Remembering Bill Sheahan
“When my daughter got to high school, she was on the basketball team, and she reminded me that I had always worked with my sons and now it was her turn.”
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On September 7, 2002, Bill Sheahan passed away tragically as the result of a traffic accident. Just four years earlier, he had stepped away from one of the winningest coaching careers in Division I and Division II women’s basketball, a career that may have never been, were it not for the prodding of his daughter Deborah, 45 years prior.
As The Washington Post reported after his death, Sheahan entered the world of basketball as a full-time profession for his daughter, but he became a success in it because of his knack for the game and his ability to build complete teams.
In the 1950s, Sheahan was a three-sport athlete in the Washington, D.C. area, graduating from Georgetown in 1960 before becoming a sales agent for New York Life for two decades.
All the while, he spent nearly 20 years coaching boys basketball at the youth level; he led his sons’ teams and Catholic youth teams in the area before his daughter asked when her turn would come.
“When my daughter got to high school, she was on the basketball team,” Sheahan told The Washington Post. “She reminded me that I had always worked with my sons and now it was her turn.”
Sheahan didn’t just tell Deborah she was right; he walked the walk, too. He was hired on at the Academy of Holy Cross in Kensington, where he quickly dominated competition in the area. From 1975 to 1981, Sheahan led the girls basketball team to five Catholic League titles and a 162-4 record which included 108 consecutive wins in his final four years there.
“I get lots of satisfaction out of motivating young people into turning out well, out of motivating someone to excellence,” he told the Post back in the late 1970s.
As Sheahan became a highly sought-after basketball coach, he realized the growing potential of the women’s game and what it meant for the young girls to see that too.
“It’s been taken from a social affair to being a lot more serious,” he told The Gettysburg Times. “They realized if they worked hard, they had something to shoot for.”
In 1981, Sheahan moved to the college ranks, taking over the head coaching position at Mount St. Mary’s on the back of Fred Carter’s departure back to the NBA, this time as an assistant coach for the Atlanta Hawks.
The Mountaineers were coming off their best year, a 23-11 finish in the 1980-1981 season under Carter, with Margaret Diaz in her junior year and All-American Becky Lovett returning after a redshirt year. Immediately, Sheahan was impressed by his junior star.
“Diaz is the most skilled college women’s basketball player I’ve ever seen and that includes (Nancy) Lieberman,” he told reporters in his first few months with the team.
Though they played in Division II, it was common for Mount St. Mary’s to schedule a slate of Division I opponents as well, and they went toe-to-toe with them consistently.
Diaz led the squad with 25.9 points per game on 47% shooting from the field as the Mountaineers beat Immaculata and had C. Vivian Stringer’s eventual runner-up Cheyney State team on the ropes, tied in the last three minutes before falling 66-65. Diaz had 37 points on 16-22 shooting from the field that game.
Sheahan’s team finished 24-5 that year, ranked No. 4 in the country before falling to Cal Poly-Pomona in the Final Four. But after a record-setting rookie year as a head coach, Sheahan would be faced with the task of proving he could win with a remodeled team.
“I very honestly feel that this is a rebuilding year,” Sheahan told The Evening Sun prior to the 1982-1983 season.
Stringer must have liked what she saw in Diaz’s 37-point game against Cheyney State the year before, as she recruited her to finish her collegiate career under her wing. With Diaz gone, Lovett out for good with nagging injuries, and graduation taking its toll, the Mountaineers entered the new season having lost 75% of their scoring and 60% of their rebounding from the prior postseason.
Despite all that, Sheahan coached his team to an unexpected successful season, his first of many to come. Moving up the Division II ranks, the Mountaineers were ranked No. 3 by early March, sitting at 25-2 after 21 consecutive wins in a “rebuilding year.”
“I think I’ve got the makings of a champion here. I don’t see anyone tightening up,” Sheahan told The Evening Sun that March. “We’ve got a lot of poise and we’ve got a family atmosphere.”
Family was his entrance in to coaching, and family was what he made it from early on.
Unfortunately, the Mountaineers’ poise wasn’t enough to get past No. 13 Virginia Union in the second round of the tournament, but the outlook was promising, with 12 of 13 varsity players returning the following year.
Despite what Sheahan called “one of the closest teams” he’d coached, No. 2 Mount St. Mary’s was ousted by Virginia Union again in the second round of the 1984 NCAA Tournament, finishing 26-2 and earning Sheahan Division II Coach of the Year honors.
Early in the 1984-1985 season, Sheahan’s squad avenged that loss, beating Virginia Union for his 100th win at Mount St. Mary’s. In fact, he’d get up to 171 total wins (and just 23 losses) with Mount St. Mary’s at the Division II level before they moved to Division I following the 1987-1988 season.
In 1985, Sheahan shared his coaching philosophy with The Gettysburg Times, saying, “If we win one more game than we lose then it will be a good season.” But clearly he aimed so much higher. Sheahan’s teams never won fewer than 23 games in those first seven years, despite schedules full of Division I competition and teams frequently ravaged by injuries and player movement.
So how would all that success translate to the Division I level?
“That’s the beauty of coaching collegiate sports. The cast is always changing.”
Thank goodness Sheahan found the beauty in it, because change was the only constant in his coaching career. Well, that and winning.
Ahead of the 1988-1989 season, he brought in what would be a program-definer. You might know Vanessa Blair-Lewis for her successful current run as head coach at Bethune-Cookman, but 30 years ago she was the Mountaineers’ standout. But she had to wait a season, after fracturing multiple bones in her hand early in her freshman season.
