I am taking a break from football for today’s column and using this space to remember one of the best coaches in Ohio State history, former women’s basketball coach Nancy Darsch. The legendary OSU, Olympic, and WNBA coach passed away on Monday, Nov. 2 at the age of 68, following a battle with Parkinson’s Disease.
After seven years as an assistant on Pat Summit’s Lady Vols staff which went to five Final Fours during that span, Darsch took over the Ohio State program in 1985. Over the next 12 seasons, her teams amassed an overall record of 234 wins to 125 losses. During that stretch, the Buckeyes won four Big Ten titles and went to eight NCAA Tournaments, including the 1993 National Championship game behind freshman forward Katie Smith.
In the national semifinal that year, the Buckeyes knocked off the Iowa Hawkeyes 73-72, advancing to take on Texas Tech in the national title game. As a preteen Buckeye fan, I distinctly remember listening to this game on the radio. My memory has never been great in regards to things from my childhood (heck, I have trouble remembering things from a week ago, let alone decades ago), but this very well might be the first game that I can recall getting truly emotionally invested in.
My parents owned a gym in Reynoldsburg at the time, and I remember being there and listening to the game, hanging on every play, even though I’m not sure that I had watched or listened to a single other women’s basketball game the entire season. But, it was an Ohio State team playing for a national title, how could I not get wrapped up in the emotions of the action?
Ultimately, Darsch’s squad fell just shy losing to the Red Raiders 84-82, but from then on, the OSU women’s basketball team (and women’s basketball in general) became a bigger part of my Buckeye fandom. That team, Smith, and Darsch have sense held a special place in my heart. As a kid, I knew that I loved sports, and I watched my sister play soccer and softball, but the opportunities to be a fan of elite women’s teams were few and far between in the early 90s; this game showed me the fandom possibilities available in women’s sports.
But additionally, Darsch’s team was important in OSU history. Her tenure saw 21 All-Big Ten honorees come through OSU, as well as four B1G Players of the Year and three conference Freshmen of the Year. The impact that her time had on the Ohio State program was indelible, and according to her best player, the feeling was mutual.
“Her time at Ohio State was special,” Smith said, “and I can say that she was always a Buckeye, even after she left. She had such amazing love for her family and home in Boston! The lifelong friendships she made here at Ohio State lasted all the way to the end with love and support.”
Like I assume many other Ohio State fans did, I followed Smith’s career from campus across town to Battelle Hall as she dominated the short-lived ABL as a member of the Columbus Quest, the league champs in the only two completed seasons. However, like Smith, Darsch eventually moved on to the WNBA, and was one of the two coaches in the league’s very first game.
In that first season, she led the New York Liberty — the team that Smith would eventually coach as well — to the WNBA finals before falling to the Houston Comets. After two seasons with the Liberty, Darsch also coached the Washington Mystics, and was an assistant in Seattle and Minnesota, as well as joining the staff of her home town Boston College Eagles.
In addition to her time coaching OSU and in the WNBA, Darsch was an assistant on multiple Team USA squads that won two Olympic gold medals in 1984 and 1996, working on staffs lead by Summit and her Ohio State predecessor Tara VanDerveer. Many of those teams also featured Smith as well.
“The respect her peers had for Nancy spoke volumes as she coached alongside Pat Summitt and was part of those Olympic teams,” Smith said. “She was always teaching and supporting. Nancy loved the game and loved the people. That rubbed off on us and has helped shape the person and coach I am today.”
In addition to what her teams accomplished on the court, she was also a fierce advocate for Title IX. Kim Dally, OSU’s current performance coach, says that her initially coming to Columbus was solely due to Darsch fighting for equality in Ohio State’s athletic department.
“In 1992 Nancy went to then athletic director Jim Jones and pointed out that there were only two teams that had access to a strength coach and that was football and men’s basketball,” Dally said. “In pointing out this discrepancy it opened the door to Nancy interviewing and hiring me to be the strength and conditioning coach for women’s basketball and any other sport in athletics that wanted to work with a strength coach. Her advocating for me and hiring me made me one of less than five full time female strength coaches at the collegiate level across the country.”
No matter where she worked, Darsch was a player’s coach, and someone who continued to maintain important relationships with her players
“Coach Darsch was a kind and authentic person who was always there for us,” Smith said. “She respected her role as a pioneer and created a program that we were proud of. Nancy also truly enjoyed getting to know the fans as well as all of the athletic department. She was all in!”
In 2014, Darsch was inducted into Ohio State’s Athletic Hall of Fame joining six of her former players — Yvette Angel, Lisa Cline, Tracey Hall, Nikita Lowry, Averrill Roberts, and Smith.
Since Darsch’s tenure in Columbus ended in 1997, and especially with the last two coaches Jim Foster to Kevin McGuff, the Ohio State women’s basketball program has continued to stake a claim as one of the most important and dominant not only at Ohio State, but in the Big Ten as well. All of those successes are built on the legacy of Nancy Darsch and all that she accomplished during her time leading the Scarlet and Gray.
Godspeed, Coach Darsch. All of Buckeye Nation thanks you.
After some unexpected start and stops, I am back to posting a column every single day from preseason camp until whenever Ohio State’s football season ends. Some days they will be longer and in depth, some days they will be short and sweet. Let me know what you think of this one, and what you’d like to see me discuss in the comments or on Twitter. Go Bucks!