Sullivan: UB’s fierce, beloved Felisha Legette-Jack has more stories yet to tell

College Sports

(Courtesy of UB Athletics)

Felisha Legette-Jack often refers to her players as “phenomenal young women.” It’s not just about basketball, but life. Playing the game at a high level allows them to grow and tell their story to the world.

The best story of all, of course, is the phenomenal lady running the show, the 10th-year head coach. It all starts with Legette-Jack, who took over a struggling Buffalo program at the lowest point of her career and turned it into one of the top mid-majors in women’s college hoops. 

It starts in Syracuse in the Pioneer Homes, a low-income housing project better known as The Bricks or Brick City. One of the oldest housing projects in the United States, it sits in the shadow of Syracuse University, right down the hill.

As a young girl, Legette-Jack would look up that hill, wondering if she too might ever have a chance to move up in the world. “I looked up and thought, ‘Oh my God, all those rich kids up there! I can’t do that.’”

Legette-Jack was tall, shy and awkward as a young girl, but she had brains and ambition and athletic talent. She also had a proud, strong, hard-working mother, Thalia, who brought up five kids in The Bricks on her own after Felisha’s father Lonnie, a blues singer, left the family when she was 8.

“We had a little yard this big,” Legette-Jack said one recent day in her office, making a rectangle with her hands. “My mother said you will not play in our front yard. She said, ‘That is our sacred area. When people drive by our house, they’re going to know somebody important lives there. You can play in the back, but not at the front.’ So, we kept that front yard immaculate.”

The Bulls are 176-106 in Legette-Jack’s nine seasons (Courtesy of UB Athletics)

Young athletes played out back. All of Thalia’s children were gifted in sports. She comes from a large family in rural South Carolina. One of Felisha’s cousins, Darius Leonard, is an All-Pro linebacker for the Indianapolis Colts. 

“Everybody in my family is competitive,” said Felisha, who was the baby of the family.

The eldest, Lonnie, played college basketball at South Alabama and played professionally in England. Ronnie led a state championship hoop squad at Nottingham in 1982, went on to star at West Virginia State and was drafted by the Warriors, though he never played in the NBA. He was a good enough football player to elicit interest from the Cowboys after leaving college.

Legette-Jack said her older sister, Annette, was being recruited by Pat Summitt at Tennessee, but got pregnant in high school and never played in college. 

Felisha Legette-Jack and her brother Ronnie

Ronnie Legette, who works in community planning and development for HUD in Richmond, Va., said Felisha was slow to develop athletically, but determined to be like her brothers.

“You’d never want to bet against her,” Ronnie said, “because she had that intestinal fortitude. If we were playing hopscotch, or volleyball with a balloon over the fence, she always wanted to win. Being the baby and seeing all of us perform, she always wanted to compete and be the best.

“That stemmed from my mother, who basically raised five of us as a single parent. She imbedded in us: it’s not where you start from, it’s where you end up, and what you’re going to do in-between is what you have burning inside.”

‘Why not me?’

Felisha burned to play ball. She was 14 when the Carrier Dome opened. She could see it from The Bricks. 

“Yeah, of course,” she said. “Where I lived on Oakwood, I’d go to the corner of State Street, after you go by King School. Right on the corner, you look up and there’s the dome.”

That shiny new dome was a national monument to college hoops as the sport surged in popularity on ESPN in the early 1980s. She imagined the possibilities. She thought, “Why not me,” which became another of her mottos.

She became a star at Nottingham High, a 6-foot force in the pivot. She learned under her first coaching role model, Willetta Spease, a Black woman who instilled a shy girl with self-confidence and was rewarded with two state championships.

The next stop was up the hill, the university. Legette-Jack said she had never been on the SU campus until college. Her mother worked at the VA hospital and drove through on the way to work but had never “infiltrated the campus.”

Legette-Jack became a Big East star. She left Syracuse in 1989 as the career leader in scoring and rebounds — and with double majors in child and family studies and psychology. Her senior year was cut short by a knee injury. She used her time wisely, observing head coach Barb Jacobs and constantly asking questions. She was like a coach on the bench. Soon, she became one for real.

Her first job was as head girls coach at Westhill High, just outside the City of Syracuse, where she once made her players do pushups at halftime for missing layups. She was intense. She also cared deeply about kids, especially the ones from where she grew up.

“I worked for the Syracuse Housing Authority when I graduated from college,” Legette-Jack said. “It was my foundation and I wanted to give other kids a chance. I leased apartments to people in need. I let them know, ‘I got out, I’m moving forward.’ That was my story. I wanted to go back and be a part of that.”

