Blueprint to Following a Coaching Legend
All this euphoria and celebration over the Ribault High girls basketball team winning a four-team, invitation-only national championship last week is a wonderful thing. But nobody understands the enormous burden of reaching that destination more than the orchestrator: Shelia Seymore-Pennick.
She has coached the Lady Trojans for 12 seasons, and quite frankly, Seymore-Pennick was so uncertain of her worthiness of leading the state’s most decorated program that the former Ribault assistant almost turned the job down.
Oh, it’s all applause and congratulatory hugs now for Seymore-Pennick because everybody in Jacksonville is jumping on the Trojans’ bandwagon. But the 52-year-old mother can never forget the tribulations of trying to follow in the footsteps of legendary coach Al Austin, who won eight state titles, had a 101-game winning streak, and a crazy .923 winning percentage (721-60) during his 26-year run at Ribault.
“I thought, ‘How can one woman hold up a legacy?’” Seymore-Pennick said. “I felt the weight of that. I didn’t give Ribault an answer [on the job offer] for about two weeks. I kept thinking, ‘I can’t do this, it’s too much stress.’
“How would I handle not being successful? I questioned myself if I was capable.”
Buoyed by the encouragement of her husband, Willie A. Pennick, a St. Vincent’s Medical Center physician, she took the job. But as time went by, much of her initial apprehension proved to be accurate.
Going to the Final Four in Lakeland, seemingly a Ribault birthright, didn’t happen until her fourth season. It took nine years for the Trojans to raise a state title banner on Seymore-Pennick’s watch.
That’s not a big deal at almost any other program. But when you’re given the keys to a hoops Ferrari — and there’s no other way to describe the powerful machine that Austin put in her care — every season without a state title feels like a bit of a failure.
It might be unfair to view it that way, but Seymore-Pennick’s competitive drive wouldn’t allow her to look at it any differently.
“I lost almost as many games [eight] the first year than coach Austin did his first two seasons, then lost 10 more in my second year,” said Seymore-Pennick. “I’m thinking, ‘Oh, Lord, they’re going to fire me.’ For quite a while, people definitely saw me as a coach who could get [to the state tournament], but couldn’t get it done.
“It made me work harder. You just got to keep chiseling at it, and a lot of people don’t want to do that. They want things quick.”
To truly appreciate the job Seymore-Pennick has done at Ribault, you can’t just look at winning the Dick’s national championship, culminated by a 75-49 win over Riverdale (Md.) at Madison Square Garden. That’s a myopic view, a tiny snapshot.
No, this is about a journey, not winning one game in basketball’s most famous venue. Seymore-Pennick didn’t just fall into the Ribault job. She worked her way into the most pressurized position in Florida high school girls hoops.
First, she coached AAU Team BALL (Basketball, Academics, Leadership for Life) for girls ages 12-17, including Erica White, Ribault’s only WNBA player, and used the Trojans’ gym as a practice facility.
Seymore-Pennick then coached the Ribault jayvee team and was a varsity assistant for five years. When Austin retired after the 2003-04 season, staying on as the school’s athletic director, he had no reservations about turning the program over to Seymore-Pennick because she forged relationships with the players that would ease the transition.
“I thought she could handle it because not only did she have a basketball mind in terms of X’s and O’s, but she knew our program from the inside,” Austin said. “She’s done fantastic. I’m quite proud of her.”
What makes Seymore-Pennick’s accomplishments at Ribault so impressive is she didn’t let falling short of the mountaintop bring her down.
Because until she sat in that first chair, calling all the shots and trying to live up to that Ribault legacy, she couldn’t fully understand the pressure that went with it.
Seymore-Pennick lost 51 games in her first eight years, and Ribault reached only two Class 3A state semifinals.
Nobody wanted to throw the Trojans a parade then, as the city is doing downtown on Tuesday. Seymore-Pennick heard the whispers from alumni and followers of the program, wondering if the Trojans would ever return to Austin’s level of dominance.
“I felt the pressure all the way through, that’s why I feel I’ll never live up to [Austin] because I have so much respect for the work put in and what was accomplished before me,” Seymore-Pennick said. “To keep attacking something and failing, that’s hard.”
But over the last four years — going 117-10 and winning three state championships — Ribault has felt like its old self. Then when this invitation from Dick’s came to play for a national title in New York, the pressure amped up again because Seymore-Pennick knew it might be a one-time-only opportunity.
“We couldn’t go to Madison Square Garden and embarrass ourselves,” said Seymore-Pennick. “One thing I tried to tell the kids was, ‘Why not us?’”
Since returning home, everybody has been showering the Trojans with love and compliments. Seymore-Pennick is determined to soak it in because she remembers all too well so much disappointment over season-ending losses.
“After her first championship season in 2013, she said, ‘I finally got that monkey off my back,’” said Ribault assistant Dorian Williams-Stevens, a former Trojans’ All-America player and Florida State product. “In my opinion, now she can look at Coach Austin and feel she lived up to those expectations.
“I knew she’d do well. She’s not the type of person that feels she knows everything. She listens to other coaches. She knows it wasn’t just Coach Austin that won all those games, it’s the players and the staff. She has done an amazing job.”
After next season, the torch will get passed to Williams-Stevens, who has followed a similar path as her boss to become Ribault’s coach-in-waiting.
Seymore-Pennick is too humble to take much credit for maintaining the dynasty. But you have to give the woman this much: She has followed a legend as well as anybody can possibly do it.