SCOTTSBURG, Ind. – When the lights were dimmed in Scottsburg’s ancient Charles Meyer Gymnasium for the introduction of the starting lineup prior to the girls basketball season opener, the darkness was pierced by the probing spotlight on the athletes and somebody’s glowing shoes on the Scottsburg bench.
These were no ordinary sneakers. These had flashing strobes around the soles, the pair of shoes an excited 6-year old would be proud to wear to school and show his friends. They dazzled like a neon sign, even as the lights were restored.
They adorned the feet of Scottsburg coach Donna Cheatham.
Few coaches have walked in those shoes, or in Cheatham’s footsteps. She holds the state record for career wins and hasn’t lost a step after 41 years. She refuses to discuss her age, other than to joke she came over on Noah’s ark, but coaching keeps the 1967 Georgetown College graduate young and fuels her passion for the game.
The game has changed during her remarkable career, and motivating today’s athletes is not as easy as it once was. Cheatham has adjusted, mellowed a little. That explains the shoes.
“The reason I coach now is to see kids excel,” said Cheatham, who has sent more than 70 former players to compete at the college level. “When that stops, I just hope I have enough common sense to know when to get out.”
When she got in, the girls game was in its infancy in Indiana. The IHSAA didn’t crown its first state champion until 1976. During the 1980s, Cheatham helped transform the sport.
Those were the Scottsburg glory years, capped by the ’89 state championship with Miss Basketball Renee Westmoreland.
“Bobby Knight was Indiana basketball,” said ’80 Scottsburg grad Ingrid (Schulze) Royalty, now a Cheatham friend. “Pat Summitt was women’s college basketball. To me, Donna Cheatham is Indiana girls basketball. When we played, we were the team to beat.”
Cheatham put the small Scott County town on the Hoosier basketball map before her first tenure ended in controversy. In 1994, Cheatham was fired for undisclosed reasons. She filed an unlawful-termination lawsuit, which was settled in her favor.
In reality, Cheatham never left. Even after she started coaching again in 1997, she kept her home in Scottsburg and commuted the 18 miles to Southwestern (where she won another state championship).
Even as she guided Southwestern to success, her shadow lingered in Scottsburg as her successors failed to maintain the high standards she established.
When she was invited back in 2009, it proved time does heal wounds. Now the court is named in her honor.
Now the entrance to Meyer Gym is graced by a beautiful historical mural that features Cheatham prominently in a shrine to the past. The 11 banners inside the arena were put there by Cheatham and her players. She hopes to coach long enough to add another.
If she continues, she will set the record (663 wins and counting) so high it might not be touchable. NorthWood’s Steve Neff, who briefly passed Cheatham on the career list, retired after the 2014 season with 653 wins. Roncalli’s Stan Benge has 559 in his 29th season. Everyone else is miles behind the 2003 Hall of Fame inductee.
“If I was really worried about that, I would do nothing but sign up the Class A schools to play,” Cheatham said. “That’s never been one of my goals. I just take care of today, and it makes tomorrow easier.
Cheatham still teaches two classes a day (biology and environmental science), still enjoys the interaction with this latest generation. She just wishes they had the same drive as her former teams.
“I relate everything to the Bible,” Cheatham said. “When people ask me questions, if you don’t want me to quote scripture, don’t ask me. That guides me. And it says in there you can ask for a favor, and I think God gives me a favor with kids. I still think I help kids and give them a purpose.
“I’m excited as long as we get players that really want to work for you. It has changed, because kids don’t have the heart for the game that they did at one time. They want to play at the game instead of playing the game. They just want to belong. I go into it fired up, wanting to win. That’s been a struggle. It’s a totally different game than it was back then.”
Cheatham will also quote John Wooden, one of her coaching role models.
“Basketball is a hard sport,” Cheatham said. “Wooden said it was the hardest sport to play. It comes at you so quickly. It’s like a prom queen with a wart on her nose in front of the spotlight. You can’t hide. You can’t hide in basketball.”
Cheatham isn’t hiding, isn’t running, isn’t quitting. She’s only had five losing seasons in 41 years, a testament to her staying power.
Her shoes, even the glow-in-the-dark ones, weren’t made for walking. Not yet.
DONNA CHEATHAM PROFILE
Winningest coach in Indiana girls’ basketball history with 663-224 record in 41 seasons
Coached at Scottsburg from 1972-1994 and went 379-80 with 13 sectional titles, 9 regional titles, 3 semistate titles and the 1989 state championship.
Coached at Southwestern from 1997-2009 and went 198-92 with 7 sectional titles, 2 regional titles, 2 semistate titles and the 2002 Class 2-A state championship.
Coached at Scottsburg from 2009 to present with 84-51 record and 1 sectional title
Coached 8 Indiana All-Stars, 2 IHSAA Mental Attitude Award winners and 1989 Miss Basketball Renee Westmoreland.
Inducted into Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003