Matt Corkery might have been the only person in his entire high school graduating class—all 12 of them—who preferred basketball to football. Pigskin is king in tiny Whitharral, Texas, (think Friday Night Lights) but for American University’s new women’s head basketball coach, hoops always has been his true love.
The son of two school teachers, Corkery was so determined to become a coach that he started his career as an undergraduate volunteer at West Texas A&M University with a broom and sweaty uniforms in his hands.
“I was a manager, sweeping the floor, washing the jerseys. I got hooked from being involved,” he said. “I wanted to do whatever I could to get some experience.
“Bob Schneider was the coach. He was a Hall of Fame–caliber coach; he won more than 1,000 games. I learned there’s a right way and wrong way to do things, how to pay attention to detail. The little things are really the big things. I learned about mental toughness, how important concentration is, focus. His teams were always very, very aggressive and played really hard. Those things were instilled into my coaching philosophy from day one.”
Corkery has been working to instill those same values in his players since he took over the AU program on May 19. The transition at the top has been smooth; the previous four years, Corkery served as an assistant on Melissa McFerrin’s staff. When she left following last season’s Patriot League regular season title run to take over the University of Memphis job, director of athletics and recreation Keith Gill elevated Corkery.
“He is a great teacher of the game and his passion for this team will translate into continued success for this program,” Gill said. “We [were] especially pleased to keep Matt in the American family and be able to give him the chance to lead our women’s basketball program.”
Corkery’s days as a janitor and launderer were short-lived. Schneider quickly recognized his talent and leadership ability, and by his third year at A&M, he was writing scouting reports and even doing some recruiting. After stints as head coach of Howard Junior College in Texas and as an assistant at Division I Stephen F. Austin, Corkery went to Emporia State College in Kansas to work for one of his best friends, Schneider’s son Brandon. The duo coached the team to a 63-25 record and No. 2 rankings nationally in both the 2001–02 and 2003–04 seasons. McFerrin took notice and asked Corkery to come to Washington to help her rebuild the AU program.
“When you look at our senior class, we won seven games when those young ladies were freshmen,” he said of his AU team. “To go from winning seven and finishing seventh in the Patriot League, to finishing first in the regular season as juniors, that’s a lot of growth. We do feel like our program is heading in the right direction. We have a lot of momentum moving into this season. That’s one thing I was able to bring to the table by staying on and being promoted, I can continue the positive direction.”
While Corkery hopes to employ more full-court defensive pressure, he said the team’s overall philosophy will stay the same.
“We talk about having an identity as a team,” he said. “We want to be known for our defense. We want to be a fast-break transition type of team. We want to be a tough team mentally and physically. Our values have stayed the same. We’ve used a mantra of REAL. We talked about respect, effort, accountability, and loyalty. Those are the values of our program. Those have remained the same from Melissa’s tenure to my tenure. Those are things we continue to believe in.”
Corkery and his staff, which features three new assistant coaches, have set two major goals for this, and every, season.
“No. 1 is that we graduate 100 percent of our players, and No. 2 is that we win the Patriot League Tournament,” he said. “That’s why we’re doing everything we do every day. There are a lot of steps we have to go through in order to get there, but that’s the ultimate goal.”
AU fans are betting that this born-to-be-a-basketball coach from football-crazy west Texas is just the man to lead the Eagles to the promised land—the NCAA Tournament.
“This is a complete team effort,” Corkery said. “I’m only just one piece of the puzzle, just like any of our assistant coaches, just like any of our players. I know how fortunate I am to have the opportunity. Becoming a Division I head coach is difficult. I feel like I was the right person at the right place at the right time. Now I just want to make the most of it.”