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Andy Rieger

When Sherri Coale was hired as the OU’s women’s basketball coach in 1996, she left a state champion Norman High team that drew far more fans than the university women’s program had ever seen.

Before her hiring, the OU program had been officially discontinued and the head coach removed.

More people showed up in front of Evans Hall to protest eliminating the program than usually attended the games.

Coale once joked that early in her OU career she would call the newspaper’s sports department to encourage them to come out and cover the women’s games as the reporters and photographers did for the men’s games.

When asked the time of the game, Coale reportedly said, “What time can you get here?”

Her first winning season, 1999, Coale averaged 1,588 fans. By 2002, when the team went to the Final Four, they were averaging more than 6,600 per game.

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My students say Lon Kruger may not have cooked a meal for the first few months of his arrival at OU in the spring of 2011. He made the rounds of fraternity and sorority houses and even dormitory cafeterias trying to engage students in basketball.

He was a big name in college basketball and many students were drawn by his unabashed Midwestern friendliness and openness.

Like the women’s program under Coale, the men’s program is in far better shape than when he arrived. Coale’s retirement announcement last month and that of Men’s head coach Kruger gives the university a great opportunity to start fresh in programs that have seen better years in terms of wins and losses.

And even though developing student athletes and building a solid program ought to be enough, the bottom line of winning seems to be what matters to fans. We often joke about telling new athletic department hires: “We’re with you coach, win or tie. We love you, but if you don’t win big, we’re going to miss you.”

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At Rice University, students are drawn to sporting events with free food. Those hard-partying West Virginia students burn couches after a big win. It’s gotten so bad that Morgantown has banned hauling couches out of doors.

Cornell University has trouble attracting students to all sports save for ice hockey. There students have a tradition of throwing dead fish on the ice arena floor when an opponent is called for a foul.

Closer to home, at Texas A&M, students gather at midnight before home games for “Yell Practice.” They even take the show on the road to away games.

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Whomever the university hires, they need to have a proven track record of engaging students. It’s frustrating to watch OU play pre-covid games on the road where thousands of raucous students are in the stands cheering on their team against the Sooners. Back home, the student body is slim. Pep bands have helped and a few students have stepped up but the crowd is often one deep.

Did the lack of student interest come in 1975 when the university moved the sport off-campus to the cavernous but new Lloyd Noble Center? It’s a hike from the dorms and Greek houses.

Campus Corner is about the same distance and students find their way there. Sooner Mall and Target are a bit farther but lots of student cars are seen there on weekends.

Football is not immune either. Except for those Sooner Men in capes, students come late and leave early. OU has tried many things to keep them engaged but few gimmicks are working.

Beer in the stands has helped. Somehow, the secret sauce of student engagement is missing on campus. Here’s hoping the new coaches discover the recipe.

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