Former walk-on Wilson reflects on rise to Division I head coach
STEPHENVILLE – A behind-the-back crossover drive to the basket inside Wisdom Gym planted the seeds for Misty Wilson to become the first-ever Division I women's basketball coach in Tarleton State University history.
Rewind the clock to 1998. Wilson, then a freshman student at Tarleton, was offered the chance to compete in a 5-on-5 pickup game against the women's team.
The squad had nine players that day. Players then spotted Wilson shooting baskets on an adjacent hoop. The Recreation Sports Center had not yet been built, meaning students could hoop at Wisdom Gym.
Wilson, who played her prep ball at Burleson High School, said "sure," when one player asked if she wanted to help the team scrimmage.
The future Tarleton Hall of Famer made quite the impression. A self-described "wiry little player," she put a guard on skates with the crossover and took the ball straight to the rim on one of her first touches.
"Little did they know that was like the only move I had at the time," Wilson said with a laugh. "Girl overplayed me, and I just went behind the back and laid it up. I'm extremely, extremely competitive, so that probably stood out."
It proved to be a selling point. Players got in the ear of head coach Claude Cummings, as coaches aren't permitted to watch pickup games per NCAA Rules and Regulations.
Soon after, Wilson was offered a partial scholarship to join the women's basketball team.
"That thing, it couldn't have been scripted – how it happened," she said. "I just happened to be in the gym that day and I think with God in control, it just kind of led me here."
Fast forward 23 years into the future, where Wilson pioneered two landmark achievements for Tarleton women's basketball. The Texans' 76-50 home victory over Howard Payne on Nov. 28 was the program's first win in the Division I era. Perhaps more significant was the team's 79-63 triumph at UTRGV on Jan. 27, which constituted as Tarleton's first true Division I victory and win over a Western Athletic Conference foe.
"If you want to use imagery, it's almost like stepping through a doorway," Wilson said of the HPU game. "I felt like we were leaving one thing behind and stepping into something new, is really the feeling that I felt. It was like, 'OK, this journey is now beginning.' It didn't matter to me if it was a Division I opponent or not. It just felt like the start of a new journey."
Wilson has now spent 19 seasons on the bench at Tarleton, seven of them as a head coach.
She describes her rise from walk-on to player-turned-coach as a story of hard work.
Coaching collegiately was not on Wilson's radar when she followed her older sister to Tarleton. At the time, teaching fifth- and sixth-grade P.E. was her goal. Wilson completed her student teaching at Gilbert Intermediate School while competing for Tarleton.
Playing college basketball certainly was not the plan either. With four siblings, her parents could not afford to place her on an AAU basketball team. Wilson received opportunities to play at the junior college level but did not engage in the recruiting process.
"There had been no other student-athlete in our family," she said. "My mom didn't go to college, my dad didn't go to college, so there was no frame of reference for them on how to navigate that."
Before that pickup game, though, folks around campus took notice of Wilson's play in intramural games. Rodney McConnell, a former Tarleton men's basketball guard and assistant coach, had class with Wilson and told Cummings to come watch her play.
Wilson had no hesitation when she signed her partial scholarship. In fact, she signed the paperwork in the same coach's office she currently occupies inside Wisdom Gym.
The rest is history for those who are familiar with Tarleton women's basketball. Using defensive fundamentals and quickness, Wilson became the sixth-best scorer in Tarleton history (1,440 career points) and ranks second in steals (326) and free throws made and attempted (433-545).
Wilson, who has a career head coaching record of 117-76, is quick to credit other individuals who have fueled Tarleton's rise from NAIA to Division II and now Division I.
Cummings asked Wilson to be his assistant once her playing career ended in 2002. A year later, Tarleton made a coaching change. New head coach Ronnie Hearne then retained Wilson, in part due to a recommendation from athletic director Lonn Reisman.
"That's really rare, that an AD would try to tell a head coach that, 'You can come in and hire your own people, but I'd really encourage you to hire this one," Wilson said.
She handled all in-game substitutions for Hall of Fame coach Hearne and secured his trust. Wilson earned the promotion to head coach after racking up a 219-126 record as an assistant following Hearne's retirement in 2014.
