say there’s not anybody else in the game that’s made that trip,” Vic Schaefer, the associate head coach at Texas A&M and mastermind of the Aggies’ relentless defense, said of Blair.
The arc of Blair’s career is the arc of women’s basketball, from grudging tolerance to defiant outsider resolve to belated acceptance by the N.C.A.A. And the evolution of women’s basketball at Texas A&M is the remarkable transformation of a university that once prohibited women as students, much less athletes.
No one immersed himself more in the women’s Final Four or had more fun or told more stories than Blair. He is a Rotarian and former Marine for whom sentences are mere tributaries for paragraphs that run on like great rivers, meandering and eddying, and finally depositing luxuriant and unhurried tales..
“He doesn’t say anything quickly,” Notre Dame Coach Muffet McGraw said with amusement. “I think he really has to have a little bit of time if you’re going to run into him.”
After confetti had rained in star shapes Tuesday night and the nets had been scissored at Conseco Fieldhouse, Blair shouted, “Howdy!” at his postgame news conference and playfully demanded that reporters shout “Howdy!” in reply.
Among other things, he studied journalism at Texas Tech in an undergraduate career as protracted as some of his stories. (“I had a couple of junior years,” he said.) He reads five newspapers a day and deconstructs sports columns and articles as if he were an editor instead of a coach.
He promised not to ramble on Tuesday night, but he did anyway. And who could blame him?
Asked what this title meant, Blair recounted his entire career: His high school days in Dallas. His days as an assistant coach at Louisiana Tech, which won a national title in the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women in 1981 and the first N.C.A.A. title for women in 1982. His days as a head coach at Stephen F. Austin in Texas, before big-time football schools decided they could succeed in women’s basketball. His days at Arkansas, which he coached to the Final Four in 1998. And finally his days at Texas A&M, which was founded as an all-male military school in 1876 and did not admit women as full students until 1963 or band members until 1985.
He talked about how much this championship meant to his family, to the families of his assistant coaches, to the pets of another assistant who has no family but does have dogs.
He promised to take his wife, Nan Smith-Blair, the director of nursing at Arkansas, on a vacation. They live apart much of the year, their careers rooted in different states. He has been promising this vacation for 11 years. This time he means it.
“That’s the life of a coach, because you do not get those little things,” Blair said.
When he arrived at Texas A&M eight seasons ago, the Aggies drew about 300 fans a game. (“Usually family members,” he said.) So Blair has done whatever he can to attract crowds. He calls in to radio talk shows and offers tickets. He tosses candy into the stands before home games. He speaks annually to sales reps at The Eagle newspaper in Bryan-College Station, Tex., exhorting them to sell ads for the preview section on women’s basketball as if they were headed to the Final Four.
“Not only does he have my cellphone number, he has my wife’s cellphone number,” said Robert Cessna, who has covered sports at The Eagle for 35 years. “If Blair needs to get ahold of me, he will.”
So much has changed for women, and women’s sports, at Texas A&M. The basketball team once dressed in a men’s locker room where artificial flowers were brought in to camouflage the urinal. Now the practice facility has a hair salon and each player has a computer in her locker.
Blair makes $800,000 a year. On Tuesday night the university president cheered in the stands and linked his arms with the players in swaying celebration. This university, which built its athletic reputation on football, now has national women’s titles in basketball and track and field. Soccer and softball are powers. Equestrian is ranked No. 1.
“Those are big sports, but a lot of people have been waiting for women’s basketball to do something big,” said Sydney Colson, a rapacious senior guard.
Forward Danielle Adams, who scored 30 points Tuesday, is departing along with Colson, but the Aggies will have the 6-foot-4 center Kelsey Bone, a transfer from South Carolina, eligible next season. Another championship run is possible. Blair is not going anywhere.
Before each game, he will scrawl a plus sign on his hand, reminding himself to be as positive with his players as he is with the public.
“I’m not looking to retire,” Blair said. “I’m not looking to be as old as Joe Paterno and keep coaching, but I’ll give it a hell of a ride until then.”