By Brian Paglia
Forest Park girls basketball player Nikki Wilson has known Lady Panthers coach Steven Cole since she was 7 years old. Cole coached Wilson's brother throughout his middle school and high school career.
So when Cole switched from coaching the Forest Park boys team to the girls, which included his daughter, Ashlee, Wilson held no apprehension about the transition this season.
"He has no favorites," Wilson said. "He plays the best players, whoever's going to get the job done."
No worries about petty politics intruding?
"I mean, he shows no favoritism toward her. She's just one of the other players," Wilson added. "I feel like she plays just as well as anybody else on the team, if not better. She's a big part of our team."
Indeed, Cole's transition from head boys coach to head girls coach has been seamless. The Lady Panthers are 12-2 overall, 6-0 in Region 4-AAAA and tied with No. 10-ranked Dutchtown for first place in the region, which will be on the line tonight when the teams tip-off at 6 p.m.
The coach-daughter dynamic has barely been a storyline during the first half of Cole's first season with the Lady Panthers. But it was a significant storyline in the Cole household.
Like most coach-child relationships, time has been a precious commodity for the Cole family, exacerbated by Cole's role as both head girls basketball coach and Forest Park athletic director. When former Lady Panthers coach Antonio Wade approached Cole about switching roles between the programs, there was little hesitation from Cole.
"I think it really was the boys coach's decision, but it wasn't hard," Cole said. "I knew most of the girls from middle school. I was going to be able to coach my daughter.
"Like any daughter-father relationship in coaching, we don't spend enough time together at home. Now we get practice time and the drives back and forth from practices and games."
Ashlee, a sophomore guard who was a first-team All-Southern Crescent and All-Region selection her freshman season, never expected her father to coach her on the high school team.
"I was surprised," Ashlee said. "I didn't think he would do it."
As North Clayton boys coach, Cole took the Eagles to the state playoffs in 2004 and 2005. Last season he took the Forest Park boys to the Sweet Sixteen of the state tournament. Coming to the girls team, Cole brought the same framework and philosophies that produced success with his boys teams.
Some warned him that girls basketball had a unique set of dilemmas, that as girls grew up their commitment to the sport waned. But Cole hasn't found that to be the case with this team.
"I think the girls are committed," Cole said. "They are really working hard. You hear stories about girls not being committed. I haven't really run into that yet. They've been to every practice, every film session and every game."
Maybe that's because his players are so familiar with Cole.
Wilson, a junior, has known Cole most of her life. Junior forward Keyonna Allen played AAU basketball with Ashlee on the team Cole coached. So did junior guard Jessica Anderson, who played at and attended Strong Rock Christian Academy last season.
None of them have seen evidence of preferential treatment from Cole with his daughter.
In fact, Cole says the biggest complaint from his team is that he's always acting like someone's father.
"He treats every one of us like we're his own daughter," Anderson said. "No special treatment, because we've all known each other for so long."
"No special treatment," Allen agreed. "Not even for his daughter."
"He treats me like a normal player," Ashlee said. "That's how he is. He doesn't really treat me any different."
And here's proof: Near the end of practice Monday, Cole utilized some Forest Park boys basketball players -- his former players -- to see how his Lady Panthers handled full court pressure.
None of Cole's starters were exempt from the drill. Not even his daughter.
"All of them are my daughters," Cole said. "It doesn't feel like coaching strangers. We have a great family atmosphere on this team."