March 7, 2024 

‘She’s preparing them for life’: Fueled by a legend, Tynesha Lewis is making an impact at Elizabeth City State

After a storied college career at N.C. State under Kay Yow, Lewis' wealth of experience is bringing ECSU to new heights

BALTIMORE — For Tynesha Lewis, the conversation always returns to one person.

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Aside from her parents, one individual laid the foundation for Lewis’ coaching career. Even now, after six seasons in the WNBA and establishing herself as an NCAA head coach, it makes her emotional.

Legendary head coach Kay Yow’s excited look after Lewis helped North Carolina State beat the top two seeds and advance to the 1998 NCAA Women’s Final Four is seared forever in Lewis’ mind. It was the only Final Four appearance in Yow’s distinguished career. Lewis experienced the magic and madness of March as her Wolfpack team beat Maine, Youngstown State, Old Dominion, and Connecticut to reach the Final Four.

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Lewis says she feels fortunate to have played and learned under Yow during a memorable career, which also included a trip to the Sweet 16 in 2001. Yow was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2000 and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002. When Yow retired, she was one of only six Division I women’s basketball coaches to achieve 700 career victories while leading N.C. State to 20 NCAA Tournaments.

“I don’t get sad about her passing from cancer,” Lewis told The Next while watching the Lincoln and Saint Augustine’s open the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) Tournament. “I get sad that other folks couldn’t get what I got from her. The opportunity to meet her. The opportunity to be loved by her. The opportunity to be coached by her. She’s one of those people that you know you’ve met somebody special for life when you meet them. That’s how I try to be.”

Yow’s love and lessons are living through Lewis, who is passionately passing along that knowledge to her student-athletes at Elizabeth City State University, a Division II Historically Black College and University (HBCU) located in northeastern North Carolina and member of the CIAA, a conference founded in 1912 on Hampton University’s campus.

Lewis, who just concluded her third season as Elizabeth City State’s head coach, is a role model for her student-athletes as they compete on one of the biggest stages in college basketball. During the CIAA Tournament, the Vikings have thrived under the bright lights, reaching the conference championship game each year under Lewis.

The CIAA Tournament is more than basketball — even though 24 games are contested in six days. It’s a celebration of Black culture and accomplishments that uplift and strengthen the African American community. Celebrities like Colorado quarterback Shedeur Sanders, actress and singer Letoya Luckett, and rapper Fabolous sat courtside during the past week enjoying the turbo-charged action.

There were roaring fans proudly wearing their orange-and-blue, blue-and-white, and maroon-and-white school colors waving rally towels, furiously chanting, snapping selfies, and rhythmically clapping. It’s a week-long family reunion and homecoming party rolled into a memorable experience.

Tynesha Lewis played for legendary coach Kay Yow at N.C. State and now she just completed her third season at Elizabeth City State, a Division II program in the CIAA conference and located in northeastern North Carolina. (Photo Credit: Joel Onais Photography/ECSU Athletics) 

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Since stepping on Elizabeth City State’s campus, Lewis has transformed the Vikings into an elite program. Before her arrival, the Vikings had won just 56 games between 2015 and 2020. Now, under Lewis, the Vikings have been a yardstick of excellence. She has emphasized leadership, communication, and being results-oriented.

Since 2021, the Vikings have won 61 games, posted three consecutive 20-win campaigns, appeared in three straight CIAA championship games, won the 2023 CIAA championship for the first time in program history, and competed in the 2023 NCAA Division II tournament for the first time.

Those accomplishments earned Lewis recognition as the 2023 Clarence “Big House” Gaines Division II College Basketball Coach of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Lewis’ coaching staff also includes assistants Ron Woodard and Sha-Teisa Sharpe.

“I believe I am a winner, and when you get winners around you, anything can happen,” Lewis told The Next. “Chancellor Dr. Karrie Dixon has a great vision and was serious about athletics. That’s always important. We have an athletics director who ensures I have the necessary resources to be great. We have a great school where you can get a quality education with a nationally renowned aviation program.”

Lewis guided Elizabeth City State to its first CIAA Tournament championship in 2023. (Photo credit: CIAA Conference)

While it’s essential to her job, Lewis’s coaching strategy and accolades are secondary. She is enhancing the lives of her student-athletes on and off the basketball court, something she says means more to her than the victories and championships.

