Jody Adams-Birch wanted to meet me at a doughnut shop Tuesday morning to talk about her departure as Wichita State women’s basketball coach. It must say something about her discipline that she didn’t order a doughnut.
Adams-Birch, who has been replaced by former WSU coach Linda Hargrove for the rest of the season, said she’s not going through the five stages of grief over losing a job she’s held for eight-plus seasons with a 161-115 record, three Missouri Valley Conference regular-season and tournament championships and three consecutive appearances in the NCAA Tournament.
Her tenure at WSU, though, was as much known for its turmoil with players and parents over a variety of grievances.
“I just really trust God,” Adams-Birch said. “I trust the plan.”
Never miss a local story.
So no grief, no tears and, at least not publicly, no self-pity. Adams-Birch, 46, doesn’t know what she’ll do next, but she’s sure it’ll be something she’s supposed to do.
During a 30-minute interview, Adams-Birch was charming and at ease. She talked about her upbringing in Tennessee, her years as a player for legendary coach Pat Summitt and her love for Wichita State.
“I’ll still go to games,” she said. “I’m a Shocker fan.”
And, she insisted, a fan of her players, even though she was at odds with several of them through the years. It started early, when four players voiced objections to her coaching style and nine players left the program before the end of her first season.
In 2015, four players met with WSU’s faculty athletics representative as part of an investigation into Adams-Birch’s program ordered by university president John Bardo. That spring, after WSU interviewed 38 people associated with the program, Adams-Birch agreed on changes within the program.
Adams-Birch said Tuesday she did her best to help her players achieve success on and off the court and that she has heard from numerous former and current players over the past couple of days.
She said she agreed with the depiction presented in the press release announcing her departure that the split was “amicable.”
“I’m very blessed, very thankful and very humbled that I was able to come here and build a program,” Adams-Birch said. “I’ve been able to make mistakes but also to learn from all kinds of different people here in Wichita, whether they’re affiliated with basketball or not.”
Adams-Birch said it was never her intent to make her players uncomfortable. A no-nonsense coach, her motive was to drive them, she said, to be more than they thought they could be.
She had some experience with that, by the way. At 5-foot-4, she was the starting point guard at Tennessee, which was 114-17 during her four seasons at point guard, including a national championship in 1991.
“Being 5-4, this may not have been the chosen sport for me,” Adams-Birch said. “But it ended up being that and it wasn’t even my best sport. But when I was young, I learned that I had to stay positive and optimistic because of the game, being 5-4 and playing against so many taller people. My optimistic side has always gotten me back up and it will again.”
Adams-Birch first tried gymnastics as a child, but the family didn’t have the money to support that sport. She loved playing baseball and modeled her game after former St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Ozzie Smith. At least she modeled the back-flip she enjoyed doing during games after him.
“After I stopped gymnastics, I started skateboarding and then my dad bought a rubber ball and put up a basketball goal,” Adams-Birch said. “I was like, ‘What is this?’ and he told me I was going to start playing basketball.”
She loved shooting but hated missing. Because when she did, the ball would often bounce away, down the driveway and into a nearby stream. She would have to wade in to recover a muddy ball and clean it and herself off before she could resume shooting.
“I hated chasing that ball down into the stream,” Adams-Birch said. “But those are really where the lessons started — the stream and that muddy basketball. There was a lot of failure in that driveway.”
Before long, Adams-Birch was mixing it up with bigger and more-athletic players, relying on her smarts and tenacity to get her though. She had to be tough to survive and she’s always felt the same way about her players at Wichita State and at other stops along her coaching journey.
WSU had some middling success in a few seasons before Adams-Birch arrived, but nothing like she was able to achieve. But the wins couldn’t drown out the whispers of how she was potentially mishandling players. Too often over the years, drama overwhelmed success.
Adams-Birch said it’s a different time, a different era. Players are different, too.
“When I deal with young women, I have a vision for them,” she said. “My vision may be different than what their vision is, it could be bigger. If somehow it was misinterpreted that I didn’t support them or encourage them enough or hurt their feelings — that wasn’t intentional at all.”
Adams-Birch said she hears from many former players who thank her for her demanding coaching style.
“You get a letter from someone who ways you’re the only one who believed they could be a doctor,” Adams-Birch said. “Those stories, they give me chills.”
Adams-Birch’s coaching style, though, wasn’t for everyone. That became obvious. And she had difficulty adapting to a softer approach, one she learned from her dad, Joe, who was recently inducted into the Tennessee Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
“If you were sitting here talking to him, he’d say ‘She just came out that way,’ ” Adams-Birch said. “That she was a driven kid who walked at eight months and rode a bicycle at 3. Just one of those kids.”
Adams-Birch was married last summer to her longtime boyfriend, Roy Birch. They had a big wedding with lots of dancing (Adams-Birch loves to dance, shop and listen to music, she said). It was the highlight of a period of time that has been difficult for Adams-Birch.
“Coach Summitt was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and we eventually lost her,” Adams-Birch said. “I lost my dog, Max (10-year-old Boxer) who had been with me at Southern Illinois, Murray State and then here. My dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at 69 and we lost my best friend her in Wichita, Kim Sanders, on Nov. 23 and I did her eulogy.”
And now she has lost her job.
During her time at Wichita State, Adams-Birch created an image, fair or not. She was viewed from the outside as a coach who wouldn’t bend, who wouldn’t change.
She said Tuesday she might coach again, but that it’s too soon to know.
“I don’t know what’s next,” Adams-Birch said. “I’m going to take some time. Obviously, I want to be able to help people. I love people and I love seeing people smile. And I do enjoy working hard and being challenged. People have called and asked, ‘Are you ready?’ I don’t even know what day I’m on, so no, not yet.
“I don’t know if there’s a burden that has been lifted, but I do feel free to wander.”
And, most likely, to wonder.