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''Forever a Cane''

''Forever a Cane''

by Christy Cabrera Chirinos

CORAL GABLES, Fla. – It was a conversation that happened nearly two decades ago, but its impact has never been forgotten.

In fact, it’s a conversation that has motivated Katie Meier nearly every day since.

Meier, then the head women’s basketball coach at Charlotte, was in Coral Gables to interview for the same job at the University of Miami. Over dinner at the Biltmore Hotel, not far from Miami’s campus, former University president Donna Shalala presented Meier with a question.

“Can you bring me interesting leaders?” Meier recalled Shalala asking. “She said, ‘I want you to bring me kids that, if they came by my office, I would stop everything to meet with them and talk with them. That’s what I want.’ And I had never heard that in any interview I’d been on, and I just thought to myself, ‘Oh my God, that’s all I want to do.’ This basketball thing, I know it really well. But my spirit is all about growth and cultivating leaders. That has always been my mission.”

Meier knew in that moment that Miami was where she wanted to be. It was where she wanted to coach. It was where she wanted to impact lives.

She got her wish – and more.

Not long after that fateful dinner, Meier was named Miami’s new head coach. She’d hold that title for the next 19 seasons, building the Hurricanes into a consistent winner, a regular NCAA Tournament participant and a program that achieved a stellar 100 percent graduation rate among players who stayed in Coral Gables for their full four years.

During her time at Miami, Meier became the school’s all-time winningest basketball coach – men’s or women’s – with 362 career victories. She led the Hurricanes to 11 20-win seasons and 10 NCAA Tournament appearances.

Last year, she made history again, leading the Hurricanes through a magical March run that culminated with the program’s first trip to the Elite Eight.

She was named the Associated Press National Coach of the Year in 2011 and the USA Basketball National Coach of the Year in 2013.

On Thursday, Meier announced her retirement from coaching.

On Friday, she was back on the floor of the Watsco Center, this time thanking the former players, staff members, colleagues, Hurricanes fans, and supporters who’d made her time at Miami so special.

It was, understandably, an emotional morning.

“For 30 years, I’ve been a coach and that’s a title I will always cherish, that means so much to me … I’ve loved every single minute of being a coach,” Meier said. “It’s been the honor of a lifetime, from UNC Asheville, to Tulane, to Charlotte and to my beloved, beloved Miami. It’s been my privilege to serve.”

Said Miami Vice President/Director of Athletics Dan Radakovich, “Katie Meier made people passionate about Miami women’s basketball. She made kids want to come and play for her. She made coaches want to come and learn from her. She made fans want to come and cheer for her. She created a culture in our community and a camaraderie that has become a hallmark of this program and will continue for years to come.”

As emotional as Meier was on the dais when she spoke during her retirement news conference, there were a few more tears as she made her way around the Watsco Center, thanking everyone in attendance.

Two of her current players – Jasmyne Roberts and Lemyah Hylton – got big hugs, as did former Hurricanes’ forward Amy Audibert, who was one of the players that attended Meier’s introductory press conference back in 2005.

Meier’s staff – including Fitzroy Anthony, who has been named the Hurricanes’ interim head coach – was at the Watsco Center as well, as were head women’s tennis coach Paige Yaroshuk-Tews, head volleyball coach Jose “Keno” Gandara, associate head men’s basketball coach Bill Courtney and assistant men’s basketball coaches Kotie Kimble and DJ Irving. Football staffers Mike Rumph and Roland Smith were there, too, as were more than a few members of Miami’s athletic department.

Meier made it a point to chat with all of them and the countless hugs and smiles, Audibert said, were a testament to the kind of person Meier has been throughout her remarkable career.

“She was one of the first women I met, at a younger age for me, where you’re just intrigued by her strength and her power and everything else,” Audibert said. “It wasn’t just even basketball but having conversations with her and walking into rooms and feeling all her energy. She owned that, too. It happened to be basketball was a conduit for her, but she could have done anything and still been able to engage people. That’s just something I always really looked up to her about. She owns her presence and she’s made a difference in so many people’s lives.”

Added Roberts, “Every day, she comes in with the best energy, the best vibes, the best attitude. And that inspires you. It inspired me. She was able to touch my spirit, not just on the court, but off the court. … I think what makes Coach so special is that she’s just honest with you. I go to her, and she always tells me the truth. … It’s hard to find genuine people like that in your life, where they can just give you truthful answers. She embodied love and spirit. She always instilled confidence in me, and it meant a lot to have that.”

While Friday marked the end of a chapter of Meier’s journey at Miami, the former coach will be starting a new one soon enough.

Meier will stay in Coral Gables as a member of the Hurricanes’ athletic department and will be a special advisor to Radakovich moving forward.

She hopes to continue serving as an ambassador for the University and is says she is looking forward to mentoring staff and student-athletes alike. She also envisions her new opportunity as a way to continue to impact Miami’s coaches, especially given the ever-changing landscape in college athletics.

“I promise you I’m going to support our coaches here because the coaches, we need to protect this profession. We need to care for these human beings that are so vulnerable and working so hard and have so many new equations to solve,” Meier said. “There’s a new way of doing things and you have to stay competitive, but they’re great people and I just want to help. If I can go by and said, ‘Paige, is there something you don’t want to do today that I can do for you?’ The coaching profession is such an honor. It’s so important. … It’s really important to me that I help the coaches, too.”

Even as she continues her work at Miami, though, Meier knows stepping away from coaching will allow her the opportunity to spend more time with her family, including her wife, Hunter, and her parents, Howie and Phyllis Skolak.

She’ll get to be there for her siblings, for her nieces and nephews and instead of exchanging text messages on game days, there will be time for more face-to-face visits and conversations. She’ll savor time on the water and there will be lots of outings with the puppy that joined her family last summer.

Meier knows she’ll enjoy every bit of that.

"I’m still here for you and I’m forever a ‘Cane..."

Katie Meier, at her retirement press conference

But she made it clear on Friday that even in retirement, she will always be there for the countless young women who entrusted her with their futures.

“For 24 years, I’ve always set my office up in the very same way, where if you have a meeting with me, I’m sitting here, you’re sitting across from me and as I’m talking to you … there’s always been two words behind my players,” Meier said. “One word is inspire, and the other word is encourage. And as they’re hearing my message and they’re looking at me, there’s always been one word behind my head and it’s ‘dream.’

“I’m supposed to encourage and inspire. That’s my job. They need to dream. I just want to thank every single one of those players who have let me share in their journey. I promise to always encourage and inspire, as long as they promise to keep dreaming. I’m still here for you and I’m forever a ‘Cane. And maybe now, you don’t have to call me ‘Coach.’ Just call me Kate.”