January 3, 2021 

Q&A with Ole Miss’ Coach Yo: ‘(2020) changed my perspective on life’

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A Q&A with Yolett McPhee-McCuin

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2020 was quite the year.

I could check off all the unexpected, unplanned and unbelievable events that took place.

But I won’t. We all remember them well, including Yolett McPhee-McCuin, head coach of the University of Mississippi women’s basketball program.

“2020 has been heavy. We lost Kobe in 2020. I had a player lose her dad in 2020,” McPhee-McCuin said. “It has not been easy, but anybody who comes out of this, it’s either going to make or break you. So my number one concern for my team is that this makes us and not breaks us, even though we may bend.”

The Next caught up with the Ole Miss coach a couple of days before 2021 made its entrance and a few days before her team started its SEC conference play – finally.

The Rebels – 6-0 – were among several SEC teams whose programs were hit by the coronavirus in a matter of a few days. This prompted numerous cancelations and rescheduling of games, including postponement of the Rebels’ season opener last night against the South Carolina Gamecocks.

Instead they will open conference play at home on Monday, Jan. 4 against LSU.

During our talk, the always pleasant McPhee-McCuin talked about the conference opener, lessons learned from 2020, salvaging the season amidst the pandemic, the SEC sisterhood and more.

Her team’s 6-0 start:

The Ole Miss Rebels went 6-0 in non-conference play with victories over Alcorn State, McNeese State and an impressive win over Kansas 70-53, among others. They open conference play on Monday against LSU.

“For us, we had to change our whole schedule due to Covid so we just focused on playing games within our region, keeping money in-state and just trying to stay as safe as possible. We did get one road trip in but pretty much we just went on availability and that’s who we had and how it worked out.

“We had a schedule where we could work on a lot of things and compete. A lot of people probably say ‘oh they didn’t get tested.’ But anyone who plays a game in a pandemic is being tested. We played Kansas, that was good.

“We have a brand-new team, 10th-youngest team in the country. Just being able to get our team on the floor, we got a lot out of that. I hate we had the stoppage because I felt we were trending in the right direction but that’s just what it’s going to be.”

Keeping the team together

McPhee-McCuin and her staff have been intentional about keeping the team unified during their Covid-induced hiatus.

“We Zoom with our team every single day. We have meetings, film sessions, anything we can do to get our eyes on them.  Those are the things we have been having to do since this pandemic. It has not been easy but it’s necessary.

“It’s amazing how people forget not only were we dealing with a medical pandemic, we’ve been dealing with a racial one too. It’s been so heavy on all of us. For me, I just try to put myself in my players’ shoes. I know how I feel so I can only imagine how they feel. I try to show empathy, at the same time I talk to them a lot about overcoming and getting through this, learning how to pivot and be resourceful.

“These are all things that are a part of life and growth. They’ll get through this. My goal is to help provide them with tools to be successful.”

Lessons learned from 2020

McPhee-McCuin said 2020 has also changed her focus and priorities.

“It changed my perspective on life and what’s important. This has been my first summer I’ve had a chance to be around my husband and kids because usually I’m out recruiting. I have girls so I’m grateful I was able to be around them at this stage in their life to talk about women empowerment and them being able to see what’s going on.

“I’ve really been preaching having a grateful heart and having gratitude. My players and also my staff and I are constantly being reminded this is important for us to find the positive side of it. It has taught me to really take a lot of consideration for mental health and how important it is to touch in to that — for adults too.

“There’s so much to be grateful for. Seriously. If you really sit back, you’ll see. Here’s the reality, are we out of this? We don’t know. We’re still in this going into 2021.”

One big lesson McPhee-McCuin said she’s learned is that you must meet adversity head-on.

“You don’t get to go around adversity, you have to go through it.  When you fly and see a cloud, you know it’s about to be a lot of shaking, rattling and rolling. But once you go through the clouds, usually it’s pretty smooth and sometimes beautiful.”

“Right now we’re in the clouds. We just gotta go through it. We gotta hunker down. Tell the ones that we love that we love them daily because tomorrow is not promised. We gotta live in the moment and we have to strive to be the best version of ourselves every day. And that’s what I preach every single day to my team.”

What makes the SEC so special?

“It starts at the top. We have great leadership all the way from the top in (Greg) Sankey (SEC Commissioner). I watch him maneuver through the pandemic and the Mississippi flag situation and I have been really impressed with his leadership. The SEC wants to be the best in everything we do and that starts from the top.”

The SEC Sisterhood

The SEC now has seven Black women who are head coaches — the latest being Kyra Elzy at the University of Kentucky. McPhee-McCuin takes great pride in that historic accomplishment and credits South Carolina Gamecocks legendary coach Dawn Staley.

“I’ll give Dawn her flowers. I think she opened the door for a lot of minority women to be hired in this conference. And because of what she did, the other administration at each school have paid attention to it and have followed suit.

“And that’s why representation matters. If you get one, you’ll probably going to get two, then three, then four but if you don’t have one, you can’t even see it.  You can’t be what you don’t see. I appreciate that the leaders of SEC understand that diversity and inclusion matters in women’s basketball.”

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