When Helen Higgs unfolds her 6-foot-4 frame out of the front seat of the bus and steps off in the Whitworth University parking lot at 2 a.m. she asks herself why she is still coaching basketball anywhere, let alone at the bus level of Division III.
She knows all about the big time as a player at Oregon and in Germany and coaching stops as an assistant at Gonzaga and Utah.
Then alumni weekend rolls around as it did recently and she knows why she has been around long enough to have recently picked up her 250th win in her 17th season leading the Pirates.
“I think I have a different perspective on what the career ladder really is,” she said after relating conversations she had with former players. “Being successful is finding a place that fits your personality, your philosophy and your goals. That doesn’t necessarily mean Division I or here.
“The education of the mind and heart at Whitworth, that mission of ours, that fits with me. I like to do more than coach basketball. I like to impact student athletes. … It’s me understanding that about myself.”
But after all those bus trips and recruiting trips trying to convince young ladies to continue playing basketball at their own expense because D-III schools don’t have athletic scholarships, Higgs does pause as she wonders why.
“There’s a thing in leadership, appreciative inquiry,” said Higgs, who doubles as the assistant athletic director. “It’s ‘What can I appreciate about my job?’ and not focus on what’s difficult. You acknowledge what’s difficult and see if you can change that.
“I’m pretty optimistic. I can overlook some of the things that are difficult.”
Through it all Higgs, whose record is now 251-175 with a pair of home games this weekend, has maintained a passion for basketball.
“It’s kind of complicated,” she said, comparing it to other sports. “My players have to play both offense and defense. If they’re not getting it done on this end but bringing it on the other end, that chess match, getting everything rolling, it’s always intriguing for me.
“It’s a true team sport, you’re only as good as all five players. But watching individual matchups within the game is fun, too. Can you shut their best player down? I love game preparations and I love the game, trying to out-coach the opponent.”
But her passion goes deeper than x’s and o’s.
“I keep coaching because I love being around college-age students,” Higgs said. “There are times you think, ‘Really?’ But overall I love the attitude they bring. They’re out on their own for the first time, not always influenced by their parents, making decisions for themselves. Helping to guide them, I enjoy that.”
That’s how she reached a milestone, which surprised her.
It’s also why she’s happy, even though she’s more than a long bus ride from those days at Oregon, when the three-year starter helped the Ducks reach a Top 10 ranking. Or Gonzaga, when the Bulldogs won their only league title before the current dynasty. Or Utah, where the Utes twice made the NCAA Tournament.
“I don’t usually know my team’s record,” Higgs said. “It’s great. It means I’ve had great players and I work at a place we can be successful. We have good support.”
Pink Zone, the women’s basketball side of Coaches vs. Cancer, starts this weekend. Schools use one game to increase awareness of breast cancer and raise funds for research.
Whitworth’s game is Friday. Gonzaga is selling $10 T-shirts at Saturday’s game with Loyola Marymount.
The other three D-I schools aren’t home until next week. Eastern Washington and Idaho pink games are Feb. 17.