You might say Chantal Vallée wrote the book on how to transform a losing basketball program into a winning one.
Her masters thesis, titled Building a Successful University Program: Key and Common Elements of Expert Coaches , was published in the September, 2005 issue of the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology. That same month, the Montreal native took the helm of the University of Windsor Lancers - easily one of the worst women's basketball squads in Canada.
They had a pitiful record: eight wins and 36 losses in the previous two seasons combined. In its 50-year history, the team had never qualified for the Ontario championships, let alone the nationals. No self-respecting high-school hoops star from Windsor dreamed of playing for the hometown university. Wear blue and gold, and you could kiss your athletic career goodbye.
Nevertheless, Vallée made an audacious promise to her players, assistant coaches, and anyone else willing to listen to a petite 30-year-old who had never actually been the head coach of a university squad before.
In five years, she said, we'll win a national championship.
"Everyone in town was basically like, yeah, sure, like that's going to happen," said Tom Foster, a former assistant coach with Windsor's men's basketball squad who now works with Vallée.
Those five years are up, and in a gym at Hamilton's McMaster University yesterday, the Lancers beat the Ottawa Gee-Gees 64-46 in the opening round of the Canadian Interuniversity Sport women's basketball championships. The Lancers entered the eight-team tournament as the two-time Ontario champions, and are ranked No.2 in the country behind a formidable team from Simon Fraser University.
"That's base camp," said Vallée after the game wrapped up, paving their way to the semi-finals tonight. "We want to enjoy trying to climb to the championship."
She was alluding, of course, to climbing Mount Everest. Ask any of her players, and they'll confirm that Vallée uses metaphors a lot. When she's not referencing the immigrant success story of Walt Disney, she's slipping books such as The Alchemist into their backpacks. More recently, she held a team screening of the movie 8 Mile , loosely based on the rise of the rapper Eminem, because she liked its theme song, Lose Yourself . In it, the Detroit native raps: "Look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity to seize everything you ever wanted - one moment. Would you capture it or just let it slip?"
"I've never had a coach like her before," said Raelyn Prince, a 6-foot-3 forward and fourth-year psychology major.
Vallée has been collecting those inspirational tidbits since she began her Masters research at McGill University, and immersed herself in books about presidents, NFL coaches, business people and Oprah Winfrey.
In a nutshell, she was trying to understand the science of being a winner. She had been coaching basketball since she was a player in high school, starting with elementary kids and moving up to high school boys. She had worked as an assistant coach for UBC's women's basketball team, and with McGill during her studies. Now she wanted to understand what made certain coaches great.
"She said, 'I want to do some good research, but I want to do something that's going to help me as a coach,'" said research supervisor and the head of McGill's sports psychology department, Gordon Bloom.
For her research, Vallée spent a year travelling across Canada interviewing female coaches who had winning teams in various sports, trying to pinpoint their shared characteristics. Her paper, which Bloom co-authored, grouped those findings, which included having good leadership skills, a desire to foster their players' growth as people, and good organizational skills.
But the most important key to being a winning coach, Vallée discovered, was having a vision - and getting others to buy in.
After graduation, Vallée took a part-time job as head coach at Vanier College in Montreal, but it wasn't until two years later that she got her chance to really put her research to the test in Windsor. During their 2005-06 season, the Lancers won nine games and lost 13. It wasn't a winning record, but they had already more than doubled the number of wins from the previous two seasons.
Vallée used that momentum to recruit new players, showing her five-year plan to potential recruits - whether they wanted to hear it or not.
"I found it was weird she was talking to me," said Prince, a Windsor native who was approached by Vallée a few weeks before she went off to her first year of university. At the time, Prince had applied to three other universities (Windsor was not among them), and had already committed to Waterloo. Yet, a week before school started, there she was, suiting up for the Lancers.
"She just promised me that if I stuck around, I'd see nationals," she said. "She just seemed like a woman on a mission."
It was the same woman on a mission who won over Shavaun Reaney, the team's star fifth-year point guard, who left her Edmonton college squad after an encounter with Vallée three years ago. At the time, Reaney says, she "didn't even know where Windsor was," yet when Vallée whipped out her binder and started speaking passionately about her goals, something in her voice convinced the Sherwood Park, Alta., native to move there.
The team that Reaney joined was young. After her first season, Vallée gutted the 13-member squad of 10 of its returning players. She filled the team with young players she could mould.
Players and coaches say there are two sides to Vallée. Off the court, she's a fun-loving mentor, who is as interested in their career aspirations and spiritual happiness as she is in their shooting skills. On the court, she "doesn't put up with any crap," Foster says, which can mean that some practices look more like track practice than anything to do with hoops.
It has paid off. Vallée guided her team to its first playoff games in the Ontario West university league in her third season as coach. Last season, the Lancers not only won the Ontario championships and had a record of 21-1 (the same record as this season), but they made it to nationals and won their first game.
As the wins have piled up, it's become easier to convince local players to stay home. This year, seven of the 11 players hail from Windsor, including Prince, and starting second-year forward Bojana Kovacevic. This season, the team has also lucked out with the addition of outside recruits - notably rookie Jessica Clémençon, a member of France's national junior squad, who by chance had applied to Windsor for the chance to improve her English, and this year was chosen the CIS rookie of the year.
They will need her height advantage - and a lot of heart, if they are to beat the heavily favoured Simon Fraser University, which has won five of the past 10 national championships under the leadership of another formidable coach, Bruce Langford.
Before all of their games this season, the Lancers have tapped a special poster. On it, Vallée drew three mountain peaks: one representing the Ontario West university championships, the second the Ontario championships, and the third, the national championships.
They brought the poster to Hamilton. They'll be standing on top of that third peak, Vallée said yesterday, if all goes according to plan.