Leaving Wright State tough decision for Merriweather

Wright State head coach Katrina Merriweather watches her team play Northern Kentucky during a Horizon League quarterfinal at the Nutter Center in Fairborn Mar. 2, 2021. Wright State won 74-56. E.L. Hubbard/CONTRIBUTED
Wright State head coach Katrina Merriweather watches her team play Northern Kentucky during a Horizon League quarterfinal at the Nutter Center in Fairborn Mar. 2, 2021. Wright State won 74-56. E.L. Hubbard/CONTRIBUTED

FAIRBORN — Katrina Merriweather’s last event as Wright State women’s basketball coach was Picture Day with her team.

But instead of the standard uniforms and gym shoes, the players and coaches wore their best black outfits and spent time primping in front of mirrors as if they were getting ready to attend a formal dance.

“It gives them a chance to get all dolled up — hair done, makeup, their favorite shoes,” Merriweather said of the photo session Monday. “We take a break from some of the sweat clothes and get dressed up.”

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Given how her time at Wright State unfolded, it’s probably fitting that the final function with her team was spent with everyone getting all gussied up.

Along with her sustained success as coach, Merriweather also ended her career in style.

She led the Raiders to their first NCAA victory — for either the women’s or men’s team — with a shocking upset of 15th-ranked Arkansas last week.

That victory — and her 113-47 record over five years that included multiple Horizon League titles — certainly got the attention of athletic directors at the next rung of schools with coaching vacancies.

She was contacted by Memphis shortly after the season and instantly connected with AD Laird Veacht and senior women’s administrator Lauren Ashman.

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“Wright State is a tough place to leave. It’s home. It was not an easy decision. But the people I talked to at Memphis reminded me so much of BG and Joylynn,” she said, referring to Athletics Director Bob Grant and Senior Associate Athletics Director Joylynn Brown.

“I was immediately comfortable, and all I could hear was their excitement for the momentum of the program and what they were looking to do, the investments they were willing to make so the women would have a great experience.

“It was going to take a special place with special people to get me to leave the most special place I’d ever been.”

Her predecessor, Melissa McFerrin, went 193-204 in 13 seasons, including a 4-15 record in 2020-21.

The Tigers haven’t finished better than 10th in the American Athletic Conference in the past three years and haven’t had a winning record since 2015-16.

But Merriweather said the pandemic probably contributed to the plunge last season. And she said McFerrin left a good foundation with high-character players.

“I was taught early in my career that it’s the people that make a place,” she said. “It’s not about money. It’s not about facilities. It’s not about any of that. It’s about the people you work with every day.

Katrina Merriweather
Katrina Merriweather

“Even when things aren’t going well, do you still want to work with and for those people? I could see everybody during the process would be people — whether it was good or bad — that I’d enjoy.”

Telling the Raiders about her plans was the hard part. That came after the photo shoot.

The coaches had taken the players’ phones because word was already leaking out on Twitter. They all gathered in the locker room, and Merriweather broke the news.

“I expressed to them I received an offer and how hard it was to leave them. But the reality of coaching is, I could stay in the same place 30 years, and, when I retire, there’s always going to be a freshman, a sophomore and a junior. It’s inevitable that you’re going to leave someone,” she said. “Plus, I jokingly told them, they were going to leave ME (when they graduated).

“We laughed a little bit, cried a little bit. But they know they’re in good hands with the staff here and BG and the rest of the administration. I anticipate they’ll be patient and let everything unfold the way it’s going to.”

Because of the bonds they’ve developed, some players may be inclined to follow her to Memphis — perhaps even star guard Angel Baker, who has two years of eligibility left and a likely pro career in her future.

Though she didn’t address specific players, Merriweather said she’s encouraging all of them to stay put.

“No matter who the coach is, they have each other. I didn’t make any shots in the NCAA tournament. I didn’t pass any balls or get any rebounds. That was all them,” she said. ‘I don’t know why they wouldn’t do everything they could to have conversations about staying here together and figuring out how to do it again.”

Merriweather, who came to Wright State as an assistant in 2010, said the Raiders have ideal options for the next coach among her assistants: Tennille Adams, Ashley Barlow and Abby Jump.

Grant has a history of promoting assistants when coaches leave. But he said his top priority is to find the best candidate, even if that means looking elsewhere.

No matter who the choice is, Merriweather has left quality players and a winning culture. And she believes the new staff will warm to the school as she did.

“We talk here about student-athletes and treating them as people first, students second and athletes third,” she said of the athletic department motto. “As a coach, I get treated the same way, too.

“People think it’s a no-brainer (to go to Memphis), but it’s not a no-brainer to walk away from here and the culture BG has established. It’s been very emotional the last few days.

“It’s hard to leave home. And that’s what this has been for the last 11 years.”

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