Less than 24 hours before his team was to face top-ranked, defending national UConn and its soon-to-be 91-game winning streak, SMU first-year coach Travis Mays and his team faced a much tougher task – staging a clinic for about 100 grade school and middle-school girls.
Before putting the youngsters through skill drills, the staff and players stood on SMU's Moody Coliseum floor. The introduced themselves and Mays interacted with the campers. He kidded with the players from one school who said their team’s games conflicted with attending SMU games. As the youngsters took the floor, he made his way through the stands to shake hands with the parents.
“I want to take the baton from people who have helped me along the way and pay it forward,” Mays said a few minutes after escaping the screaming girls and squeaking sneakers. “Those people have impacted my life and they’re saving and touching lives of people they’ll never meet. It’s the pebble-in-the-water ripple effect.”
The second-leading scorer in history at the University of Texas, Mays believed he would always be a coach. A native of Ocala, Fla., he credits Jim Haley, his high school coach, with putting his life on the right path. Mays is quick to credit those who have provided advice and guidance.
One of those who helped was the coach of the team that beat Mays’ team 84-44 for its record-setting 91st consecutive victory. When SMU athletic director Rick Hart was seeking a replacement for Rhonda Rompola, who retired after 25 seasons coaching the Mustangs, he received a call from UConn coach Geno Auriemma recommending Mays for the job.
“I was recommending him as a person more than a coach," Auriemma said. "In the end, you’re hiring that person. And he’s a good person.
“He’s a hard working guy, he cares about his players and he has great reputation in the state of Texas. He doesn’t want to get a job based on his name.
The recommendation from a coach with 11 national championships helped but Hart was quickly sold after meeting with Mays.
"I immediately knew that he was ready to be a head coach," SMU athletic director Rick Hart said. "He has a tremendous coaching pedigree, having learned from some of the best in the business. Travis displays strong character and a will to succeed. In short, he is a winner."
As Auriemma’s Huskies folded, spindled and mutilated the Mustangs during a 26-2 first quarter, Mays was exceedingly calm. He didn’t rant at the missed shots, the forced shots that UConn blocked and the turnovers that turned into UConn points.
“I have something that I can teach and that we can grow on,” Mays said, noting that his team was outscored just 16 over the game’s final 30 minutes.
Mays worked his way to an All-Southwest Conference player and NBA Draft choice with his positive attitude and dedication. When his play days were on the wane, he happened to cross paths with fellow Longhorn Clarissa Davis, who at the time was an executive with the San Antonio Silver Spurs in the WNBA.
“I mentioned I was interested in coaching,” Mays recalled. “I really had no thoughts about coaching women’s basketball but Clarissa called me and offered me a job with the team.”
If it’s true that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, then Mays has successfully figured out how to break the language barrier.
“The challenge is when you speak from a male’s perspective, the young women hear from a female perspective and hear it in a way you didn’t intend it,” said Mays, whose team posted a significant win over No. 19 Texas A&M on Dec. 5. “The fact that I have a daughter (Cherrell) helps me in that regard. I treat every young lady I’ve coached like they’re my daughter.
“And I’ve evolved in how I’ve coached, starting at the pro level and now college where you’re dealing with maybe 15 different personalities that can change during the time you coach ‘em.”
Landers is a good friend of Auriemma’s and while Mays was on the Georgia staff he had the opportunity to visit Storrs and observe how the Huskies’ championship machine operates.
“It’s all about the details,” Mays said of his takeaway from Storrs. “They chart everything in practices, everything is a competition. Geno prepares his players to play the game, not the opponent. They measure themselves in the process to be great, chasing perfection.”
During his college career, Mays has worked for Hall of Famers Jody Conradt (Texas), Andy Landers (Georgia) and Van Chancellor (LSU) and was associate head coach at Texas before moving to SMU. Each job provided him with different pieces but Mays said he learned an important lesson from Chancellor.
“The one thing I learned from all of the coaches I’ve worked for is they cared about the players,” Mays said. “And if you don’t care, they don’t listen. My coaching philosophy is to care about whoever about those people you have a chance to be around and impact.”
When he started his coaching career in the WNBA, he made a wardrobe choice that has become his insignia – Coach Bow Tie. His neckwear is something that helps set him apart.
“The bow tie symbolizes class,” May said. “When you’re a kid, you want to be cool. My dad always said, ‘If everybody’s doing it, what’s cool about it?’ I didn’t understand it then. Maybe the bow tie makes me look like a nerd or whatever.
“It’s almost turned into my brand – I’m the coach who wears a bow tie.”
Wendell Barnhouse is a freelance writer based in Dallas. Follow him on Twitter at @WBBBPB.