Coaches are leaders and, for many, heroes, from the little leagues where they shape and guide our youth to the Olympics and the pros, where they lead some of our society’s most influential role models.
In our current athletic landscape, openly LGBT coaches are rare, which makes Vanderbilt’s selection of Stephanie White as its new head coach of women’s basketball all the more remarkable. Last year, White, head coach of the WNBA’s Indiana Fever, came out as a lesbian in protest of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).
In the coming months, White’s new role will no doubt make hers a household name in Nashville. And there is no doubt that, as she leads Vanderbilt to victory, she will also become a role model for LGBT youth in Tennessee and LGBT athletes across the country.
The Early Years
White’s youth was dominated by sports. Growing up in the rural Midwest in the 1980s, options for girls in athletics were extremely limited. This didn’t stop White—she just went toe-to-toe with the boys.
“When I first started playing organized basketball in the fourth grade, I played on the YMCA boys’ team in Danville, Illinois,” White said. And it wasn’t just basketball. “I was on the boys’ soccer team because, again, they didn’t have girls’ teams, and baseball. My dad coached a little league baseball team. So growing up I always had to play with the guys, because there just weren’t opportunities at that young age to play girls’ sports.”
While it wasn’t unheard of, it wasn’t common either. “Usually I was one of a few girls,” she said, “but there weren’t any issues. Every once in a while you’d get boys heckling you, but once they realized you could play, they stopped. And that happened in nearly every sport, especially baseball more than anywhere else.”
Proving herself with the boys cemented some lifelong friendships, she explained: “What’s fun is … a lot of these guys I grew up playing soccer with, I still keep in contact with… Same thing with my Y basketball teammates.”
The Scholarship Dream
At a young age, White started to think about playing college ball. “I told my parents that I wanted to get a college scholarship,” she said, “and, of course, I think that they wanted to support my goal. But coming from a small town in that day and age it didn’t seem as realistic. But my parents did everything they could to put me in a position to get that scholarship: they took me to camps, they let me play AAU [Amateur Athletic Union Girls Basketball], and were out and involved in trying to get me to places where I might get seen.”
In middle and high school, White joined the girls’ teams. Around this time, her dream of a college scholarship started to seem attainable. In middle school, she explained, “I got my first college letter, ironically from Louisiana Tech’s Nell Fortner, who became one of my college coaches [at Purdue], and I got a letter from Colorado.”
Her high school career cemented that collegiate dream. “In Indiana at that time we didn’t have a classed basketball system, we were all once class, and I think we lost maybe nine games my entire high school career. We never won a championship, but at the same time it was a pretty successful high school career!”
Ultimately, White’s decision came down to Purdue versus Vanderbilt, ironically, and Purdue won out. She joined a team just coming off a Final 4 appearance, and White’s freshman year the team was, on paper, one of the most talented in the country. But the team underperformed that year, and Purdue sacked coach Lin Dunn.
White’s sophomore year thus began with a team in disarray: three scholarship players returned—plus two freshman recruits—and the team was rounded out by walk-ons. However, under the leadership of Nell Fortner, the Purdue women won the Big Ten title that year [1996-97].
“Then Nell Fortner left to become the Olympic coach,” White explained, “and Carolyn Peck, who was an assistant, took over for my last two years. So I played for three coaches in four years. We were fairly successful … won multiple Big Ten championships, and won a National championship my senior year.”
White’s summary of her college career, particularly her senior year, is overly humble. That season, her team went 28-1 during regular season play, and the team won the 1999 NCAA Women’s Division I Basketball Tournament—a first for Purdue women’s basketball. White was named National Player of the Year and Big Ten Player of the Year, among many other honors.
The Pros: From Team Player to Coaching Staff
Playing professional ball wasn’t a dream of White’s growing up, as college ball had been. “When I started college, there was no professional women’s basketball league,” White recalled. “We had to go overseas to play.”
Halfway through her college career that changed with the formation of the WNBA. “That inaugural season was when it first became a reality,” she said, “and I thought, ‘Hey, I might be able to play after college!’ Before then, it really wasn’t a thought…”
White seized the opportunity when drafted by the Charlotte Sting, where she played one season before the Indiana Fever was added to the WNBA as an expansion team. “I came back and played four seasons in Indiana for the Fever. Being able to continue to play in my home state was awesome.”
Injuries cut White’s career short. “I started coaching college, then came back into the pros … to be a part of first WNBA championship team in Indiana [as assistant coach] in 2012. So the journey from being on the inaugural season with the Fever to the team’s very first championship as assistant coach to then being head coach of the franchise I started for is really pretty cool!”
Throughout her early life, White’s personal life often took a back seat. “It was my family and it was basketball, and relationships were just something that hung out on the side,” she said. “My ex-husband and I started dating at fourteen, but it was really still … that was kind of on the back burner.”
