SAN DIEGO — When Kathy Marpe made up her mind to be a coach--which she did long before women's college basketball became popular--she knew there would be nights like this.
No coach enjoys them, but you have to put up with a few on the way to 200 career victories.
Marpe's University of San Diego team, which probably is not as talented but certainly is determined, was playing conference-leading Gonzaga at home Feb. 4. And late in the second half, determination was ahead.
USD had a 55-46 lead, and Marpe was only 5 minutes 33 seconds away from the 200th victory in her 15th coaching season.
Instead, Gonzaga rallied to force overtime, then forced another. Marpe's team took a four-point lead, but Gonzaga came back one last time and won on an off-balance, playground-style shot at the buzzer.
Marpe looked up as if to say, "Why me?" She walked to center court to shake hands with the winning coach, something she has done 194 times.
"That moment, when you walk over to shake hands, is a real test of humility sometimes," Marpe said. "You've just done everything humanly possible, used every tool you had, and it still wasn't good enough. Hey, nobody likes to get beat."
But one of the perks of Marpe's job is that a chance to beat someone else often is not far off. Two nights after the loss to Gonzaga, Marpe went after No. 200 again. And this time, there were no late comebacks. USD beat Portland, 65-61.
There was a celebration in the locker room, and one player's sister came in and pretended to be a national television reporter.
"How's it feel to win No. 200, Coach?" Marpe was asked.
"It's great! It's great!" Marpe said.
Afterward, there was a small party, and Marpe enjoyed the 200 plateau with some close friends.
"I guess the main thing about winning that many games is that it shows how long I've been able to be successful in coaching," Marpe said. "At the time, I was just happy because our team needed the win. As I go on, I'm sure it will become more important to me."
Marpe's record is 200-194. That means she has averaged about 14 victories a season. A solid record, if not Hall of Fame material.
"Kathy isn't into a lot of ups and downs," said Jim Mottershaw, USD assistant coach. "She's pretty level-headed most of the time."
Her players describe her as a disciplinarian who knows how to have fun once in a while. She'll laugh and joke with you . . . while you're doing sprints after practice.
"In practice, you'll get yelled at for doing something wrong, and you'll think, 'Coach hates me,' " said Karen Skemp, a senior forward. "Then, after practice, she'll tell you that you did a good job. You get to realize that she's not yelling at you, the person, but she's trying to get you, the player, to perform better."
Marpe grew up in Freeborn, Minn., and says that she wanted to be a coach for as long as she can remember. In the 1960s and early 1970s, women's basketball hadn't reached the level of popularity it has today, but Marpe both played and paid attention. After finishing her college basketball career at Northern Iowa, Marpe took a job back in Minnesota, at Spring Lake Park High School.
In her two years there, she coached girls' basketball, track, volleyball and softball--and says none of the four teams ever lost a game, a match or a meet.
Marpe went to the University of New Mexico for graduate school in 1973, the same time the women's basketball coaching job became available. She had a friend whose recommendation carried enough weight that Marpe was hired for the job after only a phone interview. In seven years under Marpe, New Mexico went 109-63 and was ranked in the top 20 her last two seasons there.
But when Marpe wanted to forge further ahead, she said New Mexico refused to increase the women's basketball budget. Believing she had accomplished all she could in Albuquerque, Marpe decided to head elsewhere.
USD had a vacancy but little else--as in not much of a team--to offer. But Marpe was ready for the challenge. It took awhile--USD went 25-63 in her first three seasons--but Marpe built a respectable program. In the four seasons before this one, USD was 58-53, and it finished second in the WCAC two seasons ago.
This year, after losing two of its top three scorers from last year, USD was supposed to be rebuilding but instead remained in West Coast Athletic Conference contention until last weekend, when it lost at Gonzaga and Portland. The Toreras are 8-15 and 4-5 for fourth place in the WCAC. Tonight at 7:30, USD plays host to Santa Clara.
"I think it would be more important to continue helping the University of San Diego basketball program improve," she said. "The challenge of this job is to get the best out of each individual player and get the best out of this program."
If the way she keeps time is any indication, she should reach that goal earlier than some would expect.
"I guess one of the things I'll always remember about Coach is the way she is with time," Skemp said. "We call it Marpe Time. She sets her watch 5 or 10 minutes ahead, and if you're late, you're in trouble.
"One time a girl was 11 seconds late to practice, which means in actual time she was five minutes early, and she got stuck with laundry duty."
Marpe's ways have forced many players over the years to set their clocks at home ahead just to keep up.
"I actually think she's getting closer to real time in the last few years," Mottershaw said. "But that's the way she is. She likes everybody there on time, ready to go."