KEARNEY — Amy Stephens can only smile when she looks back at her years as the head women’s basketball coach at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
“It’s hard to believe it was so long ago,” she said. “I was 24 when I was hired and that September I turned 25. I was so young. It makes you laugh how young. There was so much I didn’t know and so much I had to learn when Dick Beechner took a chance on me. ... I think I was the fifth or sixth choice in that hiring process.”
Beechner, who had seen the top choice accept then change his mind in a matter of hours, rolled the dice and came up with a winner in Stephens. The Alliance native and former Husker turned UNK into a juggernaut, winning 197 games in the eight seasons between 1995 and 2002. During that span, the Lopers won five Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference titles and made seven consecutive trips to the NCAA Division II Tournament. She was named the RMAC Coach of the Year four times and was a WBCA national coach of the year finalist in 2000.
UNK also enjoyed an NCAA Division II record 87-game home winning streak during her tenure.
She left UNK to take the head coaching position at Drake University where she coached for nine years, compiling a 151-130 record. In 2007 she led the Bulldogs to the Missouri Valley Conference title and an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament. The next year the Bulldogs won the conference title and made one of their four WNIT appearances with her as head coach.
After Drake, she worked as an assistant coach at Saint Louis and Memphis before joining Connie Yori’s staff at Nebraska in 2014. She was out of coaching for two years after Yori and her staff were let go at Nebraska, but a call from Memphis head coach Melissa McFerrin brought her back to the coaching ranks and she’s been the Tigers’ associate head coach the last two years.
“It’s been a lot of fun, I’ve enjoyed it,” she said. “The weather is amazing. The springs and falls are beautiful. The winters are extremely mild. ... The city of Memphis is also just a huge draw. There is so much culture and diversity, and the food is just fabulous. Obviously, the university has been a really good experience as far as the people I’m working with.”
Stephens said she’s using her head coaching experience to enhance her position as an assistant coach.
“I’ve kind of found my niche. ... When you’re the head coach you have to hold people accountable, whether it’s your staff or whether it’s your kids. It’s been really nice not being that person that has to hold people accountable all the time,” she said.
She also has found she can build stronger relationship with players as an assistant coach, and she can focus on teaching skills, scouting and developing strategy.
“I love that role. It’s a great role. It allows me to coach and teach and get into the counseling and the strategy, which I really love,” she said.
Her relationship with the players is something she really enjoyed at UNK. Another thing she finds she enjoyed is something that all UNK athletes complain about — the 10-, 12-, 15-hour bus trips.
“At Memphis, we take charter flights everywhere. We took a 37-minute flight up to Southern Illinois last year. We’re so spoiled at Memphis,” she said. “Then I think back to those days on those bus trips where you played cards and you sat across the aisle from the players and you really dove into getting to know them as people. ... That’s how those relationships got built.
“It was such a great time to be at Nebraska-Kearney because they had just transitioned into the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference and we were able to recruit Nebraska and Iowa kids who really wanted to work hard. ... It was a different time and era in the ’90s where players came in and worked really hard. Sometimes I look back and chuckle, those young women were just so great. They were great people. They were so loyal and so hard-working. They thought different than kids do today.”
Changing times have brought about another factor that Stephens finds appealing about being an assistant coach. She’s not very heavily involved in recruiting.
She said assistant coaches used to “set the table” for the head coach when it comes to recruiting. After the assistant did all the ground work, the head coach would come in at the end and close the deal.
“That doesn’t work anymore. ... The head coach has to be involved from Day One in recruiting or you’re not going to get the caliber of kids you need to sign,” she said.
Stephens still has a strong bond with Nebraska. Her parents live in Albion, as does one of her sisters. Another sister lives in Seward. Her brother lived in Lincoln until he moved to Evanston, Ind., about a year ago. And, she still has a home in Lincoln where she spends most of her off-season.
She’s unsure how much longer she will be involved in coaching basketball.
“When things went down at Nebraska I thought I was done,” she said. “I always said when I was at Kearney I wouldn’t be an old coach. But now I’m 52 years old and I’ve redefined what ‘old’ means. I still have good energy and I love what I do and I love the people I work with. I’ll just take it one year at a time.”