It’s hard to believe that 30 years have passed since the Missouri State Lady Bears took us on a magical basketball joyride all the way to Hollywood.
Melody Howard, Tina Robbins, Secilia Winkfield and their teammates became local heroes and fans began to flock to Hammons Student Center en masse to cheer for women’s basketball like never before.
Madness ensued in March as Coach Cheryl Burnett’s team won games in Springfield, Iowa City and Boulder, Colorado, to reach the biggest stage of the sport.
Burnett was the architect of that team, which made women’s basketball a part of Springfield’s pop culture and dribbling and shooting a way of life for little girls throughout the city and region.
Three decades later, I asked Burnett if she, like many of us, asks where the time has gone. Thirty years? Really? Wow, wow and triple wow.
“Oh my,” Burnett said last week. “In a way, it seems like a whole different world to me. And in another way, it seems like yesterday. I can be taken right back there in a heartbeat.”
Turning the program around
Burnett prefers to avoid the spotlight these days. She is retired and lives on the shores of Table Rock Lake. She still watches a lot of college basketball and rarely missed a Lady Bears game this season, via television.
While she rarely does media interviews, Burnett was gracious enough to reminisce about the 1991-92 season. The group finished 31-3 and kicked off its NCAA Tournament run with a home-court victory over Kansas, 75-59.
Next up was a Round of 32 game at Iowa, which they won 61-60 in overtime on Winfield’s bank shot with 1.5 seconds to go. Missouri State then journeyed to Boulder, Colorado, for the Sweet 16, and beat UCLA 83-57 and, on March 28, 1992, walloped MIssissippi 94-71 to reach the Final Four.
What a turnaround it was for a program that faced a major building task when Burnett arrived as the head coach.
“That one was so special in the sense that we had really been so bad,” Burnett said of the run-up to the Final Four season. The Lady Bears were 9-17 and 7-20 in Burnett’s first two seasons before things began to turn with a 19-8 record in 1989-90.
The Lady Bears made a big breakthrough in 1990-91, going 26-5 and advancing to the NCAA Tournament for the first time. They beat Tennessee Tech 94-64 before losing to eventual national champion Tennessee, in Knoxville, 55-47.
A self-motivated squad
Burnett said there were no NCAA constraints on practice hours per week back then. The team practiced relentlessly and the players bought in to the hard work.
“They were self-motivated,” she added of the 1991-92 team. “I’ve often said that was one of the easiest teams to coach. They were in the gym working on their free throws and shots between classes.
“We didn’t have to make them. And they self-policed themselves. They got on each other and lifted each other and they expected to compete.”
The players became so confident as the wins piled up that Burnett had to dial back their enthusiasm — at least publicly.
“That group of seniors committed themselves, basically when they were freshmen” that they were going to the Final Four, Burnett said. “That’s just what they were going to do. I’m the one that said, ‘Quit talking about that. You can talk about it in the locker room, but we’ll keep that in-house. We just need to win the next game, the next possession.’
“That group always believed it was going to happen.”
The run ended in the national semifinals as the Lady Bears lost to Western Kentucky. More than anything about the three-week postseason journey, Burnett remembers the fan support, with hundreds of supporters following the team along the way.
“I’m getting goosebumps right now talking to you about it,” she said. “It was so incredible all the people who followed us everywhere. We went to Colorado and we called it Hammons Student Center West. In L.A., I think we had quite a few. Our stay was too short for me to remember how many, but we did have a hotel full of people.”
Back to the Final Four in 2001
That was the second of six straight NCAA Tournament appearances for the program. In 2001, the Jackie Stiles-led Lady Bears and Burnett returned to another Final Four.
Burnett has been asked thousands of times to compare the teams. Both teams were special in their own ways, she said, adding that Tina Robbins, point guard from the 1992 team, summed it up best.
“People would ask which team would beat whom and Tina said, ‘Who cares? It couldn’t happen anyway and we celebrate both of them.’”
It could be debated that the 2001 Final Four team — or excellence for other women’s teams on the college and high school level — doesn’t happen without the 1992 team setting a standard and igniting the enthusiasm. It was a team that changed the culture for the sport in southwest Missouri.
Addressing that, Burnett said it all boiled down to how that team took care of its business on and off the court.
“They were just excellent ambassadors,” Burnett said. “They were ambassadors in the classroom and ambassadors as citizens in the community. They were ambassadors with how to practice and how to play.”
Burnett left Missouri State after the 2001-02 season and, after a year off, became head coach at Michigan. She spent four seasons there before retiring in 2007 and returning to the Ozarks. She still watches basketball closely but talks basketball selectively.
“I kind of say that I keep it in the family,” she said, adding Texas coach Vic Schaefer — who was at Arkansas from 2000-03 while she was at Missouri State — is one she stays in touch with. She also speaks frequently with some of her ex-players who are in coaching, like Charity Elliott, Robbins and Shannon Gage, plus with former assistant Jim Pendergrass.
“I still have a lot of people out there to talk basketball with, but it’s a selective group at this point,” Burnett said, adding that she happily no longer has the stress of the job.
“I live vicariously through all of them and they have to do all the hard work,” she said, with a laugh. “Plus, I don’t have to recruit.”
The week ahead
With spring officially here, as of Sunday, it’s fitting that baseball is in the local spotlight. Missouri State continues its homestand at Hammons Field with a 3 p.m. Tuesday game against Saint Louis University. The Bears then play host to Nevada, the favorite in the Mountain West Conference, at 3 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday.
Drury also is home for a weekend baseball series, at US Baseball Park in Ozark, facing Southern Indiana in a noon Saturday doubleheader and 1 p.m. Sunday game.