“My responsibility [is] to try and teach young women how to win,” Lewis said. “I want to create winners, period. Not just on the floor but everywhere. Part of winning is losing. How do you handle losing? Are you winning, or are you a winner? Because winners lose sometimes. How do you handle things not going your way? Do you fold? Teaching young Black girls to overcome is super important to me.” 

Lewis’ players have the same reverence for her, as evidenced by the Vikings’ postgame press conference following a tough 64-59 loss to 12th-ranked Fayetteville State in the CIAA championship game last Saturday. Elizabeth City State’s 5’5 senior guard Alanis Hill and 5’7 senior guard NyAsia Blanco couldn’t stop describing Lewis’ impact.

“This is the Black excellence queen I am sitting by right now,” said Hill, a Fayetteville State transfer who thanked Lewis for the opportunity to play at ECSU during the postgame press conference. “You got to Google her. I wish she had recruited me out of high school. She’s been a big inspiration for many of us.”

It’s easy to see why.

Lewis, a Macclesfield, North Carolina native, brings abundant knowledge on and off the court to ECSU with four academic degrees. She graduated from North Carolina State with a Bachelor of Arts in chemistry in 2001. In 2004, she obtained a Bachelor of Science in biological science from N.C. State. She earned her master’s degree in business administration in 2006 from American InterContinental University and continued her education by pursuing a second master’s degree in education/curriculum with a concentration in Integration of Technology in 2013.

“I am super adamant about academics,” Lewis said. “You have degrees; you have options. My young ladies have options. We push and talk about that a lot because it’s important. I can’t walk around here with my degrees and not encourage my young women to follow that.”

Head coach Tynesha Lewis has emphasized academics during her time as head coach while leading the Vikings to 61 victories in three years. ECSU won 55 games from 2015-2020. (Photo Credit: Joel Onais Photography/ECSU Athletics) 

Becoming a head coach was off Lewis’ immediate radar. As assistant head coach, she focused on preparing North Carolina Central for the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) tournament. The Eagles had just beaten their rival, North Carolina A&T, for the third time.

Life was great.

Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, halting major gatherings, including the MEAC tournament, which was canceled. A few weeks later, former ECSU athletics director George Bright emailed Lewis to see if she’d be interested in working less than two hours from home.

“I am a North Carolina girl through and through,” Lewis said. “North Carolina raised and made me. It’s where my heart is. I see my mom every week during the summer, which is important. When I talked to my mentor then and asked them if I was ready for a head coaching role, she said yes. That’s how I got here at Elizabeth City State.”

“I looked at the players they had on the roster, and I was like, oh yes, I can work with them. That was just the returning players, and the facilities were nice. I had a vision for what I wanted. After that, it was foot on the gas,” Lewis continued. “The first year, I had great kids who wanted to win. We got to the championship and couldn’t pull it off. I knew if we got back to the championship the second year, we wouldn’t lose.”

In 2022, the Vikings lost to Lincoln in the CIAA championship, but Lewis’ intuition came true, as they would beat Shaw University and earn the CIAA title the following year.

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Like many coaches, Lewis has two sides to her. 

During practices, Lewis is demanding, meticulous, and loud. She’s the opposite during games, where she spends more time sitting than standing. The calm and steady Lewis encourages her players with simple hand gestures during games, which helps them relax. Plus, no matter how many designer and colorful pantsuits Lewis wears, she understands that she’s not the focus during games, so she’s not demonstrative.

“I think these student-athletes are super emotional, so you have to be the opposite,” said Lewis of her bench demeanor. “They get a little nervous, and sometimes they can be unsure. If they look over there at the bench and see you doing the same, there will be problems. In practice, the standard is the standard, and there’s no compromise. I am difficult. I know they hate me at times, and it’s O.K.”

ECSU players say they enjoy playing for Lewis and thrive off the tough love. They know she cares deep down, she consistently checks in on them. A people person, Lewis has developed a special relationship with her players. Like Yow, Lewis’ efforts transcend the boundaries of a basketball court, leaving a meaningful imprint on others in their daily lives.

Elizabeth City State’s current director of athletics, James DuBose, Jr., remembers watching Lewis play at North Carolina State. When he worked at Winston-Salem State, he became familiar with her quality work at North Carolina Central by following her on social media. DuBose told The Next he was excited to have her leading the women’s basketball program.

