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“It’s always about the players”: An inside look at Maryland women’s basketball’s Karen Blair’s rise through the coaching ranks

The Terps’ associate head coach’s journey is just beginning.

Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics

When Karen Blair was first hired as an assistant coach for Maryland women’s basketball, head coach Brenda Frese was anything but laconic as she talked about what Blair was going to bring to the program.

“She’s a triple threat with her knowledge of the game, organization of recruiting and her connection to her players,” said Frese in a May 2018 release. “As excited as I am about what Karen will bring to our program, our fans are going to enjoy her because she’s even better as a person.”

The bar was set high for Blair, and she certainly has not disappointed in her time at Maryland, contributing to nearly 100 wins and helping sign players such as junior guards Ashley Owusu and Diamond Miller that are the foundation of the program.

Upon your arrival, Coach Frese called you a “triple threat”... is that something you pride yourself on up to this day?

“It always feels good when you can get validated by a Hall of Fame coach,” a laughing Blair responded. “When you’ve got somebody that I feel is the best in the business, I mean it really is.”

Blair’s coaching career has certainly been a journey. Starting at her alma mater SMU, Blair saw stints at five different schools before arriving at Maryland, where she is currently the associate head coach. There has been the good and the bad, the ups and the downs, but there is one thing that requires zero doubt: Blair is just getting started.

Blair, who started playing basketball around third grade, was a dual-sport athlete, also playing soccer through high school. It became apparent, though, that basketball would soon become her ride to college.

The suitor? Southern Methodist University and its former head coach Rhonda Rompola. Rompola, a New Jersey native, was at the helm of the SMU program for 25 seasons. She also suited up for the Mustangs for two seasons before becoming an assistant coach for eight seasons. Eventually, she was promoted to the head job, and her story was written.

As Rompola was looking for a point guard, she looked back to her New Jersey roots. A gritty, tough-nosed player would fit the mold for her program. She looked no further than Blair, who had those exact qualities and developed into an incredibly smart floor general.

A three-year starter and a two-year captain of the Mustangs, Blair helped guide SMU to NCAA Tournament appearances in 1996, 1998 and 1999. A decorated career wrapped up and so did basketball, Blair thought.

“I got a degree in business,” Blair said. “I thought that was the way I was going, and I had done my summer internship after graduation with PepsiCo.”

Sure, PepsiCo would have been great. But when your former head coach comes calling asking if you ever thought about coaching, your plans change.

“Rhonda Rompola, who was my college coach, came out and said, ‘Hey, have you ever thought about coaching?’” Blair said. “And to be honest with you, I really hadn’t. I ended up accepting the job, and the rest is history, as they say.”

Because of the player that Blair was under Rompola’s guidance, the latter knew that she made the right call.

“She was always very detailed, but she was always willing to do the extra,” Rompola said. “And that’s something, from a coaching standpoint, that I looked at. You knew she was going to be successful as a coach because she was always going to put the extra work it took to make it to that next level.”

The initial transition from playing to coaching was a little strange, Blair admitted. She was now coaching with the same coaches that she played for. A lot of the players that she was coaching were her teammates just the season before. It took some time for Blair to adjust, but she did have one clear advantage in being a “very good” practice player. Being a practice player allowed Blair to take on a different level of coaching, and she even said that Rompola was harder on her in practice as a coach than a player.

“Hey, let me tell you, her work was not done out there,” Rompola said.

Blair spent a total of 10 years on the SMU coaching staff as an assistant to Rompola. In addition to her assistant coach and practice player roles, Blair served as an academic coordinator for the program, holding a liaison position that helped student-athletes with classes and future career goals. A truly do-it-all coach both on and off the court, Blair knows her success stems from her 14 shared years with Rompola.

“I think that’s why we all go into coaching, because it’s so much more than basketball,” Blair said. “Rhonda was just such a great coach that paid such attention to detail, and also just always gave us the structure and I think that’s something. Like our alumni are all still really tight having gone through that experience.”

The family-esque connections built through college basketball are impossible to underestimate. Blair says she still has SMU teammates that come to games to support her, and she still talks to her mentor “all the time.” Whether it’s a good luck text from Rompola or she is just trying to give Blair a hard time, nothing falls short of the coach-player bond that lasts forever.

“I follow her more than she knows,” Rompola said. “There’s no question.”

After a decade at the school, the time was right for Blair to leave. The longer-tenured coaches were likely not departing SMU any time soon, and Blair knew she had to move on if there was a chance to move up in the business.

“For me, when I kind of got to that year 10, I kind of wanted to learn from somebody else,” Blair said. “It was great. I love being at my alma mater, we’ve just won a conference championship, but I kind of wanted to see how other people ran their programs and what they did.”

On the other side of things, Rompola was glad Blair left SMU so she could benefit her career. Heading into the 2009-10 season, associate head coach Lisa Dark was entering her 19th year while assistant coach Deneen Parker was entering her 14th. Blair needed the chance to coach under different coaches to improve, and Rompola applauded her for it.

The next stop for Blair was Colgate, where she spent two seasons as an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator. In 2011, she would move on to the University of Texas at Arlington to become its top assistant coach, a stay that took an unexpected turn.

In February 2013, then-UT-Arlington head coach Samantha Morrow resigned upon learning that the school’s athletic director would not renew her contract. Immediately tasked with finishing the season as the interim head coach spot would be Blair.

