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.