It was an early April morning when Stephanie McCormick, Siena College assistant basketball coach, got the call from Randy Eaton, director of athletics at Western Carolina University, that he wanted her to be the Catamounts’ next head women’s basketball coach, a day she will never forget. After briefly allowing it to soak in, McCormick quickly accepted her first head coaching job.
There were times during her 20 years as an assistant coach that McCormick would dream about someday being a head coach. But most of those dream jobs were at Division II schools. It wasn’t until this past year that McCormick shifted her focus.
“From my personal sessions with myself and my meditation and prayer time, something just told me I wasn’t dreaming big enough,” McCormick said. “I wasn’t reaching high enough. And then this position became available. I really tried not to go too far into the thought of being the next women’s basketball coach at Western Carolina without finishing the season there at Siena. It was pretty amazing the way the whole thing happened.”
Growing up in High Point, McCormick did not dream early about wanting to be a basketball player, much less a coach. McCormick was the youngest of five children born to Alfred and Peggy McCormick. Although they lived in the projects, McCormick had a modest upbringing. Her father worked nights, often two jobs. Her mom also worked, and McCormick said she never wanted for anything.
During her middle school years, McCormick began hanging out at the recreation center behind their home. The outdoor basketball courts were where most of the neighborhood kids congregated, whether they played hoops or not. “It was just kind of the old country fun that we used to have.” McCormick began playing basketball and eventually made her eighth-grade team. But she quit after one year to give softball a try. “That was a bad idea. It was too hot,” she said. McCormick went back to the cooler confines of the gym and took up basketball again in the 10th grade. At first, it was just something for her to do after school. Then, things changed.
She began developing relationships with her teammates and coaches, bonds that kept her involved in the game. Then, she started getting good, which opened doors she never imagined. Traveling with her Amateur Athletic Union team and going to different camps allowed McCormick to see areas outside of High Point. Her skills eventually landed her a scholarship to Catawba College, where she became the first player in school history to record 1,000 career points and rebounds. She also holds the school record for career (1,244) and single season (374) rebounds. She was inducted into Catawba’s Hall of Fame in 2013.
With her bachelor’s degree in business administration in hand, McCormick was prepared to head into the corporate world. But her coach at Catawba, Gary Peters, who had been hired at WCU after her junior year, called and offered her a position as a full-time assistant.
She coached at WCU from 1994-97, before holding jobs at UNC Wilmington (1998-01), Charlotte (2001-03), Georgia Tech (2003-04), a second stint at WCU (2004-09), North Carolina State University (2009-13) and Siena (2013-15). Nine of her 20 years as an assistant were spent under Kellie Harper, five of those at WCU as she helped lead the Catamounts to four postseason appearances and two Southern Conference titles. McCormick followed Harper to N.C. State, where the Wolfpack went to three postseason tournaments in four years. The two developed a bond that is still strong today. Harper was instrumental in McCormick returning to Cullowhee.
“She was ready,” Harper said. “She could’ve been a head coach several years ago. But I think for her, it needed to be the right fit. It needed to be the right time. Everything just fell into place. She was in a really good place mentally. She was in a really good place with her skill set – not just ready to make the move, but confident. The passion she had for Western Carolina made that even more special.”
That passion has the returning players excited about playing for their new coach. “The moment we met her, we saw that she’s not only very passionate about winning and going in a different direction for the program, but about winning as players and as a team, building a team that the community would be proud of,” junior forward Brianne Mack of Charlotte said.
Senior guard Lindsay Simpson of Franklin is confident McCormick can return the Catamounts to their winning ways, something she has yet to experience at WCU. “I think she’s committed to changing the culture and really instilling the core values of a winning program,” Simpson said. “Having somebody that’s been to the promised land before and has been there multiple times, that gives you good assurance she knows what it takes and that she’s going to pass that down to us.”
As an assistant, McCormick was known for her strong ability to recruit. Now she’s looking to show she knows a little something about X’s and O’s, too. However, that wasn’t a concern for Eaton. In addition to talking extensively to Harper and others for whom McCormick worked, Eaton conversed with Siena men’s basketball coach Jimmy Patsos, with whom he worked with closely at the University of Maryland. “Apparently, Stephanie became even closer with Jimmy and his wife up there,” Eaton said. “When people that you trust in the business tell you ‘don’t worry about it,’ you don’t worry about it. If you can sell a 17-year-old from Charlotte to come to Cullowhee for four or five years of their life, you can probably do the X’s and O’s, too.”
McCormick is happy to be back in the place she affectionately calls “home,” a place where her coaching career began. She is thankful to WCU Chancellor David O. Belcher and Eaton for allowing her to become the first African-American head coach at WCU, a milestone she doesn’t take lightly. But even more important to McCormick is the fact she’s at a place where she can continue to make a difference in the lives of student-athletes.
“A lot of politics and things come into play as you go to certain places,” McCormick said. “Western has always been the type of place that was super supportive of the student-athletes as a whole. It’s not a case of a winning-at-all-cost situation in the athletics department here. Obviously, winning is huge or I wouldn’t be here, but it’s not at the cost of the student-athlete, and that was big for me.”