“The fight is for the next young lady that needs a person who looks like her to rise above and to be coached up and create a foundation so that she can become the COO, the CFO of something very big,” Legette-Jack said. (Courtesy of UB Athletics)

She ran a basketball camp to keep kids off the street at night. She got SU players like Derrick Coleman and Sherman Douglas to speak at the camp.

“I wanted them to think, ‘I can do that. They’re just normal people.’”

After two years at Westhill, she got a job as an assistant at Boston College. The Big East. Then she spent seven years back home as an assistant at Syracuse.

David Jack, who played on the Jamaican national volleyball team and was getting his start in coaching, moved to Syracuse to start a junior program. He and Felisha had mutual acquaintances at SU, who felt the two would be ideal for one another.

“I had just come out of a relationship,” Jack recalled. “I said ‘No, I’m not interested right now. I just want to chill out and do my volleyball.’ They swore she would be the right person for me.”

One day, Jack went to the university and one of his volleyball friends took him to meet Felisha. “She was actually on the floor, yelling at kids,” he said with a laugh. “Someone walked up and tapped her on the shoulder. She’s like, WHAT?

Felisha Legette-Jack and her husband David

“Then she saw me and said, ‘Oh, hi! Hello.”

“I wouldn’t say it was love at first sight,” Jack recalled, “but she was definitely striking and beautiful. We talked a little bit, went on a few dates. I think we instantly knew we were a match for each other. It took off from there. We love a lot of the same things. It just catapulted into something great. Two years later, we got married.”

Their mutual love of sports, and competition, was a natural bond.

“We are competitive in everything,” David said. “We don’t know how to turn it off. If we’re on a vacation and in a pool playing pool ball, it’s fierce: Trash-talking, going crazy and upset because somebody stole a point, it’s intense. Our son and his friend are looking at us, ‘Oh, my god, on vacation, what is this?’”

Their son, Maceo Jack, confirms it. He said his mother is a foosball nut who challenges everyone who comes by the house to a match. 

“I don’t even play her anymore,” said Maceo, a 6-5 guard for the UB men. He transferred for his senior year after playing four years at George Washington. “That’s her domain. I let her rule that. I definitely have her competitiveness. I don’t think I’m at her level, but it’s rubbed off on me for sure.”

That competitive drive extends to her coaching. Felisha admits there were times, early in her career, when she couldn’t turn off the switch.

“My first 11 years in the business, I never took one day off,” she said. “Never. On my honeymoon, we’re in California, my husband went in the shower, I’m making phone calls. He goes to the workout, then I jump on the phone with Coach (Marianna) Freeman, who was the head coach at Syracuse at the time.

“My mom was a work person like that. Work isn’t work when you love it.”

Hard work got her from Syracuse to Michigan State, where she was an assistant for two years before landing her first head job at Hofstra. In four years, she took a bad Hofstra team to 19 wins and the WNIT in 2006. That got her to Indiana, where she guided the Hoosier women to the WNIT her first three seasons.

But the Indiana program stumbled, winning only nine and six games her last two years in Bloomington. Legette-Jack was fired in 2012. She was crushed. She was a phenomenal woman, with a story to tell. How could she have failed?

“Yeah, it was a low point,” she said, “when you’ve done so many fantastic things in this game. I never thought I’d lose because losing was never part of my whole thing. It was ‘Not only are you losing, you’re not good enough to be here anymore, even though you’ve got three years on your contract.”

‘Magical door’ to UB

“You know what, whenever God closes a door, He has a magical door that’s so much bigger,” Felisha Legette-Jack said of landing at UB after being fired by Indiana. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

David and Maceo were in Jamaica on a volleyball trip when she got the axe. The day after her firing, Felisha heard a knock at her door. It was Ronnie. Upon hearing the news, their mother had called him and said, “Get to that doggone place and get my baby!”

“It was not up for debate,” said Ronnie, who was on the plane from Virginia to Indiana soon after getting the call from Mom. 

Thalia was always there for other people. She worked as a house cleaner and janitor, but still tithed 10 percent to the church. She took in relatives and people from church. She went to hospitals and comforted strangers.

“She did evangelist’s work,” Felisha said. “Every time I had a bad experience, I would call her, and it seemed the world was at peace.”

It was hard to find peace, though, when she couldn’t find another coaching job. Legette-Jack put in for every job available. She and David were building a house in Charlotte, where she offered to volunteer. Nothing. She thought about becoming a life coach. Still, she had her strong faith to sustain her.

“Before I could even move there and finish the house I was building, Buffalo calls,” she said. “You know what, whenever God closes a door, He has a magical door that’s so much bigger.”

The door opened to Buffalo. 

