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Rubama: ‘Gut feeling’ has made Larry Vickers one of the most successful NSU women’s coaches in program history

NORFOLK — During the 2015-16 season, the Norfolk State women’s basketball program was struggling miserably and going nowhere.

Marty Miller, then NSU’s athletic director, knew something had to be done, and had a candidate in mind. But he wasn’t sure he’d be interested.

“The team had been struggling and I just felt it was time for us to do something to create some success in the women’s basketball program,” Miller said earlier this week. “I had already been observing Larry (Vickers) and the other assistant coaches all along. Based on what I saw in Larry, I thought that he could become an excellent head coach.”

But Vickers had concerns.

From 2008-13, he had served as an assistant coach with the men’s program. And from 2013-16, he was an associate head coach with the men’s team.

“But I told him, ‘I’d like for you to come from the men’s side, where he was an assistant, and come over to the women’s side,” Miller recalled. “I told him, ‘With your ability, and from what I’ve observed, you could become an excellent head coach.’ He wasn’t comfortable with it at first because he had never coached women before. I told him to hire a couple of female basketball coaches to help you get orientated on the women’s side. And he thought about it and said, ‘OK, I’ll give it a try.”

In his first full season, he guided the Spartans to a 15-15 mark.

That was followed by seasons of 18-11, 17-15, 19-11, 5-9 (COVID season) and 17-12.

Last season he led the Spartans to a 26-7 record, MEAC Tournament title and an NCAA Tournament appearance.

This season, the Spartans, who play Coppin State in the semifinals at Scope on Friday, could add another MEAC Tournament title and NCAA appearance.

This week Vickers also earned his second consecutive MEAC Coach of the Year honor .

“It’s voted on by my peers, which a good thing,” Vickers said about the award. “It’s a honor because people only see (game day). They don’t see the sleepless nights. So when other coaches — who understand this and understand the grind — vote for you, it’s an honor.”

Players Kierra Wheeler and Diamond Johnson were glad to see their coach get honored.

“He’s deserving of the award,” Wheeler said. “I’m proud of him.”

Johnson, who transferred to Norfolk State from N.C. State, agreed.

“This is my first year and I just trusted him that he would put me in position to be successful, and that’s what he did,” she said. “The team he put together is amazing. The Coach of the Year Award, he deserved it. That means a lot.”

Chanette Hicks, who starred at Maury High and played at Norfolk State, is now in her first year as an assistant coach under Vickers.

She, like his players, are happy he’s getting the recognition he deserves.

On the sideline during games, Vickers is very stoic, rarely cracking a smile and always serious.

But Hicks insists Vickers is different from that persona.

“He’s very serious on the court, but he does crack a smile. I promise,” she said, laughing. “He always says that it has to be done at the right time. People need to look out for him. He’s going to do big things.”

Vickers has gone after his coaching career like he did during his playing career: with determination, tenacity and a strong work ethic.

When he was at Ocean Lakes High, he was just 5 feet, 11 inches, so he never played basketball.

But then he grew to 6-9.

I remember when Vickers showed up on Norfolk State’s campus in 2004 and wanted to play basketball for the Spartans.

“You wrote my very first article about working in the warehouse and how I decided to come to the Norfolk State,” he reminded me this week. “They put me on scholarship from day one I realized this was a path we can go.”

Anytime he stepped on the court, you expected something to happen whether it was a blocked shot, a rebound or hustle after a loose ball.

“The difference between me and a lot of other players was they had success in AAU. They had success in high school. So sometimes when a coach is trying to mold you, you’re not buying in,” he said. “But I was a ball of clay. I was just trying to take everything in and learn how to help my team. So I probably took it a little bit more serious than others.”

That’s when he realized that coaching may be in his future.

“I realized this was a path where you can touch young people and still be around the game that you love,” he said. “And Mr. Miller backed me and I’m able to be here today because of it.”

Miller still remembers all the doubters when he decided to hire Vickers.

“I’m not surprised because I would have never made that decision if I thought it was not going to work,” he said about hiring Vickers. “But the thing that is so gratifying for me, not only has he taken it and done well, but I had a number of fans who disagreed with my decision. In fact, some of them were so upset that they approached the president questioning my decision to do that. They thought it was a poor decision. But then President (Eddie N.) Moore, Jr., supported my decision.

Does he hear from those naysayers anymore?

“I see them, but they don’t say anything,” he said with a chuckle. “And I’m not the kind of guy to say, ‘I told you so.’ I’m not that type of guy. But like I told Larry (on Wednesday), I am so proud of what he has accomplished. He has done a good job. Being a former baseball coach, I just had a gut decision. It was something in my gut that said this will work.”

Larry Rubama, 757-575-6449, larry.rubama@pilotonline.com