DURING THE GAME, THEY ARE A STUDY IN contrasts: the head coach pacing, arms flailing, berating players on the floor, perpetually in motion; the assistant coach super-composed, focused on the action, maintaining an almost surreal calm on the bench. About the only similarity is the stylish duds: He’s in a black Armani suit; she’s in a blue-and-cream dress and navy pumps. But the partnership is working for the University of Kentucky basketball team, as it vies for a national championship at the NCAA tournament beginning this week.
With her mastery of the cool, collected look, Bernadette Locke-Mattox could have been a fashion model. She considered it once. But she’s happier these days as a role model—the first woman ever named to the coaching staff of a major men’s college basketball team. A former All-America guard at the University of Georgia, where she subsequently helped coach the women’s team, she is now in her third season assisting Kentucky’s Rick Pitino, and she sees no problem whatsoever with the idea of a woman coaching men. “Any coach who is capable of coaching can do anything he or she wants,” says Locke-Mattox. “Like if you’re a great teacher, you can teach anywhere.”
Pitino hired Locke-Mattox in 1990, a year after taking over the Kentucky Wildcats, a team that had been put on three years’ probation by the NCAA for committing a variety of recruiting violations. “The university and the stale were extremely embarrassed about the probation,” says Pitino. “We wanted to change the focus on our bad image. By hiring a female, we exposed the area she was going to be working in, career placement and academics. And we got a front-page story.”
Ah, another token woman to solve an image problem? Not at all, says Pitino. Yes, Locke-Mattox makes sure the players keep their grades up, wielding the threat of suspension from the team if they don’t. But one of her major tasks is teaching the game. And when she has to, she can kick butt as vigorously as any male counterpart. “Lack of effort,” declares Locke-Mattox, “bends me out of shape.”
Just ask Junior Braddy, a senior guard from Jacksonville, Fla., who made the mistake one day of coasting through a dribbling drill. “She got mad,” says Braddy. “She was, like, ‘Just stop! Let’s start all over.’ I was surprised because only [associate coach] Herb Sendek made us do that, and he is hard-nosed.”
Bernadette Locke grew up in Philadelphia, Tenn. (pop. 500), then a one-grocery-store town with no stoplight. “It was great,” she says, “because everybody knew everybody.” When Bernadette was 12, her mother died, so she and her twin sister, Juliet, and three of their five other siblings were reared by their aunt and uncle, Ernest and Florence Wilkerson.
Originally, Bernadette wanted to be a teacher or a model. Then in eighth grade she got serious about basketball, inspired by New York Knickerbocker great Walt Frazier. “I liked his demeanor,” she says. “He never got mad when someone would hit him. He’d retaliate by scoring.”
Both a high school and college All-America, she was trained as a coach by University of Georgia mentor Andy Lauders. It was al the university, one day in 1981, that she met Vince Mattox, a former University of Virginia football player, who was running the stairs at the coliseum to keep fit.
“I was captivated,” says Mattox, who paused to watch the woman he would marry 10 years later play basketball. “I said, ‘God! she’s really good.’ ”
Locke-Mattox interrupts at this point with a friendly dig: “He said I was too skinny.”
The two burst into laughter. Adds Mattox, a former science teacher and now a consultant to the Kentucky Department of Education: “She wasn’t quite as skinny when I saw her close up.”
Locke-Mattox says she read about Pitino’s intention to hire a female coach in a 1990 newspaper article. “My immediate thought was, ‘Great, this is innovative,’ ” she says. She was stunned two weeks later when she was contacted by Pitino, asking her to interview.
Pitino says he knew Bernadette was right for the job as soon as he met her. But Pitino’s other assistants at the time opposed the idea of hiring a woman. “They marched right into my office, adamantly against it,” he says. Then they saw the effect Locke-Mattox has on recruits—and especially on their mothers, who are invariably charmed by her warm, sincere manner. “That turned it around,” says Pitino.
The players are so keen on “Bernie” they see no reason why she couldn’t be a head coach. “If anybody can do it,” says junior back-court ace Travis Ford, “she can. She knows basketball.”
Pitino agrees. “I think Bernadette has grown at this program,” he says. “The only tiling she was lacking when she came here was an aggressive demeanor, a necessity in men’s basketball.” Nowadays, he says, “if something goes wrong, she will get right in the player’s face. She’s an outstanding teacher.”
LUCHNA FISHER in Lexington