Anucha Browne, UB’s associate AD at the time, was leading the search for a women’s coach. Browne asked the players what kind of leader they wanted. They said they wanted someone who would challenge them as athletes and students, someone with great energy who would care about them as women.

Browne thought it sounded a lot like Felisha. They brought Legette-Jack to town for interviews, which included meeting with the players. 

“She was passionate and telling us all these expectations for our program,” said Kristin Sharkey, who played three seasons for Legette-Jack and is now her assistant. “When she asked us our thoughts, we said, ‘We just want to win. Help us win.’

After playing for UB, Kristin Sharkey is now one of Legette-Jack’s assistant coaches (Courtesy of UB Athletics)

“We had no real expectations,” said Sharkey, who started her last 85 games at UB and was all-MAC. “She said, ‘No, we’re trying to win a MAC championship.’ In her mind, she was winning a national championship. We weren’t used to that. She just pushed us all to a whole other level.”

Sharkey said every detail mattered. She said if someone messed up a rep in practice, Legette-Jack acted as if someone had killed her dog. There was no going backward. At times, she might have pushed a little hard.

Mackenzie Loesing was an incoming freshman in 2012. She laughed when reminded that she and Legette-Jack had clashed at times in the early days.

“Yeah, it was not the most ideal circumstances where we were put in each other’s presence,” Loesing said. “She didn’t necessarily choose me or I her. She was put in a kind of impossible situation, but we had to make the most of it. 

“She was trying to turn around a program that wasn’t good and she was going to do whatever it took to do that. So of course, there were difficulties along the way. But ultimately, the results speak for themselves.”

Legette-Jack took over a program that had averaged 21 losses over the previous four years. The Bulls’ record improved each of her first six years on the job. In her third year, they reached the MAC Tournament semifinals for the second time in program history. In 2016, they won it and made their first trip to the NCAAs.

The Bulls were picked last in the league that year. At one point, Legette-Jack put a piece of paper in her office drawer that read, “Why not us? Why not now?” They entered the MAC tourney as an eighth seed, then won the title on a bank shot by Stephanie Reid at the buzzer in overtime. They were the lowest seed ever to win it.

It was a masterful coaching job, a testament to having faith in your phenomenal women. Legette-Jack played all 12 players in that title game in Cleveland, some who rarely saw action. She sat Reid for a long stretch of the fourth quarter, allowing a freshman named Gabi Bade to shine in the big moment.

The team rewarded her, lifting Legette-Jack to the first NCAA tourney berth of her basketball career. Every one of those 12 players had a part in it.

“It’s just a basketball game,” she said. “That’s one thing I am gifted with from Him, from God. I just think when you put somebody in a box, you don’t just minimize them, you minimize yourself. I want to see everybody for who they are.”

C.A.B.

UB has two MAC Tournament titles and three NCAA appearances under Legette-Jack. (Courtesy of UB Athletics)

Loesing was at that game — as a volunteer assistant. A serious ankle injury had caused her to forgo her senior season and concentrate on her pre-med studies. She did what was best for the team, and she still gets emotional thinking about that championship and how much it meant to the team and her coach.

“She always pushed us to be our best selves both on and off the court — the character, academics, basketball (CAB) slogan she goes by to this day,” Loesing said. “She really means that. I operated three-plus years under the mindset that I had to do whatever it took to improve and get better and grow. 

“I translated that to my life,” she said. “It’s taken me very far. She taught me that the best things in life are usually hard, and you need to work hard for them and persevere through adversity.”

Loesing went to Buffalo with the dream of becoming a doctor. She graduated from medical school and is now in an emergency medicine residency at UB and on track to become a practicing physician.

Theresa Onwuka’s ambition was to be a nurse after playing college ball. A native of Nigeria, she also wanted to play for a coach and a school that made her feel at home. She came to UB the year after the first NCAA trip. 

“Buffalo was the only school I visited,” Onwuka said. “I loved the team chemistry. We’re like a family. Seeing Coach Jack with the players, I knew she was not just being a coach. She was being like a mother to us. They also had a good nursing program. That was a plus on the side.

“Yes, she is demanding,” said Onwuka. “She is tough. But as a player, you will know it comes from a good place, because she sees something in you and wants you to get to that full potential. She always says, life outside basketball is what you control. You take hold of it and plan how to tell your story.

“That’s always in my head. What do I want to do with my life? We’re more than basketball players, we’re phenomenal women. How do I become that?”

Onwuka grew to look up to Legette-Jack, who would always be available for phone calls in the middle of the night (Courtesy of UB Athletics)

Onwuka became an all-MAC player and three-time academic all-league. She graduated in 2020 and was nominated for UB woman of the year. She enrolled in the university’s accelerated nursing program and is now working six days a week as a nurse at Sisters Hospital.

