Sometimes you want something so bad you’re willing to do whatever it takes to get it. Heather Oesterle, the newest member of the Central Michigan women’s basketball coaching staff, can attest to that.
After playing four years at Michigan under current CMU head coach Sue Guevara, Oesterle looked to her former coach for advice for going into coaching. The two went recruiting during the summer of 2002 and Guevara introduced her to Amy Tucker, associate head women’s basketball coach at Stanford.
Tucker, looking to give an old friend a favor, proposed to Oesterle the idea of being a volunteer coach. The Cardinal were coming off a 32-3 season and Sweet 16 appearance in the NCAA tournament.
“I was like, ‘really, how would I get out there?,” Oesterle said. “It never crossed my mind that would be (an option).”
However, soon enough, it became her only option. Just months removed from graduating college, while eager, she was young and unproven. Toledo, Miami (OH) and Oakland all passed on her.
“I was on vacation with my family and, on the same day, all three called and said I didn’t get the job,” Oesterle said. “I was bawling and everything.”
The next day she called Tucker at Stanford, inquiring about the volunteer position. After getting the OK, Oesterle packed her bags and headed for California with her mom.
During Oesterle’s brief time there, Stanford finished the 2002-03 season 27-5, including making another NCAA appearance. Oesterle, able to sit in coaches meetings, learned and absorbed as much as she could from legendary Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer.
But the fact remained she wasn’t being compensated.
“It was hard,” Oesterle said. “I ended up moving in with Heidi, Tara’s sister, because I ran out of money. I had to sweep floors during halftime of the men’s games and volleyball games so I could earn some extra money.”
Her time out west proved to be the break she needed as Miami head coach Maria Fantanarosa, who passed on her a season before, hired her as an assistant coach for the 2003-04 season. She spent five seasons with the RedHawks, winning two Mid-American Conference championships – including the team’s first-ever NCAA appearance in 2008.
She spent the next two seasons at Northern Illinois as an assistant and recruiting coordinator.
Oesterle’s relationship with Guevara goes beyond her college days.
Guevara, then an assistant coach at Michigan State, first noticed Heather during her early years playing at Mason High School, where she currently holds the school scoring record, and with the Capital City Express AAU team.
“She was just a big guard that saw the floor very well,” Guevara said. “She was always looking to hit the open player, she was very unselfish and one of those garbage kids that did all the little things.”
Growing up in Mason, a 20-minute drive south down U.S.-127 from East Lansing, also meant supporting the Spartans.
She attended MSU basketball camps as a youngster while Guevara was in East Lansing and played pickup games against MSU teams on several occasions. She even remembers her dad taking her to MSU women’s games when she was younger.
But things changed when Guevara took the head coaching job at Michigan in 1996.
“One of the reasons I wanted to go Michigan State was because of coach,” Oesterle said. “I felt like I knew her the best on staff and we had the best relationship.”
Her close-knit relationship with Guevara ended up leading her to Ann Arbor and state rival Michigan.
“When I got the job at Michigan, there were two kids that I knew I wanted to have with me at Michigan and Heather was definitely one of them,” Guevara said. “To put the block M on instead of the S, that was a big deal.”
She played four seasons – 1998-99-2001-02 – with the Wolverines, the first two of which were spent behind forward Stacey Thomas, the 23rd pick in the 2000 WNBA Draft.
“I don’t know if Heather ever knew this, but her mom called,” Guevara said as Oesterle remembered, began laughing and interjected herself to say her mom apologized the other day for it.
“Her mom called about playing time and said ‘please don’t tell Heather I called.’ I get that all the time. It’s like ‘no, if Heather wants playing time she understands her role. Janet, I appreciate you calling, but this is between Heather and I.’”
She quickly earned a starting position and was named team captain her senior year. Guevara said her willingness to wait her turn and work hard to get where she wanted to be is a very important characteristic to have when dealing with players.
“She got herself into the best shape she could be in, understood her role and contributed,” Guevara said. “Was it easy? Absolutely not. She never quit. Maybe got down a little bit, but understood these are the steps I have to take if I want to play.”
The hire that almost never happened
Following the 2009-10 season, NIU head coach Carol Owens decided to step down, leaving Oesterle and the rest of Owens’ staff looking for other jobs.
“I was stressing,” Oesterle said. “She told us May 1 and at that point the Final Four is over. I applied to everything and sent my resume everywhere. I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
Looking to help Oesterle out, Guevara made a few phone calls on her behalf. She interviewed with a school via telephone and went down to Virginia to interview for a job there, but had no luck.
Meanwhile, Guevara was on the brink of losing one of her top assistants, Bill Ferrara, to Hofstra.
“Bill was going to leave, then he didn’t leave and then he left,” Guevara said. “You have people in your head as to who you’d like to bring in. Initially, there was some miscommunication because I didn’t think Heather was interested in our job.”
After Ferrara’s departure, Guevara had a telephone conversation with Molly Murray, former associate head coach at NIU, inquiring about Oesterle. According to Guevara, Murray told her that she wouldn’t be interested because “you would be her third MAC school.”
Hurt and upset, Guevara talked to Owens on the phone about a week later and the former NIU head coach told her that Oesterle was still without a job.
When Guevara told Owens she didn’t think Oesterle was interested, Guevara said Owens replied: “Sue, she is interested in your job. She just didn’t want to step on anybody’s toes.”
Guevara immediately hung up the phone and called Oesterle, who interviewed the next week.
“She told me to think about it and call her Sunday,” Oesterle said. “I got 20 miles down the road and I called her and said, ‘This is where I want to be.’
“You can tell when you fit somewhere. I was really excited driving away from my interview. I’ve never been this excited about a job since I went out to Stanford. This is where I want to be.”