After Larry Vickers’ playing days for Norfolk State University ended, he joined the men’s basketball staff as an assistant coach in 2008, aiming to position himself for a head coaching position if one became available. But his first opportunity to lead a Norfolk State team would come with the women’s program, not the men’s.
When Vickers took over the Spartans midway through the 2015-16 season the Spartans were 0-16 on the year and 0-6 in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. The expectation was for Vickers to finish the season with the Spartans and get some head coaching experience while the administration found a permanent replacement. Though Vickers finished his interim year with a 3-8 record, it was enough to secure the job.
“[The university] wanted to give themselves time to find somebody, but after we won the three games, [then-Norfolk State athletic director Marty Miller] was like, ‘Hey, I’m gonna see what applications we get, but it’s your job if you want it.’ So I was excited,” Vickers told Andscape. “There are only a few hundred of these [head coaching jobs] throughout the country. So it’s just a blessing to have one of them.”
As the Spartans prepare for the first round of the NCAA tournament, Vickers has firmly cemented himself as one of the top coaches in the conference. In eight seasons with the women’s basketball program, he has recorded six at or above .500 winning percentage, won a regular-season title and led the program to its first MEAC tournament title since 2002.
“I am just so happy for this group,” Vickers said Saturday after Norfolk State defeated Howard 56-52 to win the MEAC tournament championship. “They worked hard for this and were determined to win this championship. This is the biggest moment in our game. Claiming the tournament was the biggest moment that we had. It’ll hit me later.”
While he is enjoying success now, he isn’t too far removed from his transition to coaching the women’s program full time.
Vickers spent the second half of the 2015-16 basketball season working the sideline for both the men’s and women’s teams. Days were long with two practices, two scouts and two games. For doubleheaders Vickers would coach an entire women’s game, then he would join the men’s program less than 20 minutes later to help head coach Robert Jones with in-game adjustments.
The transition to the women’s program was different from what people told him, Vickers said.
“People will call me and be like, ‘Oh, you got to coach the emotion when you coach women, and you got to coach ego when you coach men.’ My male players were a lot more emotional than my female players,” Vickers said. “That was a complete lie. Other than that, basketball is basketball, women’s offenses are completely different from men’s offenses, but defensively they’re pretty much the same.”
Defense had been a staple for Vickers since his playing days for the green and gold. He has several records in Norfolk State record books for blocks and rebounds.
“I think he has a defensive mindset already, just for the type of player that he was. That was probably the biggest thing, his attention to detail,” Jones said. “His defensive knowledge and pretty good temperament about him, too. Not too high or too low, and sometimes you need that in this coaching profession.”
Vickers’ team has embraced his defensive philosophy. The Spartans led the nation in field goal percentage defense this season, allowing opponents to shoot only 31%, and are No. 1 in scoring defense, giving up only 50.1 points per game, ahead of Power 5 schools and reigning NCAA champion South Carolina. Guard Camille Downs was named MEAC defensive player of the year, and Downs, Kierra Wheeler and Mahoganie Williams made the conference all-defensive team.
Vickers knows growth as a coach and said he is not as high-strung as he was when he took over the program and felt internal pressure to make his mark. While his demeanor is more relaxed, his philosophy isn’t. Vickers believes being transparent has helped him build relationships with his players.
“His personality is consistent. I will say that I think he took his time to, like, to read our personalities, like, so that he can coach us according to not just [who we are] as players but as who we are,” redshirt sophomore Makoye Diawara said.
Jones said watching the ascent of his former associate head coach is just confirmation that naysayers who doubted Vickers’ transition to women’s hoops were wrong.
“I know when he got to the women’s side, he got a lot of flak from coaches that don’t like when men’s basketball coaches come to [the women’s] side,” Jones said. “But now he’s a champion. He’s one of the best women’s basketball coaches in the country, so it’s an amazing journey.”
Being an underdog doesn’t surprise Vickers or his program, but he hopes his success can continue in the NCAA tournament.
“Sometimes people overlook us and they should never, so we’re always cracking people out of conference. It’s just a respect factor. We were undefeated against the CAA [Colonial Athletic Association] … our programs are not at the same place,” Vickers said.
“We’ve seen top-tier competition, and we will be ready to play. We’re going to embrace the moment. Doesn’t matter what the school is, we’re trying to play basketball right away [and] continue to put our brands out there.”