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Gay News Sponsor Windy City Times 2015-11-25
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Sherri Murrell: The only out Division I college basketball coach
by Ross Forman, Windy City Times

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Three years ago, Sherri Murrell was approached by an administrator at Portland State University, where she is the head women's basketball coach, to see if she'd like a photo of her family included in the team's annual media guide, just as other coaches do.

It was a casual offer that she immediately agreed to, not even thinking twice about it.

"That's what started this whole firestorm," said Murrell, who is the only openly gay Division I women's college basketball coach.

She has been at Portland State since 2007 and been a head coach at three other schools dating back to 1993. She was an assistant coach during 1990-1993 at three schools—Pepperdine, BYU and George Fox—and at Portland State from 1996-98.

"I have had nothing but good responses" since coming out, Murrell said. "I have not had one negative response, and I thought for sure I'd get some backlash from some who just didn't care for my lifestyle. But I've had nothing but [a] great reception."

Murrell, 44, played at St. Mary's Academy in Portland, Ore., and was a starter on the school's 1985 state championship team. She then played college basketball for two seasons at Louisiana-Lafayette before transferring to Pepperdine for two seasons, where she was named to the All-West Coast Conference team as a point guard.

"It's always kind of funny when I hear that I am the only [out Division I women's college basketball head coach] … because it's 2012 and it's all around us. I think there are a lot of people who are in this business who [also are gay], but to be the only openly out Division I coach just seems odd."

Murrell coached at Washington State during 2002-2007, yet resigned with three years remaining on her contract "because I just was not happy," she said.

Nor was she out at the time.

"When I chose to coach at Portland State, I knew that I could be myself, could have my family around, and not feel like I have one life [as the coach] and also lead another when I get out of the office. I can be myself [at Portland State]; I can have a picture of my family on my desk.

"The people at Portland State have been very supportive and just believe in me as a coach."

Murrell has compiled a combined 98-60 record at Portland State, highlighted by three consecutive postseason appearances. The team played in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history in 2010.

"I get emails almost daily, from coaches and players, who say that they want to be in this profession [but] only if I feel comfortable—and that I give them hope to do that," Murrell said. "I think there's a generation of people who want to coach, but definitely want to make sure that they're comfortable.

"My partner and I made a conscious decision that my next job [after leaving Washington State,] that I wanted to make sure I was able to be out."

In fact, during her job interview at Portland State, she told administrators that she is a lesbian and asked if that was going to be a problem or an issue. They said, absolutely not. She was told that being out would not affect her job in any way.

Still, she said, "It's sad that I had to ask that, but that's what the fear is and why a lot of coaches are not out."

Murrell's on-court success at Portland State is definitely related to her openness about her off-the-court lifestyle, she said.

"Portland is a great city and Portland State is a great university—and I know I'm going to be a better coach because [I am open, out,] she said. "Being out has made me a better coach because, this is who I am; I don't try to compartmentalize my life. It meant the world to me that I found a university that just first believed in me as a coach and that is OK with my lifestyle.

"It takes a lot of effort, especially as a coach, to hide who you are. In the past, when I coached and was not out, it took effort, and yet you want the complete focus to be on being an amazing coach, making change in kid's lives. So all of my efforts now go into that.

"It's a freedom, to be the best that you can be."

Murrell said people, no doubt, assumed or speculated about her sexual orientation at her other coaching stops, but it wasn't talked about. "Now that I'm out, and talking about it, I think that's what separates me from a lot of people," she said.

"There's so much homophobia in sports, yet we're all trying to work together to end that. I thought coming out who help other coaches also come out, but that hasn't happened."

Murrell said the most memorable responses she's received since coming out have been from students who want to get into coaching: "I really feel [those students] are going to be the change in the world. They tell how they were likely not going to get into coaching, but that I now give them hope to do that. That's the change we're going to see.

"I want women to follow their dream, their passion, and not have to get out of [the profession] because of homophobia; that would be really sad to me."

Knowing now the fallout, or lack thereof, to her coming out, Murrell said she would have come out, "a heckuva lot earlier because it has been a good experience for me."

She said she could have come out while at Washington State because the setting and timing were right, but didn't. "All things happen in good timing—and it happened just right for me," she said.

Murrell said she has been widely accepted in Portland and around campus, particularly for her boldness and honesty.

"Being a champion is really about us coming together and accepting and including everyone on the team, and really pushing hard for a common goal," Murrell said. "We all come from different religious, socio-economic backgrounds, upbringings, etc. Being a champion includes acceptance.

"These kids don't care [about your sexual orientation]. They just want you to be a good coach, to teach them and help them be successful; that's what they care about the most.

"One thing I often hear [from closeted coaches] is, 'Others will think I will have a gay program [if I come out], that I'm only going to recruit gay players, that it's going to be known as a gay program.' Are you kidding me? When I go out recruiting, I look for the best player, the best person, the best academic person. I could care less what they do in their personal lives, who they choose to love.

"I think that's the same thing they want from me—a coach who can lead them to a championship, a coach who is going to care for them."

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