Girls Sports Month: WNBA coach and ESPN analyst Stephanie White -- 'Be in the moment, and be the best you can possibly be'

Stephanie White has been the head coach of the WNBA's Indiana Fever since September 2014 (Photo: Matt Kryger, Indianapolis Star)

Stephanie White has been the head coach of the WNBA’s Indiana Fever since September 2014 (Photo: Matt Kryger, Indianapolis Star)

Stephanie White has had success at every level of basketball from high school to college to USA Basketball to the WNBA and that success has been on the court, on the bench as a coach and behind the microphone for ESPN.

Named Miss Basketball in her home state of Indiana in 1995, White also was the American Family Insurance ALL-USA Player of the Year and the Gatorade Player of the Year at Seeger High in West Lebanon.

At Purdue, she led the Boilermakers to the national championship in 1999 while being named the National Player of the Year. Drafted by the Charlotte Sting in the second round later that year, it was not long before White returned to her Indiana roots to play for the expansion Fever as part of its inaugural roster. She played four years with the Fever before retiring in 2004.

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After several college stops as an assistant coach, she helped the Fever to a WNBA title as an assistant coach in 2012 and then took the team to the WNBA Finals in her first season as a head coach.

Behind the microphone, she has worked for the Big Ten Network and is now with ESPN, where she teams with play-by-play voice Beth Mowins.

ESPN networks will air all 63 games of the NCAA Women’s Tournament, including the Final Four and national title game. Beginning with the regional semifinals all will have national telecast windows on ESPN or ESPN2. With the pairings to be determined Monday, White does not yet have her game assignments but she will be a big presence for the network throughout the tournament.

After the NCAAs, White also will be among the featured guests at the inaugural Indiana Sports Awards from Gannett partner The Indianapolis Star to celebrate the state’s high school athletes April 28 at Lucas Oil Stadium

As part of Girls Sports Month, USA TODAY Sports caught up with White to talk the role sports have played in her life, coaching styles, the evolution of the WNBA and who might be a sleeper in the NCAA Tournament:

Q. Why are sports so important for girls today? What do they mean for you?

I’ve never known my life without sports. Athletics has always been a passion of mine. I just enjoyed playing from the time I could walk. At family gatherings, we’d play whiffle ball, basketball, kickball. I had an active family and sports was ingrained in my life.

I’m passionate about it and that passion is continuing. Young girls need to be active, need to be healthy and have a healthy lifestyle. Go out and enjoy the fresh air. It’s harder to maintain a healthy lifestyle when you’re always indoors. And there are so many life lessons about working with teammates, handling disappointment and setbacks, learning what it takes to be a success, accountability, time management. Those are things that transcend sports into real life. For young girls, sports can give you confidence — going out and competing, especially in youth sports when you’re playing with the boys in the same age group. It can provide the confidence that you can accomplish anything you want to accomplish.

Q: Are there things that are different about girls sports than boys sports, whether it’s team dynamics or other facets of the game?  

I don’t think in youth sports there are any differences. It’s not different until the boys hit their growth spurts and get bigger and stronger. I grew up playing with boys. It wasn’t really until high school that I played girls-specific sports. My son’s leagues have girls and boys combined. Anything you are teaching boys you should be teaching girls whether that’s life lessons or various skill sets.

Stephanie White was named Miss Basketball in Indiana in 1995 at Seeger High (Photo: Indy Star)

Stephanie White was named Miss Basketball in Indiana in 1995 at Seeger High (Photo: Indy Star)

Q: If there is one thing you could say to girls who play sports today, what would it be?

A: I would tell them that as young people, you don’t have to decide on one sport specifically. Anything you enjoy and want to participate in, go out and explore. Work as hard as you possibly can to be the best you can possibly be.

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Whether you go on beyond high school or not or go beyond college, the way to approach sports is the way you approach everything in the rest of your life. Be in the moment, and be the best you can possibly be.

Q: What are the differences between players that come into the WNBA now that you see as a coach vs. when you came into the league as a player?

A: The players that come into league now are much more naturally gifted. They are bigger, stronger, more informed in training and have the benefit of more of that kind of information than when I was coming up.

Beyond the players being great physically, the mentality is different because we were not always exposed to women’s sports and a lot of organized basketball when I was young. We played pickup games with the guy at the park and played outside more than inside. …

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When I was playing, I didn’t have any female role models to look up to. The only people I saw on TV were men. Now there are more athletes, more coaches, more broadcasters. These young women don’t know life without the WNBA and the players like Sheryl Swoopes and Lisa Leslie and Dawn Staley. Or the female role models to say that I want to be like Doris Burke on the broadcasting side or the trainers and the team doctors that they see on television and in person.

Stephanie White had a five-year WNBA career, mainly with the Indiana Fever (Photo: Mpozi Mshale Tolbert , Indy Star)

Stephanie White had a five-year WNBA career, mainly with the Indiana Fever (Photo: Mpozi Mshale Tolbert , Indy Star)

Q: A number of pro leagues in other women’s sports have tried and failed and soccer is attempting to grow its pro league on the heels of the Women’s World Cup. Why has the WNBA been able to keep on growing?

A: For me, I’m just enjoying the ride.

One of the things was we specifically targeted a time of the year where we’re not going to compete with the NFL, NBA, college football or college basketball. We compete with Major League Baseball. We get more eyes on our product because of the time of the year.

We also benefit from being the sister to the NBA. The NBA had an understanding of what it took for that league to get off the ground and becoming what it is today. The NBA people respect the game and want to see women’s basketball succeed. The game itself is very popular. Women’s college basketball has great attendance.

I think soccer is gaining more notoriety and pouplarity than it’s ever had. This is a great time for women’s pro soccer to start up as well.

Q: Are there differences between the way men coach women and the way women coach women?

A: I don’t think there’s a difference in the way we approach the game, our preparation, the things we demand, the expectation you have for your players. All those things about coaching are the same.

I really didn’t think about coaching in elementary or high school. In high school, I had only been exposed to male coaches for basketball. I had a female coach for softball and for volleyball and in college, I played basketball for a male coach.

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I’m a life learner as much as the next guy or gal and there’s not a lot of difference in the way we go about it. Anybody who coaches wants to be the best. The differences are, have you been a player with that type of experience or not been a player? You can understand more of what the players are going through. Sometimes the way you communicate is different and sometimes it’s not. Coaches are discussing and talking about the same things and the game-planning is the same.

Q: With the NCAA Tournament pairings come out Monday, the teams at the top are fairly well situated but what teams could surprise?

A: When you’re talking about teams that can make a run, you look at teams that can score the basketball. Ohio State is a year away, but they could make a run; or you see a team like South Florida on the right day if they get the right draw … A team like Syracuse, with the way they defend and the toughness they play with, they could get on the roll. The Pac-12 has the No. 1 RPI league and you look at teams like UCLA, Oregon State, Arizona State.

It’s all about getting the right draw this year if you’re not South Carolina, Notre Dame, Baylor or Connecticut. Anybody else is fair game with the right opportunity and the right draw to get to the Final Four.

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