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Former Coach May Dies of Cancer at 56

College basketball: Winner of two national titles and more than 500 games at Cal Poly Pomona was one of most successful coaches in history.


Darlene May, the most successful coach in Division II women's basketball history and one of the most successful, male or female, at any level, died Friday after a long battle with cancer. She was 56.

May coached Cal Poly Pomona's women's team to three NCAA Division II national championships and won more than 500 games. She was twice named the coach of the year by the Women's Basketball Coaching Assn.

She retired from Cal Poly in July 1994, after learning that breast cancer had spread to her liver. Chemotherapy, radiation and a bone-marrow transplant failed to stop her cancer.

"We are terribly saddened by the loss of one of our university's most respected individuals," said school President Bob H. Suzuki. "Coach May was an educator who inspired countless students, faculty and staff alike."

A hard-driving, authoritarian coach, May inspired extreme loyalty among her players. When it became known that she was seriously ill, they responded as if she were family.

"I was close to her as a player," said Paula Tezak, who played on the championship teams of 1985 and '86. "She would do anything she could for her players and we felt that we would do anything for her."

May's record of 519-119 puts her third among women's basketball coaches, behind Division I coaches Jody Conradt of Texas (675-187) and Pat Summitt of Tennessee (596-133). But she was prouder of her 195-8 conference record.

"When I looked at that, even I thought, 'Oh my, that's a heck of a record,' " May said shortly after she retired. "I think people can get to 500 victories by hanging around long enough, but that conference record is pretty good. A lot of people will have trouble doing better than that."

May coached for 20 seasons at Cal Poly Pomona, 18 of them in the California Collegiate Athletic Assn. and the Southern California Athletic Assn. The Broncos won or tied for championships in each of those 18 seasons.

May was also proud of having been the first woman to officiate an Olympic basketball game. She worked the South Korea-Australia women's game in the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

"That had a lot of meaning," she said. "It was something that I worked a long time for--traveling to a lot of countries and working international games. It may sound glamorous, but believe me, there's nothing glamorous about being the only woman referee, stuck with all foreigners who are yelling at you, and every one being a man."

As a coach who doubled as an official, May was especially knowledgeable and was often accused of intimidating officials working her team's games. But she made no apologies for it--every coach yells at the refs. May just knew their job better than most.

Earlier this year, Cal Poly Pomona honored May by changing the name of its gymnasium from Poly Pavilion to Darlene May Gymnasium.

Her cancer was in remission at the time, partly because of her bone-marrow transplant in May 1995. But in recent months the cancer returned.

"If I have any message, it is: You get tests taken regularly and ask to look at the results," said May shortly after her retirement.

Most recently a resident of Placentia, May is survived by her mother, Billie Bewkes of Oregon, and Barb Thaller, her longtime companion and assistant coach.

Services will be held Wednesday at 11 a.m. at St. Angela Merici church in Brea. Donations may be made to the Darlene May memorial scholarship through the Cal Poly Associates. Details: (909) 869-2810.


Darlene May at a Glance


* Overall: 519-119 (.813)

* *Conference: 195-8 (.960)


* 3 NCAA Division II championships

(1982, '85, '86)

* 2 Division II third-place finishes

(1981, '90)

* 6 Division II finals appearances

(1982, '83, '85, '86, '87, '89)

* *18 conference championships

(13 CCAA titles from 1982 to 1994)

(5 SCAA titles from 1977 to 1981)

* 4 CCAA coach-of-the-year awards

(1985, '87, '88, '91)

* 2 WBCA coach-of-the-year awards

(1988, '90)

* Included play in the California Collegiate Athletic Assn.; Southern California Athletic Assn.; and Women's Basketball Coaches Assn.

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