The Game Changer
As Division I Basketball’s only openly gay coach, Portland State women’s hoops coach Sherri Murrell is breaking records on and off the court.
With her intense sideline demeanor, bright-green blouse and blond-over-dark-roots shag, Portland State women’s basketball coach Sherri Murrell was hard to miss at the 2010 Big Sky championship. After the Vikings beat Montana State, 62-58, cameras for the regional sports network Altitude zoomed in on the 5-foot-8-inch Murrell joining her players for a tearful, huggy celebration, year-old daughter Halle in her arms one moment, son Rylan the next. But despite a TV sports culture where cuts to the coach’s spouse are about as ubiquitous as shots of cheerleaders, what you didn’t see during that victory revel—or at any other point during the game—was Murrell’s partner of eight years, Rena Shuman. “They ask ahead of time, where the players’ parents are and so forth,” says Murrell. “Not once did they ask anything about my partner. I don’t know if that was intentional or not.”
It’s certainly no secret. Murrell’s PSU bio ends with the line, Murrell and her partner, Rena Shuman, welcomed twins Halle Jane and Rylan Patrick into their family on February 24, 2009. In Portland, two lesbian moms are about as novel as a food cart, and you might think the same would be true in women’s college basketball. But here’s the undeniable reality: There are 335 Division I women’s basketball head coaches, both male and female. When Murrell identified herself as gay in her official bio, she joined, well, exactly no one on the list of D-I coaches who had previously come out. Murrell was the list. Murrell is the list.
“It is kind of comical,” says the 43-year-old, a Redmond native. “Even my straight friends, they just laugh with me about it—like, ‘What’s the big deal?’ Because there’s a lot of lesbian coaches in this business.”
Which is exactly why it’s a big deal. Even as the country fitfully accepts gay marriage, certain pockets of the sports world are like throwbacks to the segregated ’60s, and not just in men’s locker rooms. Exhibits A, B, and C: The 2009 documentary Training Rules exposes homophobic former Penn State women’s hoops coach Rene Portland, who maintained a policy of “no drinking, no drugs, no lesbians.” Last season the Washington Mystics of the WNBA got rid of its “kiss cam” to avoid showing same-sex lip-locks. And in Louisville, Kentucky, there’s a club team of Division I–bound girls whose coach attempts to steer his players away from “the lesbian and homosexual lifestyle which is so prevalent in woman’s/girl’s athletics.”
“I think there’s a tendency to say, well, of course we know there are lesbian coaches and lesbian basketball players,” says University of Massachusetts Amherst professor emerita Pat Griffin, who keeps track of the issue at her LGBT Sport Blog. “But the truth is, there’s still plenty of homophobia in women’s sports, and real reasons why a lot of coaches are afraid to come out. There aren’t many people actually in the profession who are willing to try to make a difference.”
What’s more remarkable than Murrell being the only openly gay coach in women’s D-1 basketball is that she’s been out for some time without much media attention—this despite the fact that she’s already arguably the most successful coach in Vikings history, with two 20-win seasons, a 63-34 record overall, and the program’s first-ever Big Sky title. But in women’s basketball, if you’re not the coach of Tennessee or UConn the national press corps barely knows your name, and in Portland the Vikings take a back seat to the Blazers, Ducks, and Beavers. The average Portlander who lines up on a Saturday for Pine State Biscuits at the farmers market probably doesn’t even realize that the humble little hardwood gym just 50 yards away is home to a March Madness–worthy women’s team: last year’s conference championship also meant the program’s first-ever invite to the Big Dance. (The 15th-seeded Viks lost to no. 2 seed Texas A&M in the first round of the NCAA tournament.)
Among the team photos and memorabilia in Murrell’s Stott Center office is the cut-down net from the title game, draped on its accompanying trophy. When PSU kicks off its season on November 14 at the University of Washington, Murrell will have her mind on cutting down another one. “I want to be the best team in the Big Sky year after year,” says Murrell, whose contract runs until 2015. “But I also want to go further than that. We played with [Texas A&M] for a half. We tasted it.”
Murrell has certainly savored her share of victories as a player: she was part of the 1985 Oregon state championship team at St. Mary’s Academy, and began her college career at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette before transferring to Pepperdine, where she was an all–West Coast Conference point guard. Murrell’s success on the court would continue as a coach, but at a price. “I have lived [in the closet], and I don’t ever want to go back there,” she says.
After graduating in 1991, Murrell failed to land the first assistant coaching job that she applied for because (someone would later tell her) the head coach thought she might be gay. Two years later, at just 25, she became the head coach at the Quaker school George Fox in Newberg, which has a written policy against homosexual behavior. But she was also dating men at that time. And as a single woman in her late 20s and early 30s, with no significant other to camouflage, it was easy to keep “passing.”
On a personal level, Murrell wasn’t ready to tell her Pentecostal Christian parents. “It was a really tough struggle to tell them,” she says. “I did not want them to reject me.” And professionally, she was afraid. “It was fear of the unknown. Fear of negative recruiting. Fear of job loss. Fear of people treating you differently.”
Things changed in 2002. After four straight winning seasons as head coach at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, Murrell landed the big-time gig of every coach’s dreams, at Washington State University. Not long after arriving in the conservative cow-college town of Pullman, she fell for Shuman, a former Centennial High School cheerleader whom she’d met in Portland via mutual friends. They dated long-distance for a while, and then Shuman moved to Pullman. The relationship became serious enough that Murrell finally came out to her parents.
