Traverse City Record-Eagle
---- — EAST LANSING (AP) — Michigan State women’s basketball coach Suzy Merchant has helped the Spartans match a school record with a fifth straight trip to the NCAA tournament.
No one who knows her is surprised.
Merchant’s high school coach in Traverse City recalled her calling him every day for a year when she was in middle school to talk about the game.
“When she finished the seventh grade, she said to me, ‘I want to be an All-State player. What do I have to do?’” former Traverse City girls basketball coach Jim Anderson recalled. “I said, ‘Five-hundred shots a day and work on your ball-handling.’ So she went to the gym for 365 straight days and called me every single day to tell me about it.”
Oakland University basketball coach Greg Kampe said he noticed something special about Merchant from the moment he hired her in 1992, when he was the school’s athletic director, to be an assistant for the Golden Grizzlies women’s basketball team.
“She understood the game in a way I haven’t seen from many young people — ever,” Kampe said Wednesday. “And, she was the first one in the office at 6 a.m. and the last one to leave at the end of the day.”
Michigan State President Lou Anna K. Simon, meanwhile, marvels at Merchant’s toughness, tenacity and spirit.
Those qualities, which Simon said she can see reflected by Merchant’s players, have helped the Spartans make a smooth transition after coach Joanne P. McCallie led them to the 2005 NCAA final and left two years later to lead Duke.
“With Coach P, we got into the national spotlight and with Suzy, we’ve sustained success,” Simon said Monday night in the Michigan State women’s basketball office. “I think she did a remarkable job this season in particular with all of the injuries she had to endure.”
The fifth-seeded Spartans will open the NCAA tournament on Saturday against 12th-seeded Marist in College Park, Md. They lost some key players to graduation last season and had setbacks this season because of injuries, but refused to lose hope.
“Coach wouldn’t let us make excuses,” senior forward Courtney Schiffauer said. “She believed in us, and we believed in her.”
Michigan State hired Merchant six years ago after she led Eastern Michigan from 1998-2007 and Saginaw Valley State from 1995-98, a stint she said wouldn’t have been possible without Kampe.
“I was only 25, but he was the one who encouraged me to apply for the job at Saginaw Valley,” Merchant recalled. “Without him, and the other people who have had an influence in my career and life, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
While many want to praise Merchant for what she has done, she would rather deflect the attention.
“The credit goes to the kids,” she said.
Soon after Merchant had her first of two children, she struggled with the juggling act of being a mother and a coach in her first season at Michigan State.
“I was miserable,” she recalled. “When I was at home, I felt guilty that I wasn’t working enough. When I worked, I felt guilty that I wasn’t there for my baby.
“I had a defining moment after we lost a game. I picked up Ty out of his crib while he was sleeping and put him on my chest. While getting very emotional, I said to myself, ‘Wherever I’m at, I have to be the best I can be.’ Now when I’m at home, I try to be the best mom I can be. When I work, I try to be the best coach I can be. Since then, I stopped beating myself up trying to wear two hats at once.”