If there was a way to top the intrigue created by an apparent simultaneous exodus of off-campus coaches at San Luis Obispo High, first-year principal Leslie O’Connor found it.
The first new hire for four recently vacated positions is bound to create a buzz.
Nipomo High athletic director Laurie Decker will be the new boys basketball coach at San Luis Obispo next year, becoming the latest local female head coach of a varsity boys program but the first in a sport with the visibility of basketball.
Decker, who has been with Nipomo since the school opened in 2002, had already accepted an English teaching position at San Luis Obispo for next school year. When first-year Tigers coach and full-time teacher Jim Thompson stepped down from the team this offseason, O’Connor decided to hand the title to the incoming Decker.
Though the choice is unconventional, it fits with O’Connor’s philosophy that varsity programs should be headed by on-campus coaches.
“It wasn’t done for the publicity or because, ‘Hey this is going to get people talking,’ ” O’Connor said. “It was done because it was really the right fit for what we wanted.
“As a former player, Laurie played at the Division I level, Iowa State, a very, very strong program. She has coached at the NCAA Division I level as an assistant at Cal Poly. She was a very successful coach with our girls basketball program a few years ago and a quite well renowned athletic director at Nipomo High School.”
As a prep standout, Decker was the first two-time Minnesota Miss Basketball, winning the award in 1986 and 1987 for Rochester (Minn.) Lourdes High. She played four seasons on scholarship at Iowa State, earning all-conference honorable mention and first-team all-conference academic honors in 1991.
Decker was an assistant at Cal Poly for two seasons before taking over the Tigers girls program from 1996 to 2002. She left to become Nipomo’s first girls basketball coach and has been with the school ever since.
There have been several San Luis Obispo County females who have coached varsity boys programs at championship-caliber levels within the past five years, including Arroyo Grande boys tennis coach Lori Hollister, Eagles boys volleyball coach Laurel Allen and former Morro Bay boys tennis coach Karen Roth.
Women’s semi-pro tackle football player Knengi Martin guided the junior varsity football program at Mission Prep in 2010. When the Royals began playing boys volleyball in 2007, Michelle Lakey was the program’s first head coach.
Decker coached five varsity seasons over her six years as girls basketball coach at Nipomo but stepped down to take the athletic director’s role prior to the 2008-09 season.
She said she was highly motivated to get back in the classroom and the gym.
There are bound to be doubters, but any potential controversy that could arise from pioneering a path for female boys basketball coaches in San Luis Obispo County did not weigh heavily while she considered the appointment.
“I didn’t think about that a lot, frankly,” said Decker, whose father Rich Decker is a Minnesota Basketball Coaches Association hall of famer who’s guided boys programs for 41 years. “I grew up in the gym around the boys program. It’s a natural fit for me. I wasn’t thinking about whether it was boys or girls.
“I’ve already met with the boys a couple times now. I had a parents meeting (Thursday) night to make sure we’re all on the same page, but honestly, I think when you start talking about the program and building the transition and having respect for the school and the community and talking about your offensive and defensive system, the gender thing seems to just go away.”
Decker expressed gratitude to O’Connor and the school district for the opportunity and said all the feedback she’s received from the community this week has been positive.
Still, Decker is likely to face as much scrutiny as any Tigers coach in recent memory.
San Luis Obispo is coming off a season in which the Tigers went 14-13 and 6-6 in the PAC 7, finishing in a tie for fourth with St. Joseph and bowing out in the second round of the CIF-Southern Section Division 3A playoffs.
It was the first winning season since 2008-09, when San Luis Obispo finished 21-7 (10-2 PAC 7) and tied for the league title under coach John “Doc” Jensen.
In her final season coaching at San Luis Obispo, Decker recalls finishing 19-6 and advancing to the Southern Section divisional semifinals, but her run at Nipomo did not replicate those results.
The brand new program was 4-18 and 0-10 in league play in its first season. In five years, the Titans failed to have a winning season and Decker’s overall record with the Titans was 32-86 and 11-53 in league.
The lack of victories in Decker’s most recent stint was not a factor for O’Connor, who himself coached the boys and girls programs at Bakersfield High to 14 Central Section titles in 19 years.
“A lot of people would look at wins and losses being the sole factor when it comes to somebody’s skill level when it comes to coaching,” O’Connor said, “but I don’t think it’s feasible to judge someone from wins and losses. It’s about players getting better on a daily basis.
“Are the kids in the program and players in the program really showing growth? ... Sometimes those things don’t translate into wins and losses.”