It was a tough situation because Blair felt for her friend in Morrow, who Blair says is one of the best human beings she knows. But that late in the season, Blair had to step in and make sure that her players were still zoned in with the goal at hand, which was winning basketball games.

“When you’re kind of pushed into that role, you’ve got to do things that you’re comfortable doing and kind of put your own stamp on it,” Blair said. “So I think that was probably the most difficult thing, was having that first staff meeting.”

Blair wanted to be as successful as she could in that position, but she understood the reality of it. The athletic department usually opens things up to a national search for a permanent head coach after the season, and the interim is put in lingo. As she seems to do in every situation, Blair kept a positive attitude, taking the “whatever happens, happens” route.

Following her time at UT-Arlington, Blair spent time as an assistant coach at North Texas from 2013-15 and as an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator at Virginia Commonwealth from 2015-18.

“Karen has handled a lot of situations, whether it be professionally or on the move, change, personally,” Rompola said. “I just admire the way she has handled situations and she deserves every bit of attention she’s getting right now and every bit of coaching ranks that she’s getting.”

After a few inconsistent seasons at VCU, Maryland came calling. One of the premier women’s basketball programs in the country wanted Blair, and her rise would continue.

May 2018 finally arrived, and Blair was officially part of one of the blueblood programs of women’s college hoops. Big Ten dominance, five Final Fours and a national title in 2006 put Maryland above the other schools Blair had spent time at in terms of championship pedigree.

“I think the first thing is when you come to such a prestigious university as Maryland and to work under a future Hall of Famer, I mean it’s just a great opportunity,” Blair said. “I waited 20 years and put in 20 years of hard work to get to that point.”

While learning from Frese from a pure X’s and O’s standpoint spoke volumes about Blair’s new gig, it provided a recruiting paradise in the “DMV” right in her new backyard. Washington D.C., Maryland and Virginia always provide a wealth of talent regardless of the sport, and the area would allow Blair to thrive in bringing great talent to Maryland.

Having always recruited the DMV, even at SMU, Blair loved being in the area. Janielle Dodds, the leading scorer and the second-leading rebounder in SMU history, was someone that Blair helped recruit from West Springfield, Virginia.

But Blair, along with current assistant coach Kaitlynn Fratz, was a new piece coming onto a staff that went through some turnover, which is never uncommon among assistant coaches.

Assistant coach Shay Robinson — who now holds the associate head coach title at Ole Miss — was entering his fifth season coaching under Frese, but he was basically the only piece remaining on her staff heading into the 2018-19 season. Bett Shelby had moved on to an assistant role at North Carolina before becoming the associate head coach at West Virginia. Terry Nooner, Frese’s third assistant, left late in August to take on an NBA role with the Cleveland Cavaliers; he is currently the associate head coach for the Kansas women’s team.

Despite the continuity change, Maryland had a good season in 2018-19, going 29-5 but losing in the second round at home in the NCAA Tournament. The main staff remained the same in 2019-20, and the Terps won both the Big Ten regular-season and tournament before the NCAA Tournament was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Just four days after Maryland abruptly had its season end with a Big Ten tournament trophy on March 8, Blair was named the Division I Assistant Coach of the Year by the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association. Blair’s decades of dedication came to fruition with the top recognition possible by her peers.

“It was an awesome honor to be nominated by your peers and to be selected,” Blair said. “I mean, it obviously means a lot… I pride myself in trying to mentor others and to give back to the game, and that’s an instance when you win an award like that, that you know you’re doing something right and to be able to be recognized by your peers is special.”

Robinson was announced as an addition to the Ole Miss staff just one month after Blair’s recognition, and Blair was officially promoted to associate head coach, her current title, on Sept. 1, 2020.

Through all the constant movement after 14 total years spent at SMU, Blair had finally found a home, at least for now.

In the midst of her fourth season in College Park, the question becomes when (or if) Blair would eventually leave to take a head coaching job. She recognizes that there are not a lot of programs that compete for national championships on an annual basis, and she is fortunate to be a part of one of them in Maryland. Blair, who has never been to a Final Four, is here to help bring a title back to Maryland.

However, she recognizes the possibilities that could be in her future.

“Oh yeah, I mean, I think the end goal for that is to always make yourself better so that when the time is right, that you’re ready to be a head coach,” Blair said. “But, I love being at Maryland.”

Rompola also sees both points that Blair made. She knows that her former point guard is in the ideal situation at Maryland and also recognizes that Blair is used to changing if the time to make the jump comes.

“I have always thought that she would at some point be running her own program,” Rompola said. “I think Karen’s to the point where she is going to be very selective of her next step.”

With all of Blair’s success thus far and all of her accomplishments that are to come, she has absolutely earned the decision to be picky when it comes to her next step.

Through the first half of this year’s season, Maryland stands at 12-4 and 3-1 in the Big Ten. A couple of Maryland’s losses could be blamed on injuries, and the Terps still sit at No. 8 in the country midway through January. Blair says that Frese is the best coach in the business when it comes to peaking at the right time, and that can certainly happen this year to get Blair to that elusive Final Four.

Regardless of any tangible on-court success, Blair has become a great. Arguably more than any other profession, coaching is based on relationships. Blair understands the magnitude of that, and it has helped her get this far.

“It’s always about the players, and it’s about the relationships,” Blair said. “I mean, you can’t be in this business and not be in it to develop, lead and mentor young people.”

Wherever Blair goes from here, she’ll have a tremendous family behind her.