First women’s basketball coach reflects on time, changes at UCCS

May 11, 2015
50 Year Issue

Jonathan Toman
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Celia Slater didn’t have a team when she became the first head coach of the UCCS women’s basketball team in August 1989. So she turned to the student body for help.

“I basically just set up a table in the student union, put a sign over it and said ‘women’s basketball players wanted,’” Slater said. “That’s how I recruited my first team.”

Slater, who coached UCCS for six seasons from 1989-95, is the most successful and longest tenured coach in school history. In the 1992-93 season, UCCS took second in the Colorado Athletic Conference with an 18-9 record. She is a member of the 2012 inaugural UCCS Athletics Hall of Fame.

A friend who graduated from the Air Force Academy told Slater about the opening at UCCS, right in the middle of a state she had traveled to as a kid.

“I always loved Colorado and I was looking for a way to move out there.”

She was struck by the campus, surrounding views and the vibe created by the people that interviewed her. She got the job, and “had a lot to do to get ready for the season.”

Step one was to find a team, which included tabling and asking who had played in high school.

“It was kind of interesting, coming in at the end of August and not having a team,” she said. “I had to get creative to recruit them.”

That first season, 1989-90, her team finished 3-20.

Slater said despite the record, her first season was a positive experience.

“We had quite an interesting cast of characters and it was just a really wonderful group that played extremely hard and gave it their best,” she said. “I was really fortunate with the group that I got because they made it a very pleasant season.”

Slater saw continuous improvement, to go along with an increased ability to compete.

“It was probably one of my more rewarding seasons, actually, ever coaching,” she said. “They played beyond their ability level as a unit, they started to come together and click.”

“We had a really scrappy team.”

Slater came in at a time when UCCS Athletics was in its infancy, a job she described as “a little daunting.”

But there were two sides of the athletics coin.

“I think people were generally really excited about adding athletics and yet there was a real sense of realism around it because there wasn’t a whole lot of funding at the time.”

Fee money to support athletic programs was approved by a supportive student body.

“I felt like the support for it started to grow organically, there’s more sports on campus the more [students] come to watch.”

Slater sees the addition of athletic programs as a turning point in UCCS history.

“It was kind of exciting, it was a real shift in the atmosphere at UCCS,” she said. “Going from that commuter feel to what it is today, it was really fun to be at the beginning of that.”

Changes, in all facets of UCCS, have come since her time coaching, including improved offices and facilities, the addition of dorms to campus to help capture a more traditional feel and a more solid athletic department, she said.

“I think the biggest thing that’s changed is that there is just a really overall commitment from the top down,” she said. “It’s good to see [athletics is] in good hands.”

Slater explained that after six seasons at the helm, she was burnt out.

“I was working really hard to build that program and I kept thinking we were going to get more funding, and the funding just didn’t show up.”

After her time at UCCS, Slater pursued an opportunity in New York to become an agent for professional women’s basketball players. She returned to coaching at Lynn University afterward.

In 2011, she cofounded the Alliance of Women Coaches, a membership organization for women coaches of all sports. She then decided to branch out on her own and found True North Sports in 2014, where she launched a year-long assistant coach immersion program for both men and women who coach women.

UCCS athletic director Steve Kirkham will be on a faculty panel and women’s basketball assistant coach Shannon Rousseau will attend the program.

“I think the majority of my career after coaching has been dedicated to coaching coaches,” she said. “Primarily supporting women in coaching, because we’re losing women in coaching.”

As for her time at UCCS, Slater highlighted the season the team finished second in the conference, 1992-93, as a high moment.

“That was a really fun year, to beat some teams that had really throttled us at the beginning of the program,” she said. “We wound up building a really nice following.”

Slater said UCCS was a great place to start her career as a young coach, adding she might have stayed longer had she known what she does now.

“Some of my most fond memories of coaching were at UCCS,” Slater said. “I really enjoyed my experience there.”