In Sue We Trust: Sue Guevara leads women's basketball to MAC glory
When Sue Guevara isn’t on the sideline calling plays or on the road meeting potential recruits, she’s staring out her office window — peering at an image hanging on the wall in an athletic building hallway.
The image is a picture of the Central Michigan women's basketball team from 2013, the year it won the Mid-American Conference Tournament Championship. Guevara calls it one of her greatest accomplishments as a head coach.
“I want to see more of those,” Guevara said.
The Chippewas came close a year ago. CMU fell to Buffalo 73-71 in overtime in last March's MAC Tournament Championship game. This season, the team returned the bulk of its roster and is picked by the media to win the MAC Tournament this time around.
The Chippewas started their 2016-17 season 11-4 overall and 3-0 in the MAC — as of Wednesday — winning those games by an average of 19 points. On Jan. 4, Guevara coached her 300th game for the Chippewas in an 89-62 win over Akron.
After the victory, Guevara was asked about her tenure at CMU. Her response gave observers a peek into who she is and how she feels about CMU and its students.
“I am very grateful for the administration." she said. "Ten years ago, they took a chance on a recycled coach. They’ve been so supportive and I’ve been very fortunate to have good staffs. We’ve been able to recruit good kids, and they have really made it easy.”
Ask anyone she's worked with, or coached, and you'll get a picture of a woman who routinely puts others before herself.
It's one of the reasons Guevara has become the coach she is now.
Developing a passion
Today she eats, breathes and sleeps all things Chippewas basketball. But Guevara’s career didn’t begin with a love for hoops and hardwood. Both of Guevara’s parents were softball coaches. That was one of the main reasons she started off her coaching career in a dugout instead of sitting on the bench.
“Way back in the day, I was the head softball coach of Saginaw Valley (State)," Guevara said. "I liked it, but I started to look into coaching basketball. My first thought was, ‘You don’t have to deal with bad weather.’ I just happened to be fortunate enough to land an assistant (basketball) coaching job at Saginaw Valley."
The rest is history. Guevara coached at six universities before coming to CMU in 2008. Aside from her gig at Saginaw Valley State, Guevara was an assistant coach at Ball State, Ohio State, Michigan State and Auburn.
The Saginaw native was also the associate head coach at MSU for one season before landing the head coach position at the University of Michigan in 1996.
After coaching at Auburn from 2004-2007, Guevara wasn't looking for a new challenge. If you ask her, Guevara will tell you the decision to lead the Chippewas wasn’t hers to make.
“I didn’t pick CMU — they picked me,” she said. “At the time, I was well aware of Central Michigan. They gave me a chance, and it was an opportunity for me to come back home. I was aware of the glory days at CMU, so I thought if I got the chance to get an interview with them that maybe I could help bring them back.”
After 10 years at CMU, Guevara has helped turn the Chippewas into one of the top teams in the MAC.
Under Guevara's guidance, the Chippewas have won 153 games — including 116 wins during their last six seasons. CMU has eight seasons of 20 or more wins, five of which have been with Guevara at the helm.
To her credit, Guevara has had inimitable success, but it didn't happen overnight.
Restoring the program
Before she became one of the most prolific women’s basketball coaches in CMU history, Guevara had to rebuild a team that went 63-107 in six seasons under former coach Eileen Kleinfelter. It took just three seasons for Guevara to turn it around.
During her first season at CMU, the Chippewas finished 7-22 and 2-13 in MAC play. They were also bounced in the first round of the MAC tournament.
During those three seasons, Guevara's overall record was 37-54. Still, she continued to recruit talented players and made moves that brought her closer to that championship moment — the one she sees when she looks out into the hall.
The 2013 season gave CMU its first MAC Tournament Championship and NCAA Tournament berth since 1984.
“Winning that championship and getting to the tournament was a great feeling for not just our team, but the entire program as a whole,” Guevara said. “It’s the kind of feeling you work all of the days and hours in the gym for, to get back to games like that one.”
Even with a "MAC Coach of the Year" award under her belt, Guevara frequently minimizes her role in those wins. She always opts to praise her players first.