“They went through a time where they did not accept my, quote unquote, behavior,” she says. “But now they’re wonderful—they’re totally into my life, and they love the kids.” Still, Murrell didn’t go public. Shuman remembers attending Cougar functions with Murrell and hearing people try to set her partner up with men. “One of the boosters would say, ‘I’ve got a nephew that I think you would just make the best couple with!’ And it was just: closed mouth.”
It was an unhappy situation for them both, further complicated by Murrell’s professional frustration. She had inherited a woeful program, and was able to improve it only slightly—enough for a contract extension in 2005, but not enough to top 10 wins in a season. In 2007 she resigned with three years left on her deal, passing up the six-figure payoff that she would have gotten had the school chosen to terminate the contract early (though she’d already been assured at least one more year to turn things around). But for Murrell, it wasn’t about the money or the job. It was about resetting her priorities. How could she continue trying to teach young women to be themselves if she wasn’t doing the same? “The one thing that I always wanted from my coaches was for them to be honest with me,” Murrell says. “I made a pact with myself that there was absolutely no way that I was going put my partner or my family in that situation again.” In May 2007, Murrell and Shuman made an offer on a house in Laurelhurst and headed home: unemployed, uncertain, but confident in where—and who—they wanted to be.
In what now seems fated for both PSU and Murrell, then–Portland State coach Charity Elliott left for UC-San Diego just a few weeks after Murrell’s WSU resignation. PSU athletic director Torre Chisholm already had Murrell in mind for the job when he found out she was moving to Portland. Chisholm knew Murrell from her time coaching at Pacific and considered her success there to be more germane than her Pac-10 record. “I was able to see firsthand the amazing job she did,” says Chisholm, who also notes that he didn’t know or care about Murrell’s romantic life or family situation. For her part, Murrell didn’t mention it, though she did approach one of the school’s assistant athletic directors (whom she knew from her stint in the late ’90s as a PSU assistant coach). “I just asked her, ‘Nothing’s going to be disrupted because of my lifestyle, right?’” Murrell remembers. “‘Because if it is, I’ll walk away.’ And she said, ‘Absolutely not, Sherri.’”
Portland State announced Murrell’s hiring on July 1, 2007; the next week’s Portland Tribune story about her ran next to a large feature about the adopted daughter of Oregon State softball coach Kirk Walker and his same-sex partner. (Walker is one of only a few out coaches in smaller sports like softball.) “That’s when I told Rena, ‘We’re in the right place,’” Murrell says.
For two years, Murrell went about her business as the country’s sole gay D-1 basketball coach in the relative quiet of the South Park Blocks. “I didn’t go into the locker room and say, ‘OK, I’m your new head coach and I’m gay,” she says. “I just lived my life.” If anybody asked, she told them, but as a coach, she pretty much just talked about basketball. Then, in May 2009, the documentary film Training Rules screened here at the annual gay and lesbian documentary festival QDoc. The film tells the story of how Penn State’s head coach for 27 years, Rene Portland, benched and often drove away any player whom she thought was gay—or even players who made the mistake of becoming friendly with suspected lesbians. After a former player sued the school—the case was settled out of court—Portland stepped down in 2007.
During the post-screening Q&A, co-director Dee Mosbacher mentioned that as far as she knew, there was not a single out lesbian basketball coach in the country. Murrell’s friend and companion that night, J Jones, looked at her to make sure it was OK, got Mosbacher’s attention, and then announced this wasn’t so. The sold-out Clinton Street Theater crowd gave Murrell a standing ovation.
“That night made me realize what a big thing it was,” she says.
Since then, Murrell has appeared at showings of Training Rules in San Francisco and at the women’s Final Four (where the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association declined to sponsor a screening). She recorded a bonus-feature interview for the DVD and has fielded many interview requests. “I know what I’m doing can open doors for a lot of people,” she says.
Some of the doors Murrell is opening may well be the ones to the Stott Center itself. In the cutthroat world of college sports recruiting, rival coaches might say anything to help them land a player other schools want. Being a lesbian could be an Achilles heel. But Murrell says that in private conversation, other coaches have suggested being open is a plus: it demonstrates confidence and honesty, qualities elite players desire in a coach. And if a player cares that Murrell’s gay? Well, that probably isn’t somebody she’d want at PSU anyway.
“Sports are about coming together as a team,” she says. “Any type of separators—religious separators, ethnic separators, gender separators—doesn’t bring cohesiveness."
As for the players themselves, members of a generation that grew up with multiculturalism and Heather Has Two Mommies, they, frankly, just don’t care. When Murrell and Shuman hosted some of the Vikings players for a barbecue at their home in August, the dynamic was the same as any coach and coach’s spouse: Murrell flipping burgers and affectionately teasing her charges (one for dating PSU’s starting quarterback, another for appearing on a hunting reality TV show), Shuman trying to corral their two blond, Popsicle-stained toddlers into the bath and bed.
“I guess I didn’t really know that she was the only [out coach],” says senior center Courtney Cremer.
“We don’t really talk about it. Rena was around from day one, so I feel like from day one we all knew. It feels normal.”
And that’s just how Murrell wants it as her Vikings try to get back to the Big Dance this season. By default, Murrell is trying to become the first out coach to win an NCAA tournament game—but really, she just wants to win that game.
“In athletics you have one-hit wonders all the time, but to sustain success is really hard,” Murrell says. “To be able to [win that game] and to be an out coach, that would mean a lot for our sport.”
And what would mean even more is seeing the second openly gay coach win one.