Instead Mount St. Mary’s was led by guard Kim Rhock, who through late January was averaging 17.6 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 7.3 assists. In what could be a year of struggle for a team at a new level, Sheahan’s group instead finished 17-9, another winning season under Sheahan, though certainly it wasn’t up to his standards.
The following year, Mount St. Mary’s joined the Northeast Conference, bringing back NEC Preseason Player of the Year Rhock and a second chance with Blair.
All they did was run through the conference. Finishing 23-6 overall and 14-2 in conference, the Mountaineers were regular season champions in their first year, Rhock fulfilled her destiny as Player of the Year, Blair was named to the Second Team, and Sheahan was voted the conference’s Coach of the Year by his peers. Though they fell to Fairleigh Dickinson 70-65 in the NEC title game, year one was nothing short of a success.
In the 1990-1991 season, the success continued. With Rhock gone due to graduation, Blair stepped in to the spotlight, leading the team with an average of 16.4 points on 43.1% shooting from the field, 10.9 rebounds, 2.6 steals, and 2.4 blocks on her way to NEC Player of the Year honors.
Blair repeated as Player of the Year in the 1991-1992 season alongside Coach of the Year Sheahan as Mount St. Mary’s finished 22-4 overall and an NEC-leading 15-1 record. However, once again they fell to Fairleigh Dickinson in the final tournament game. Blair wrapped up her collegiate career in the program’s top ten in points (1,488), rebounds (849), blocks (242) — she still leads all-time in that category — and steals (241).
Meanwhile, Sheahan kept pushing toward success on the national stage. The 1993-1994 season saw the NCAA Tournament expand to 64 teams, and for the first time, the NEC would have an automatic bid. Sheahan wasn’t shy about wanting that shot.
“The NCAA Tournament is like a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for us,” he told The Gettysburg Times. As he and his staff kept aiming for that goal, they also pushed for the best for their athletes as students.
“When we look at kids, we tell them that our number one priority at Mount St. Mary’s is education,” Sheahan said, and his team backed that up. While defending their first NEC Tournament title, his group maintained a 3.31 grade-point average, with nine of 12 scholarship players at or above a 3.0 and six earning a 3.8+ or better.
Success in the classroom matched up with their success on the court, as that year the Mountaineers dominated the NEC, finishing 18-0 in conference and 25-4 overall. Sheahan was named Coach of the Year again, and sophomore Susie Rowlyk cemented her place in Mount St. Mary’s history as NEC Player of the Year.
They won three more in the NEC Tournament to earn their first berth in the NCAA Division I Tournament, where, as fate would have it, they matched up against C. Vivian Stringer once again, this time against her No. 13 Iowa team. They were outmatched all-around, though, as the Hawkeyes blew the Mountaineers away 70-47.
The following year, Sheahan and his team proved once again what was far from in doubt by this point: the previous season was no fluke. After getting his 300th win as a collegiate head coach in early January 1995, Sheahan led Mount St. Mary’s to another NEC title sweep, including 18 straight wins through the end of the conference tournament.
Once again, they matched up with the No. 13 team in the country, this time falling 82-55 to Alabama in the first round of the tournament.
1995-1996 saw another sweep of conference awards for Mount St. Mary’s, Sheahan earning Coach of the Year honors as he led NEC Player of the Year Amy Langville and Newcomer of the Year Megan Gardiner to a 21-8 overall record, including 15-3 in conference. They fell to St. Francis in the NEC Tournament title game in what would end up being their final chance at a NCAA Tournament berth in the Sheahan era.
“I’ve spent my entire adult life coaching basketball and it’s obviously a very difficult decision to make,” Sheahan told reporters as he announced his intention to retire from coaching prior to the 1998-1999 season. “I came to the conclusion that it’s time to make decisions with my head instead of my heart.”
After 17 years of coaching, including what Sheahan said was a 15-year battle with insulin-dependent diabetes and years of doctors telling him to stop coaching, Mount St. Mary’s winningest coach finally did just that.
Posting a 372-104 record, including a NCAA Division II Final Four appearance, two Division II Coach of the Year awards, seven consecutive NEC regular season titles, three NEC Tournament titles, four NEC Coach of the Year honors, and a pair of NCAA Division I Tournament appearances, Sheahan ended his time at Mount St. Mary’s without a losing season.
In his place, former Mountaineers star and NEC Player of the Decade Vanessa Blair was promoted from assistant coach to head coach.
“I learned from Coach Sheahan a long time ago that if you recruit good people and good students you can’t go wrong,” she told reporters after her hiring. She continued his legacy with a pair of 20-win seasons and six more seasons at or above .500 in the NEC.
In 1999, Sheahan was inducted in to the Mount St. Mary’s College Sports Hall of Fame. After his death, Mount St. Mary’s Athletic Director Harold Menninger called Sheahan “an absolute winner,” and former standout player Susie Rowlyk was inducted along with him in to the NEC Hall of Fame as part of the 2015-2016 class.
Entering the 2019-2020 season, Sheahan still ranks seventh all-time in Division I women’s basketball with a 78.2 winning percentage, behind only Geno Auriemma, Leon Barmore, Kim Mulkey, Pat Summitt, Karl Smesko, and Tara VanDerveer. Across all three divisions, he is 22nd in the same category.
The records will always show the winning culture Sheahan created, but his former players carry on the legacy of just how he did it. He started coaching for his family, and year-after-year, family is what he built.
“Coach Sheahan was a brilliant coach who had the amazing ability to bring out the best in everyone,” Rowlyk said about his Hall of Fame honor. “He helped us reach beyond ourselves. He created a winning environment based not only on the fundamentals of basketball, but also on the values of Mount St. Mary’s. He was driven by his faith in God and his love for his family, including our Mount basketball family.”
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