Relationships key to success as Karen Blair looks to help lead Maryland Women’s Basketball to a big year

In a business that often encourages decision-making based on title, money, and ascending the ranks as quickly as possible, Karen Blair considers herself a lifetime learner.

The second-year assistant coach at Maryland made a name for herself as a player at Southern Methodist University not just for her skills with the ball, but also her ability to get to know people and learn what they need to stay connected. These skills have translated well in her coaching career, and with Maryland on the verge of what many expect to be a big year, interpersonal skills have been a key in her day-to-day work.

“I try to know everybody’s personality and how they learn best, and that’s consistent at any level,” said Blair. “I’ve learned that you can’t rush relationships, and the trust that it takes to coach somebody at a really high level. I usually find that Year 2 is always the year where that trust comes.”

To see Blair at this point is more meaningful when you consider that coaching is a profession that she fell into years ago. After her college career had ended and while interning with PepsiCo, former SMU head women’s basketball coach Rhonda Rompola called to ask Blair if she’d consider being an assistant coach on her staff. It wasn’t something she had considered before, but Blair noticed quickly that the leadership and personal skills required of a good point guard were advantageous to coaching.

And, like in any other profession, consistency was key to growth. Blair spent 10 years as an assistant coach at SMU, meaning that for 14 years (four as a player) she was surrounded by consistency day-in and day-out.

“Being a part of a program for 14 years allowed great connectivity between your alumni, boosters, and people always remaining connected to the program,” said Blair, who eventually left SMU for an assistant position at Colgate. “Eventually, I needed to see how other people operated within a program. I never wanted to get complacent because growth is important to me. Colgate was completely different with a huge academic component to it, but it also allowed me to move across the country not knowing anybody. When you make yourself completely uncomfortable and completely vulnerable…if your surround yourself with good people, good things will happen. At the end of the day, we’re in a people business.”

After gaining valuable experience recruiting high-academic student-athletes at Colgate, Blair went to UT-Arlington to coach and, at one point, served as Interim Head Coach – another important experience and learning opportunity for her.

“I learned that student-athletes are so resilient, no matter the adversity, and that they are able to overcome tough situations and keep moving forward,” added Blair about her time at UT-Arlington. “Some of the best advice I got during that time was to be true to myself.”

After some time at North Texas, Blair had an opportunity to move back toward the east coast to work at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). The opportunity was unique for her, as coaching at a “basketball school” in a diverse area would be yet another experience that would give her the opportunity to continue learning and growing professionally.

That learning and growth goes beyond basketball, too. Coaches often take opportunities at new places to learn from a “future” perspective – in that they identify what to expect from an administrative support standpoint for when they possibly become a Head Coach themselves in the future.

The chance to learn from administration at VCU was a valuable piece of the experience.
“Richmond is all about basketball, and Ed (McLaughlin) and his team do a fantastic job at branding and creative connectivity from all around the campus,” said Blair of VCU Athletics Director Ed McLaughlin and his administration. “One of the things I appreciated about Ed is that he’s very straightforward with high expectations. You know that you’re going to be supported and get what you need.”

After three seasons at VCU, Blair was contacted about an opportunity at the University of Maryland – a perennial power in women’s basketball. Two things immediately stood out that elevated her interest about coaching in College Park – learning from Head Coach Brenda Frese, and getting back into the heart of recruiting the Washington DC/Maryland/Virginia area (known as “the DMV”).

And, even with lofty expectations, being at Maryland has brought new experiences as well.

“Here, we have a standard. There’s a difference between being the underdog and being the hunted, and we know we are going to get everybody’s best game. People have our game circled on their calendar, and we talk to our team about that a lot,” added Blair. “There’s a ‘Maryland way’ in everything we do, and it applies on and off the court. We want to go into every game being confident, and want our players to be playing our best basketball.”

Even with the many opportunities and learning situations she has had throughout her career, there’s no question that there are a few more things Blair would like to add to her “experiences” bucket this season.
“I’ve never been to Sweet 16 and beyond, and I really think there are just a few places you can coach and say you have that opportunity. This is a place where we can try to compete for a national championship,” said Blair. “I want to be present where my feet are, and I just try to make every place I work at better than when I came in.”

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