Women of Influence: Former NDSU women’s basketball coach has lasting impactFARGO – Before a game, former North Dakota State University women’s basketball coach Amy Ruley would ask her players, “Who wants to win?” Of course, everyone’s hands went up. Then she’d ask, “Who wants to prepare to win?”
By: Meredith Holt, INFORUM
“Women of Influence” is an ongoing series exploring the women in our community who have the most impact and influence. Each profile will explore a different element of influence and redefine what it means.
FARGO – Before a game, former North Dakota State University women’s basketball coach Amy Ruley would ask her players, “Who wants to win?”
Of course, everyone’s hands went up. Then she’d ask, “Who wants to prepare to win?”
“Everybody wants to win, but do you deserve it?” she challenged them.
Ruley, head coach for the Bison for three decades, prided herself on her teams’ preparedness.
“I swore I didn’t need to be at the games by the time it was the weekend; they could have coached themselves through, including substitutions,” she says.
Annette Ambuehl, who played for Ruley from 1983 to 1987, says they may not have always been the most talented, but they were always the most prepared.
“Sometimes we felt we knew (the opposing team’s) offense better than they did,” she says.
Perhaps it was her preparedness that helped Ruley guide the team through the transition from Division II to Division I.
However, it forced her to change the way she motived her players.
“We couldn’t promise a championship, so our approach was, ‘You’re going to be the first athletes to take us to the Division I level,’ ” she says.
Forever a Bison
Ruley taught her teams more than plays and tactics.
Kelli Layman, Ruley’s longtime assistant coach, says she was “very much a teacher.” She was a teacher of the game and a teacher of life, she says.
“For me, as an assistant, I always wanted to make sure our recruiting was solid because I knew she’d take them to the next step,” she says.
Ruley’s drive, determination and focus made everyone she worked with want to work just as hard, Layman says.
“She was so good at her job that you never wanted to leave her short,” she says.
Her players felt the same way.
Ambuehl, 49, of Fargo, says they would do anything for their highly respected coach.
“We teased her that we would have ran through a brick wall for her if she asked us to,” she says.
And she’s even more proud to have played for Ruley after watching her make history over the years.
Ruley is the most successful collegiate women’s basketball coach in state history with over 600 wins, she led the Bison to five NCAA Division II championships, and she’s received six hall of fame inductions.
Layman says women’s sports have always been strong at NDSU, but they grew even stronger once they started winning championships.
“Being featured in Sports Illustrated (in 1998) doesn’t hurt,” she adds.
Former player Pat Jacobson (1985-89) says Ruley will forever be tied to NDSU basketball.
“You mention North Dakota State women’s basketball, and the first thing that comes to mind is Amy Ruley, because that’s the impact she’s had on the program,” she says.
And she’ll forever be tied to the women she coached.
Jacobson, a 46-year-old mother of two from Fargo, still tries to follow the life lessons she learned from Ruley.
“There are a lot of things I try to do in life because of the influence she has had on me and continues to have,” she says.
A former player recently sent Ruley a link to a story about “why coaches yell.” At the bottom she wrote, “They yell because they care.”
Ruley compares the coach-player relationship to a parent-child relationship.
“They don’t always think you know what you’re doing when they’re playing and then later they come back and go, ‘Oh yeah, I get it now, I understand why we did what we did, why you said what you said,’ ” Ruley says.
Jacobson says she didn’t appreciate what her coach brought to the table until she grew up and had her own children.
Now her son, a freshman at NDSU, plays for the Bison.
“It’s come full circle,” Ruley says.
Ruley started coaching at NDSU when she was only 23, which she says would be unheard of nowadays.
“I think there was a time when we needed coaches and there weren’t many women who had experience doing it,” she explains.
Once they started gaining experience and coming up in the ranks, there were more female coaches in college athletics.
Now, she says, the pendulum seems to be swinging the other way.
There are more opportunities for women to coach, but she doesn’t know how many women really want to do it, considering the time commitment.
“I look back on it and think, ‘Gee, it would have been nice to have a family AND coach,’ but I just never felt like I had time for everything,” she says.
Ruley, who lives in Fargo with her two standard poodles, considers her former players and their families her family.
They’re a big part of the reason she decided to stay with NDSU after stepping down from coaching in 2008. Some of them she’s known since she started watching them in middle school.
“One of the most fun and rewarding parts of the job was to be involved with them and mentor them through all kinds of experiences and that move into adulthood, and now many of them are good friends,” she says.
Her basketball family was there for her during the most trying time of her life – when she found out she had breast cancer in 2001.
“The kids on the team went through it with me, from losing my hair to wearing a wig,” she says.
Ruley found the lump shortly after her brother was diagnosed with esophageal cancer and her nephew with mesothelioma.
Her nephew got married in April and died in August.
“I felt like, ‘OK, mine’s just breast cancer. I’ll just do what I need to do to get past it,’ ” she says.
She says she feels fortunate because the treatment didn’t bother her. She fit it in between work, practice and games.
“I didn’t even miss a day of work,” she says.
Being a breast cancer survivor has opened up a whole new community for Ruley. Friends and former players reached out to her when they fought their own battles.
“It’s like a big sorority,” she says.
Ruley’s new role, as a senior associate athletic director focusing on fundraising at NDSU, is more similar to coaching than she expected it to be.
She looks for people who have a real passion for the university and works on maintaining those relationships.
“Like you recruit student-athletes, you’re kind of recruiting donors,” she says.
However, she’s learned that she’s even more team-oriented than she thought she was. She finds herself craving work in group settings.
“Although I work within the athletics department, I’m more on my own, I’m more independent,” she says.
She also misses the intensity of her former job.
“It’s like preparing for war, and then you go to war, and you’re gesturing the battle and you’re making strategic changes and personnel changes, and you get to the end, you come out victorious; that part of it is unlike the things you do in your daily life,” she says.
Now that she’s off the court, Ruley has more free time. So what does she do with it?
The “sports junkie” watches sports – soccer, volleyball, football, basketball, softball, baseball, track and field.
Ruley, who grew up about 50 miles south of Chicago, has always loved sports, starting in fourth or fifth grade. She played “every sport the school offered” in her freshman and sophomore years.
“I just truthfully enjoyed any sport – the movement, learning the skills and strategies,” she says.
She says team sports are a great “training ground” for girls and young women.
They can learn to set goals, push themselves, work with others and handle successes and failures with grace.
“I think our society has changed enough that it’s not ‘bad’ to be aggressive as a woman,” she says.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Meredith Holt at (701) 241-5590