He could have been a modern-day Socrates or Voltaire.
Instead, Jim Flanery, who majored in philosophy as a Creighton undergrad 25 years ago, has made his mark in the women's basketball arena. If the Bluejays defeat North Dakota State on Sunday, Flanery will tie Bruce Rasmussen for the most wins (196) in program history.
Not bad for a guy who some viewed as the “convenient” hire when Connie Yori left Creighton in 2002 to become Nebraska's coach. The timing of Yori's departure in late June did work in Flanery's favor.
“Not a lot of people are looking for jobs in July,” Flanery said.
But Rasmussen, who retired from coaching in 1992 to become an administrator, discounts any notion that Flanery was merely handed the job. It was Rasmussen who had given Flanery his start in the women's game, adding him to the Bluejay staff as a volunteer assistant.
Before that, Flanery was among a group of Creighton male students who would practice against the women's team. At the time, Rasmussen didn't have enough scholarships to fill a 10-woman rotation.
“We had no depth, and it would have been difficult to practice without some people that weren't involved in the program going beyond themselves and making a commitment to us,” said Rasmussen, who became the school's athletic director in 1994. “Jim was one of those people. He and some other guys were our scout team.”
So while others wanted the Bluejays to look nationally or to hire a woman to succeed Yori, Rasmussen convinced school leaders that Flanery deserved the chance.
“It went back to what he did for us as a student when he didn't have to do it and what he did as a volunteer assistant and the job he did as Connie's assistant,” Rasmussen said. “The opportunity wasn't given to him — he earned it.”
In the past decade, Flanery has proven he could handle the job. His teams have won an average of 19 games per season. His 2004 club won the WNIT championship. After a run of near-misses, Flanery got Creighton back to the NCAA tournament in 2012 for the first time in a decade.
He's also graduated players while providing a competitive environment that Rasmussen said has allowed them to grow, as players and people.
Flanery has done it content to let the spotlight shine on others. He's no self-promoter. His major regret is that outsiders don't fully appreciate or recognize the hard work of his players.
“I don't think that's an issue that's peculiar to Creighton, but more of a women's basketball issue,” Flanery said. “I wish there were more people that would come watch us play. Sure, we play some games that are ugly, but so do football teams and men's basketball teams.”
'Not all fun and games'
Flanery possesses an infectious laugh and a self-deprecating sense of humor that sometimes masks an intense competitive streak. That sideline intensity can erupt, with his players being the target at times.
Ally Thrall played point guard for Flanery from 2004 to 2008, and remembered a game at Indiana State when things weren't going well for her or the Bluejays.
“He called a timeout to specifically yell at me,” said Thrall, who now works for Creighton's athletic department in sales and marketing. “He met me at halfcourt. My parents went to almost every one of my games, but that was one they couldn't make.
“I remember they told me they could hear him yelling at me on the radio. After the game, he told me that he had to make an example out of somebody to get the team going. That just happened to be me.”
Flanery admits he's felt remorse at times after yelling at a player. He has apologized more than once. He continues to work on his sideline decorum.
“At the core, I'm a nonconfrontational person,” he said, “although I know there are people that have watched me coach who might disagree.”
Flanery does question why outsiders might find it acceptable for the coach of a men's team to yell at his players while similar behavior by a coach of a women's team is criticized. He asks no more of his players than Creighton men's coach Greg McDermott demands of his.
“Most of our players have played at levels where they've had high demands placed on them,” Flanery said. “This isn't eighth-grade basketball, where you're coaching girls that might not even play in high school.
“I've had fans tell me they wish I would be a little kinder. I think that's a fair criticism, but I also think gender shouldn't always play a role in treating someone a lot softer.”
Flanery's players hardly perform in a Gulag-type atmosphere. Thrall said they quickly learn that their coach likes to have fun. He can be a jokester, with the target of his humor often being himself.
They also learn their coach will do anything for them.
“Flan is one of the most genuine guys I know,” Thrall said. “He'd give you the shirt off his back. He'll do anything for anybody.
“He's very laid-back and he likes to have fun, likes to laugh. At the same time, you learn that you have to take care of business, and it's not all fun and games.”
Keep on plugging away
Rasmussen coached women's basketball at Creighton for 12 seasons at a time when the sport was starting to emerge from its infancy at the collegiate level. Since he left the sideline, he's watched a gap develop between most Division I programs and the game's elite.
“I think it's harder to be nationally competitive in basketball on the women's side than the men's side,” he said.
Rasmussen cites several reasons. One is the 15-scholarship limit in women's basketball that allows elite programs to stockpile talent. In the men's game, the 13-scholarship limit helps filter talent to the mid-major level. Also, women don't leave school early for professional basketball, as many of the best players on the men's side do.
The rising popularity of volleyball cuts into the women's talent pool, he said, and schools at the power conferences possess far greater financial resources.
“At the BCS level, the money that schools put forth on the men's side has forced them to put more into their women's program,” he said. “In some cases, that's above and beyond what makes economic sense.
“That's why I think it's harder for a school like Creighton to compete nationally in women's basketball than it is in men's basketball.”
Flanery agrees that Rasmussen is on point, but that doesn't keep the coach from plugging away. His teams generally play a difficult nonconference schedule to get ready for Missouri Valley Conference competition.
Only two of Flanery's teams have finished below fourth place in league play, and one of those squads was a two-point loss in overtime away from claiming the NCAA berth that goes to the Valley tournament champion.
“I can't say we've been wildly successful, but we've been competitive in our conference,” Flanery said. “We might not have all the resources that some schools do, but does that mean we can't have success or be a Top 25 program?
“No, but I think a lot of people would say it's harder because the gap is bigger.”
Flanery's teams have made eight postseason appearances in 10 seasons. They've won 20 games or more six times.
Nice achievements, but hardly ones by which Rasmussen measures Flanery's accomplishments. Passion, character and the ability to get the most out of his players are how Rasmussen sizes up Flanery's value.
Flanery's passion for the game has always been strong — he spent two seasons as a walk-on for the Creighton men's team and still plays in the competitive noon games on campus.
Flanery also has scored well throughout his coaching career in what Rasmussen calls operating on and off the court in a high-class manner.
“I think the area that Jim has really grown in is his intelligence within the game,” Rasmussen said. “His ability to break the game down, to teach it and to recognize and recruit talent has gotten better.
“Teaching is an art, but it's also a talent you can develop. Jim has improved a lot in his ability to maximize the talents of his players individually and as a group.”
Flanery once thought he would head to law school after graduating from Creighton with his philosophy degree. Instead, he found a calling in coaching, almost by accident.
“I was trying to figure out what I was going to do, and Bruce offered me an opportunity to be a volunteer coach,” he said. “It wasn't that I was trying to decide whether to coach men or women.
“I just had an opportunity to coach women, and I found the coaching aspect of it to be fun.”
That is still the case, though it has nothing to do with the fact that he soon will be the Bluejay women's coach with the most wins. He said he is energized by the chance to coach high-quality student-athletes at a place where he likes to come to work each day.
“I don't have to work with knuckleheads,” he said, “or anything approaching a knucklehead.”
That helps offset some of the limitations and drawbacks to coaching at a school such as Creighton.
“This isn't perfect, but I know no place is and this place has been pretty good,” Flanery said. “We'd all probably say we'd like this place more if we made more money, but I look around the department and think that I'm not the only one that thinks this place is pretty good.
“It's a tribute to the kind of people that Bruce has hired. Maybe some of us couldn't do it at some other place, but we're the kind of people that can get it done here.”
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