White basically described a situation where she coasted along, guided by societal expectations. “You grow up in a small town, and you say, ‘Okay, well, I’m going to meet somebody, I’m gonna get married, and I’m gonna have children, and that’s just how it’s going to happen.’ We kind of did it because it was the next thing we were supposed to do.”
So while White excelled in her sport, her personal life was marked by relationship and internal struggles. “As we struggled with being young and immature, and dealing with finances and everything you have to deal with in a normal couple anyway, then I started struggling with my identity as well,” she said. “I just wasn’t in a very good place.”
“It took—even after my divorce—a number of years for me to work through that,” she added, “and to get myself out of being depressed, to get myself out of worrying about disappointing people, to really find who I am on a personal level and how I can find happiness and fulfillment outside of the sport of basketball.”
Coming Out … the First Time
Key to living more authentically, it turned out, was meeting Michelle Fletcher, her future wife, while in Boston for the Final 4. “I went to the Final 4 in Boston with my friends,” Fletcher recalled. “Somehow we ended up at the same bar, and we ended up meeting and talking for a long time. We exchanged numbers, but at that time I wasn’t even sure what her sexuality was.”
“I just knew that I was immediate drawn to her when I met her in Boston,” Fletcher readily admitted. In fact, she added, “I mean I knew right away that I wanted to marry her, as soon as I saw her: you know how you kinda meet someone and say, ‘Hey, I could see myself marrying that person…’? It was exactly like that for me.” She added, with a laugh, “It took her a little bit longer!”
Not too much longer, though. Over the following year, while White was coaching in Toledo and Fletcher was working in Florida at Disney World, the two developed a relationship and got to know each other, largely by phone.
“I hadn’t known her long,” White said, “but I knew that this relationship was different, and so I wanted to talk to my family about it, and my parents were awesome… My family had seen me go through some struggles, and they certainly knew that it was difficult for me to find myself in the public eye.”
No doubt, after her coming out, their successful daughter’s personal trials made more sense. “I had struggled with myself, with my confidence, with letting people down and disappointing people. And I think at that time I really had to realize that my identity isn’t wrapped up in my sport, it’s not wrapped up in whether I’m gay or straight or my sexual orientation. My identity is wrapped up in my heart,” White said, “and I had to come to grips with that. And I don’t think I was able to do that until I met Michelle…”
When White was hired by the WNBA’s Chicago Sky, the couple made a big leap. Fletcher told White, “Hey, I’m a Midwest girl, I need to get back to the Midwest anyways. Why don’t I just move to Chicago, and we can start our life there?”
They lived in Chicago for about three-and-a-half years, and along the way, a friendly bet culminated in a Disney Land elopement! As the “loser” of friendly wager on a football game, White had to take Fletcher on a vacation to her destination of choice: Disney Land.
“It just so happened it was right when California decided to allow same-sex marriage, before Prop 8,” Fletcher explained. “So she said to me before the trip—and I don’t know if she was joking or not—”We should just get married out there.’ I was like, ‘You want to get married?’”
“At that point in time, we just decided that it was just going to be us. We told our families later that we’d done it,” Fletcher said, and she admitted that, “they were a little mad that they weren’t at the wedding. I keep telling her we should renew our vows, but that’s not going to happen this year, so I guess we’ll have to wait for the twenty year!”
When their three-and-a-half years in Chicago drew to an end with the opportunity to return to Indiana, White had some concerns. “One of the things that concerned me,” White said, “was, ‘Am I ready emotionally—am I ready to be Stephanie White in Indiana again—with my wife?’ We knew at the time that we were going to start having children. And I was. I felt very comfortable, I felt very content. We had come a long way in the world by that time… Everybody welcomed us with open arms. But I still hadn’t publicly come out.”
Coming Out Publicly
Despite having had three children, the couple still hadn’t come out publicly when the controversy over Indiana’s RFRA began to unfold. “It’s not like we were hiding who our family was,” Fletcher explained. “We just weren’t putting it out there, and we were trying to protect our children too.”
“We had just had our twins, and we have an older son Landon,” White said, “and I just felt like it was the right time for me to use my voice and to talk about the reality of how the legislation would impact real families. Ultimately, I didn’t want our children to feel any different, that our family’s any different than any other family… We want to be treated the same way that every family is treated. And I don’t want to have to explain to them one day why we aren’t. So it was the right time and the right moment…”
“So, she actually came to me,” Fletcher recalled, “and said, ‘Hey, this RFRA thing is horrible. I’ve been contacted by this guy named Bob Kravitz, who is a writer. He wants me to talk about our family and how RFRA affects us.’”
Fletcher, a self-described extrovert, said she was open to whatever, as long as the children were protected, but she was concerned for White, whom she described as a very private person. “She said, ‘I feel like I’m someone who could have a voice and I want to do it’,” Fletcher recalled. “And I said, ‘Okay, well I support you, if you are comfortable with everything that’s going to bring.’”