“Coach Lewis is a jewel,” DuBose said. “She has proven that she is a leader, not just in basketball but also in what she has done with these young ladies over her time here, and it’s been phenomenal. She’s proven to be a mother figure, their aunt, and whatever they need. Her team has one of the highest GPAs out of our 11 sports programs. She’s preparing them for life and not just championships. Working with her and having her on our staff is a blessing, and it’s great for our student-athletes. She’s a team player who works to do the best for our student-athletes.”

Like the blue-collar city itself, Lewis has molded her team into a gritty and hard-working program that competes on every possession and rarely takes plays off. In the tough loss to favored Fayetteville State, ECSU never backed down. Lewis was always a reassuring presence during frustrating moments of missed shots and occasional defensive breakdowns.

“It shows she trusts us even when we make mistakes because she knows we can get it back,” senior guard Dy’Jhanik Armfield said following a quarterfinal victory over Saint Augustine’s. “It makes us feel comfortable. Once you get adjusted to her practices and how she is, you’ll be used to it. She helped me grow as a woman off the court. Not everything is about basketball. She teaches us many fundamental things we need, especially being a Black woman in this industry and environment. She’s always going to have ten toes down for you.”

Tynesha Lewis was a graduate assistant at N.C. State and an assistant coach at Illinois State and North Carolina Central before taking the head coach position at Elizabeth City State. (Photo Credit: Joel Onais Photography/ECSU Athletics) 

It wasn’t a coaching clinic or a how-to-guide manual that helped Lewis become an impactful leader; rather, Lewis says she’s just been blessed to be surrounded by greatness.

Lewis was a point guard under Yow, an experience that helped her develop the intangible skills that are key to a long pro career and coaching. A four-time All-ACC selection, Lewis finished with 1,621 career points in the NCAA before being drafted No. 21 overall to the Houston Comets. Her 6-year WNBA resume includes 143 games played, seasons with the Charlotte Sting and Minnesota Lynx, and a career-high 19 points against the Seattle Storm in July of 2004.

Before Elizabeth City State, Lewis’ collegiate coaching experience included time as an assistant at Illinois State and North Carolina Central and as a graduate assistant at North Carolina State. Yet, it was work away from the court that unlocked her secret to near-immediate success.

“Being an eighth-grade math teacher taught me more about working with these young ladies than any [other] job I had,” Lewis said. “You learn how to teach and break things down. Some students are visual learners, while some are auditory. Everybody doesn’t learn the same way. They don’t learn the way you teach. You teach the way they learn. My journey has made me the type of coach I am.”

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Lewis says she is also grateful for the nightly battles on the court against some of the most talented basketball tacticians in the country.

“The coaches in this conference are some of the best coaches I have ever run into strategically, and I was in the Missouri Valley Conference, MEAC, played in the ACC, and traveled all over,” Lewis said. “These are some of the greatest minds strategically with what they are doing being underfunded and under-resourced. On the floor, the strategies, and concepts they have every night, you better have your thinking cap on, or else you’re going to the house. I love it. It’s a challenge every single night.”

Lewis was reflecting on the Vikings’ journey to the championship before their game against Fayetteville State. One can debate, but this season may have been Lewis’ best coaching performance so far. In addition to being hunted as defending champions, the Vikings endured their share of bumps, bruises, sprains, and strains.

“To be [in the championship game] is a miracle and I don’t take that lightly,” Lewis said. “Every single player on my team has had an injury and we’ve been piecing it together. Playing with bigs at the guard spots and sometimes playing with seven or eight players. They endured and played through so many things. This team is impressive. I am proud of them, of how they have grown as women and grown maturity-wise. The biggest thing I want basketball to teach them is about resilience, overcoming adversity and when it doesn’t go right, will you still do right?”

It’s just one of the numerous lessons Lewis instills in her team that stems from Yow’s legacy.

Written by Rob Knox

Rob Knox is an award-winning professional and a member of the Lincoln (Pa.) Athletics Hall of Fame. In addition to having work published in SLAM magazine, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington Post, and Diverse Issues In Higher Education, Knox enjoyed a distinguished career as an athletics communicator for Lincoln, Kutztown, Coppin State, Towson, and UNC Greensboro. He also worked at ESPN and for the Delaware County Daily Times. Recently, Knox was honored by CSC with the Mary Jo Haverbeck Trailblazer Award and the NCAA with its Champion of Diversity award. Named a HBCU Legend by, Knox is a graduate of Lincoln University and a past president of the College Sports Communicators, formerly CoSIDA.

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