“I really believe a lot of it comes from the recruits we have been able to land here and the players we have found all over the state of Michigan and elsewhere,” she said. “When the program started to gain more visible success, we were able to capitalize and get the players we wanted.”
With Guevara leading the team, CMU hasn’t had a lack of talent. She has coached three MAC Freshmen of the Year recipients, four different Sixth Player of the Year award winners and 23 of her players have earned All-MAC honors.
Nine of her players have scored more than 1,000 points in each of their college careers. That group includes Niki DiGuilio and Kerby Tamm, CMU’s top-two all-time leaders in made 3-pointers.
Her most decorated player, Crystal Bradford, earned "MAC Player of the Year" and "Defensive Player of the Year" recognitions during the 2013-14 season.
Bradford finished her career as the Chippewas’ all-time leader in points, rebounds and blocks. She became the second MAC player to be drafted into the WNBA when she was selected seventh overall in the 2015 WNBA Draft.
Assistant coach Raina Harmon has spent the past five years on Guevara’s staff and has watched her bring the program renewed prominence.
“Coach Guevara is the heart and soul of this team,” Harmon said. “She can get any of these players to run through a wall for her. She does a really good job of having a personal relationship, which causes them to play hard for her.”
Harmon said Guevara’s ability to be open with her players makes them feel more comfortable.
“Those players aren’t afraid to come in her office to ask what they need to do to get better,” she said. “She’s honest and transparent with them, and I think that’s really important.”
When Guevara isn't coaching or at practice, there are a few different activities she does to take her mind off of everything.
“I have a group of people that I really enjoy to workout with here at the university. We do that five days a week,” Guevara said. “We run, bike, swim and lift. I also love to walk the dog, read a lot; I have a place over on the west side of the state that is my sanctuary, if you will, where I walk the beach on Lake Michigan.”
Empowering the future
After he worked as the video coordinator for Auburn in 2007, Bill Ferrara — who is now an assistant at Florida — received his first coaching job from Guevara in 2008.
"She's my basketball mom," Ferrara said. "There is no one better in this profession than her at empowering her staff and her players. She has a special gift of making everyone feel special."
For three years under Guevara, Ferrara helped diagram the offense she still runs today. It has been one of the top scoring offenses in the country.
If he is advanced to head coach in the future, he believes the things he learned under Guevara will help him for years to come.
"She said, 'Mr. Bill, I'm training you to be a head coach,'" he said. "She allowed me to think like a head coach. I'll always empower my assistants (when I become a coach) like she did for me."
CMU Associate Head Coach Heather Oesterle played under Guevara at Michigan from 1998-2002. She has served on Guevara's staff since 2010, and said Guevara has helped mold her for when she is awarded a team of her own.
"She taught me about the game," Oesterle said. "I felt like she always had my back. She was hard on me, but it was because she expected a lot out of me. I learned from her that you have to build a relationship (with players) and that's what I'll take away when I get the opportunity to coach my own team."
A player's coach
Senior forward Jewel Cotton, who has been with Guevara for five years, said although she has learned a great deal under Guevara, she believes she isn't done receiving advice.
"I'm still learning and she is still teaching, that is one of the great things about her," said the Harper Woods native. "As a fifth-year senior, she still is giving me new ways to learn. She's a great teacher."
Cotton said another strength of Guevara's is her ability to give attention to every individual on the team.
"I love her fire. (Coach Guevara) knows our potential and knows us well," she said. "She wants to make sure that everyone on the team feels like they have a role and is important to this team. What’s great about her is she values everyone on this team individually."
Her main focus now is seeing her players walk across a different kind of hardwood court when they receive their diplomas during May commencement ceremonies.
“What I look at is how we continue to graduate confident, strong women and that is what this is really all about,” she said. “Not just winning championships, but women who are ready to leave their mark on the world.”
At 62-years-old, Guevara said she doesn't know when she'll step away from the game. In June, she signed a contract extension through 2021.
As she looks at the future of the program, Guevara said the foundation is set for continued prosperity.
With the Chippewas strong start to this season, Guevara would want nothing more than to look out her office window and see another MAC title photo next to the one she already has.
“I think we are in pretty good shape,” she said. “We have really good student athletes. Our upcoming recruiting class is good, and I truly see us competing for more championships.”