For White, it was simple. “I felt like for as many people as think they know me, if they don’t know about my personal situation, maybe lending a face and a voice to the issue would help them not be on the fence. ‘Oh, well I know her. I didn’t know that.’ Or, ‘Oh, I guess I didn’t think about how it might affect her children growing up.’”
Fletcher is most proud of the message White sent their own children. “A big part of her … didn’t want our children to look back and say, ‘Hey, why weren’t you involved in this?’ It was almost like she was thinking, ‘I want our children to be proud that their mother was involved in something like that,’ which brings tears to my eyes because it’s a really big thing…”
White’s move had some of the impact she hoped. “I have had people who have written me or messaged me and just talk about how incredibly proud they are of me and my family,” she said.
She has also gotten “letters from young people—especially young people who grew up the same way I did, in small towns, but who may not have had the same family support—talking about the fact that ‘When my parents found out about you, they accepted me, and it helped me so much to be able to have this conversation with my family or with my friends or with other people.’”
For White, this is the most important opportunity her position has brought her. “It brings tears to my eyes a lot of times to read the struggles that some of these young people go through … I’m so grateful that they have people that they can look up to and say, ‘Well, they made it through, it’s going to be better. I can have all the things that I want to have, I can have a family, children, a career—a life—and I can be who I am, and I don’t have to second guess that.’ And I think that’s so powerful, and I’m so lucky, and humbled, that I’ve been able to have a small impact in someone’s life that way.”
Before coming out, White and Fletcher engaged the LGBT community in a more limited way. “We have been involved a lot—my team, my organization, and myself—in the Pride activities and Pride Week that go on here,” White said. “The team has been actively involved in a lot of things.”
But since RFRA, they have expanded their involvement significantly. “Michelle is actively involved in Indiana Youth Group, an organization here that helps young people—teenagers and young adults—who really don’t have any other outlets…. I went to an event last summer that was really the first time I had any involvement with Indiana Youth Group, and I told Michelle, after going to that event and hearing the stories of the survival … I just said, ‘We have to get more involved!’”
White said her wife has “really hit the ground running, and I get involved and help her and help the organization in any way that I can, whether it be events or speaking or lending a hand in any way, but she’s really spearheaded that effort… I was really, really proud of Michelle, because she helped the group put on its very first gala this year to raise money, to raise awareness…”
For Fletcher, who has a strong background in event planning from her work at Hyatt and Disney, that work gave her an outlet for her own gifts. “Basically the reason for our gala was to shine a light on suicide prevention, so I helped with a lot of the sponsorships and a lot of the planning, and I really got my feet wet again in event planning, sponsorship and marketing,” she said. “And it was for an incredible cause. Through that experience I kinda found my passion again.”
Now that White is headed to Vanderbilt, they plan to bring that same energy here. “We decided,” Fletcher said, “from a community standpoint, we wanted to be involved in anything that involved children’s organizations, LGBTQI, of course, and health and fitness.”
Specifically, Fletcher mentioned her hopes that they would be able to support programs at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital, OASIS Center, Big Brothers, Big Sisters, Girl Scouts, the YMCW/YWCA, pending Vanderbilt University Compliance approval.
Such engagement isn’t just part of their personal commitment to the community. It’s also part of White’s vision for building her team. “We want our team to be able to reengage with the community, be very service oriented,” she said. “One of the amazing experiences I had as a player at Purdue was that our fans were family… We were actively engaged in one another’s lives, and I want that for our team and I want that for our community.”
“I think that our players can find great resources and mentors with strong community leaders,” White said, acknowledging that it’s not just the community that benefits from such engagement. “We’re going to grow our fan base by being engaged. We’re going to give back to our community by being out and about … and we’re going to grow in every way possible. We want to be championship people, championship athletes, championship students—we don’t want one or the other… I know that’s a process, but we want to start by hitting the ground running and the most important thing for us is to establish relationships.”
White looks forward to this chapter in her career with great anticipation. “Vanderbilt brings the mentality of being a champion on every level—academically achieving greatness, athletically the opportunity to achieve greatness—because high achievers come to Vanderbilt University, and that’s what I want to be surrounded by, high achievers. We want to take the program to another level,” she said. “I just want to continue to build upon what [Coaches Foster and Balcomb] have done and take this program to a championship level.”
Having connected with her team, White is clearly pumped. “We have a great group, and I’m really excited to get to work with them,” she said. “Every time I’m talking to them, I can tell they just get it. And now we want to give them the resources to go out and be able to make a difference in other people’s lives, and it’s going to be a lot of fun. We’re so excited!”
On a personal level, too, White and Fletcher look forward to the opportunities the move brings their family. “We are super excited about our family being able to be actively involved with the whole athletic program and just being able to put down roots.”
For more information about Coach White and Vanderbilt Women’s Basketball, visit vucommodores.com. And, of course, head down to Vanderbilt for the first official game of the season on November 11, 2016, at 7:00 p.m.