Before her senior year, Onwuka was stuck in Nigeria for several weeks due to a visa issue. She would call Legette-Jack in the middle of the night. Felisha was always available. There are many stories of calls in the night from players.

“She said, ‘I never want a daughter of my own because I already have 15 or 16 of them,’” David Jack said. “She is so invested that if a player calls her at 2 in the morning, she’s jumping in her car and going over to campus to their aid. It’s happened several times. I never flinch, because I know her heart is in the right place.”

Legette-Jack tells recruits she’s not a mid-major coach. She wanted them to think of UB as a destination, a major program that could make runs in the NCAAs. She said it publicly, and skeptics shook their heads. 

Then, in 2018, it happened. The UB women made a stunning run to the Sweet 16 in Albany. They went 29-6 to shatter the school record for wins. The star player was transfer Cierra Dillard, a Rochester native who was the product of a strong single mother and saw Legette-Jack as a surrogate mom. She and Steph Reid are both playing professionally these days.

The Bulls played defending national champion South Carolina in the round of 16. Connecticut, the dominant program in the women’s game, was also there. UB had arrived. They lost to South Carolina, but won over the national media for three days and were able to tell their story.

Legette-Jack was asked at the end of a press session about being an African-American coach. She gathered herself and gave an impassioned plea for schools to give more Black coaches a chance. She talked about minority coaches who didn’t get that second chance to succeed. 

“The fight is for the next young lady that needs a person who looks like her to rise above and to be coached up and create a foundation so that she can become the COO, the CFO of something very big,” she said in Albany. “It’s important that they stay in the race and keep fighting. We see them. You’re out there. Keep fighting. Go forward.”

Legette-Jack took the Bulls back to the NCAAs in 2019 and won another game. Sadly, her mother, her inspiration in life, hasn’t been able to enjoy her greatest triumphs in Buffalo. Thalia has been suffering with dementia for about eight years and lives in a nursing home in Syracuse. 

Still looking up the hill

UB was picked third in this year’s MAC preseason poll, but got the most votes to win the conference tournament. (Courtesy of UB Athletics)

On Tuesday, UB opens the 2021-22 regular season by hosting Canisius. Legette-Jack is in her 10th season. The Bulls are 176-106 in her nine seasons, a winning percentage of .624 and an average of roughly 20 wins a season. Ten years already.

“It really is hard to believe,” she said. “This is the longest tenure I’ve ever had. When I went back to my alma mater, it was seven years.

“It doesn’t even feel like it. Not just the job and the players and the university, it’s the community that’s pretty damn cool here. You feel like, ‘Today is going to be all right, and a day turns into weeks and months and years and like, ‘What? What just happened?!”

There are people who say this is her most talented team. The Bulls are older and deeper. They have an elite scorer in junior Dyaisha Fair, who was sixth in the nation in scoring a year ago, and fifth-year senior forward Summer Hemphill, a star on the 2018-19 NCAA teams who is back from a serious knee injury. 

Legette-Jack said this year’s team might have more talent, but it remains to be seen if it can approach the basketball intelligence of the Sweet 16 squad. But after missing the NCAAs two years in a row, you bet she’s excited.

“I can’t not be excited,” she said, “because these young people just light the fire in me and it’s enthusiasm all day.”

She’s also looking forward to Nov. 14, when she’ll be the first Syracuse women’s basketball player to have her number retired in a in a ceremony before a game against Notre Dame. Her No. 33 jersey will be in the rafters in the Dome. The question is whether she’ll soon be coaching there, too.

In early August, Syracuse women’s hoop coach Quentin Hillsman quit his job, one month after players accused him for bullying and inappropriate behavior. The Orange named assistant Vonn Read the acting head coach for the coming season, rather than immediately hire an outsider to run the program. 

Legette-Jack was considered the top outside candidate when Hillsman resigned and has been open about her interest in the Syracuse job. She said was “very interested.” There’s a general belief around UB that if she has another good year, she’ll be the head coach at her alma mater next year.

“Every person has the ideology that I’m going to show the world I can go full circle,” she said. “Until that comes, I’m where my feet are.”

Her brother Ronnie is more blunt about the matter. He said Syracuse should have hired his little sister right away, that “it’s the right thing to do at the right time, with the program in turmoil.”

Whatever the case, Legette-Jack, now 55, continues to push forward, believing she will one day coach in a Final Four. In a way, she’s still looking up that hill, helping young girls to become phenomenal young women. She says there’s a destiny yet to be fulfilled, more great stories untold. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story contained a misspelling of Felisha Legette-Jack’s name. We apologize for the error.

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