The Texans enjoyed a recent run of success before making the Division I transition. Wilson guided Tarleton to three consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances from 2017-19.
Despite an uptick in competition and schedule disruptions caused by WAC and NCAA COVID-19 protocol, Wilson has found ways to take a step back and enjoy the ride nonetheless.
She sensed and saw palpable pride and excitement inside the locker room following the Texans' breakthrough win over the Vaqueros. It was a game in which Tarleton led by as many as 18 points, shot a season-high 53 percent from the field and dictated the action from start-to-finish.
"With every loss, I know from a coach's perspective, it feels like the burden gets heavier and heavier," Wilson said. "With that win, that burden became just a little bit lighter. I know our staff kind of celebrated before we went into the locker room because it was hard to get. As with anything in life, the harder it is to get, the more you appreciate it."
Wilson pinpoints two moments as her favorites of Tarleton's inaugural Division I campaign.
She felt considerable pride in Tarleton's 70-60 home loss vs. a still-undefeated California Baptist team on Jan. 15. The Texans were coming off a seven-day quarantine that forced the postponement of games at Grand Canyon a week prior and had just two days to prepare for the WAC's top team.
Tarleton led nine different times in the contest, never trailed by more than 10 points and held the Lancers (16-0, 8-0 WAC) below their season averages in points and assists per game.
"They looked at that situation, and they didn't back down and they didn't flinch," Wilson said. "That's probably been my favorite basketball moment, watching my team just be like, 'OK, let's do this."
She's also enjoyed watching players experience travel opportunities provided by Tarleton's Division I jump. The Texans' schedule has taken them to big cities in Seattle and Phoenix, afforded them a chance to see the true pageantry of big-time college athletics in a game against Florida and featured traditional bus rides through Texas to places like Edinburg and Beaumont.
Back in August, Wilson encouraged players to pay homage to past athletes and coaches who helped the program make the transition. To appreciate and show respect for Tarleton women's basketball through their effort and hard work.
"Just them being 18-22 years old, they don't have a whole lot of appreciation for history," she said. "But with their effort, they're showing that they don't disregard all the hard work and the foundation that's been laid for this program."
Wilson's thoughts were with her players when public address announcer Mike Scott rattled off starting lineups and introduced her as head coach in that first Division I home game vs. HPU. She also thought about her three daughters – Jade, Mya and Kenna – in that moment.
Maintaining a successful program with being a single mom has not been easy. On a few occasions, Wilson has offered to pursue a career change in order to spend more time with her family.
Her kids have had none of it, though. The three are ardent supporters of Tarleton athletics and always tell mom how much they love her job.
"When we played at UTRGV, we were playing at 1 p.m., so they were at school," Wilson said. "I had text messages from both of my older girls who have phones. They were checking the ESPN app and checking the scores of the game. My family, my mom and grandma, they come down and watch and stay with the girls, so they've been a great support system too in trying to alleviate any more of a burden that this job already creates for me. It's been really remarkable for them to witness this and be a part of it as well."
Games have been business as usual now for Wilson. She felt no validation for her career in becoming a Division I head coach, as she was content to continue at Tarleton if the program remained at the Division II level.
Wilson said she now knows what's required to consistently win in the WAC in both play and personnel.
"I think you've got to go in there and you've got to be you," she said. "I don't think you can try to be anything outside of what you've been, because we've been successful, and you've got to take it up a notch."
Basketball x's and o's aside, Wilson still retains a boatload of excitement as her journey continues. And to some extent, fandom and appreciation for a program that began 23 years ago on a spring afternoon inside Wisdom Gym.
"It's remarkable to think that this started with me just choosing to come to school here and stepping out on that floor spending a little time doing something I love and miss doing," Wilson said. "The coaches that I coached under, the coaches that I played under, all contributed to that.
"I actually do reflect on that often, mainly to keep myself grounded and humble, but also to be grateful and to not ever take any of this for granted, because a lot of people don't have this opportunity, and I don't want to take it for granted or shortchange this university or this game and these players in any way."