Roughly 640 miles covers the ground of Deb Patterson’s coaching tracks prior to join the K-State women’s basketball team as head coach. It was a path that felt plenty normal to the Rockford, Ill., native.
As an Illinois native, Patterson kept a close connection to her home state as she ventured only as far as Nashville, Tenn., to take a job as an assistant coach at Vanderbilt. But a phone call from former K-State athletic director Max Urich put an
abrupt halt to her assistant coaching duties at the college level.
"I never believed that I’d ever live or take a job in Kansas," Patterson said. "Not in a million years."
But Patterson said her perception changed once she arrived in Manhattan.
"This was a place where a blue-collar, hard-working, salt of the earth person could compete hard and be successful," Patterson said. "It’s the mood and the character of Kansas State Athletics. Knowing those were the type of young people that I believed that we could recruit here to the Midwest, I was drawn to it."
In the 28 years of existence prior to Patterson’s arrival, the program had reached the post season just four times and finished under .500 for in Big 8 Conference play for five consecutive.
"The program was at that time on NCAA probation," Patterson, who had
never been a Division I head coach, said. "It was going through a
coaching change and there had been a lot of rules violations. It was a
program in which I felt we could build something really special because
we were also transitioning from the Big 8 to the Big 12 the year
that I would come in. There was a feeling of possibilities."
The changes of Patterson and her staff brought immediate results.
As a first-year head coach, Patterson led K-State to its first NCAA Tournament bid in 10 years and to the championship game of the inaugural Big 12 Tournament. In her time as K-State head coach, she has tallied at least 12 seasons in which the women’s basketball team has won 19 times, and has also led the Wildcats to nine NCAA Tournament appearances.
"It just seems so fast," Patterson said of her 18 seasons at the helm of the program. "It’s really amazing. When you think back and look at the banners, that’s when you realize how long you’ve been here. Really, it just feels like home."
Patterson has coached many of her players to conference, national and professional success. In total, 40 of her players have reached All-Big 12 honors.
One of the more impressive elements to Patterson’s program has been the role of several of these former players. There is currently one coach and three support staff members that played under Patterson.
"It’s a great honor," assistant coach Shalee Lehning said of coaching alongside Patterson. "I have so much pride and passion for this university and this program. To be able to learn from Deb Patterson now as a coach, I consider just an honor and a blessing. She’s constantly teaching to our staff and to our program."
Lehning, one of only five players to have her jersey retired at K-State, is entering her fifth season alongside Patterson.
She said the dedication Patterson brings is infectious and helped pave her way back to Manhattan following a three-year career in the WNBA.
"Kansas State is now her family and she has taken great pride in that," Lehning said. "She’s loyal to this program and to this university."
Similar to her coaching counterpart on the football field, Patterson has found great success in recruiting within the state of Kansas.
Four of the top five scorers in program history were born and raised in the Sunflower State. It’s also what made Lehning, a Sublette, Kan., native, attracted to play and coach underneath Patterson.
"We love in-state talent," Lehning said of Patterson’s recruiting process. "There’s a different sense of pride and support when they’re Kansas kids. Coach P has done such a great job of recruiting heavily and doing a really great job of getting Kansas kids to understand the opportunity that this is high level basketball. This is as good as it gets."
Patterson said it’s about finding the right personality for the program. As the state school of Kansas, plenty of players happen to stand in the program’s backyard.
"I’ve always looked for great character kids that are run through the wall, hard-working and hard-nosed," Patterson said. "We want people who aspire to excellence, not just as players but as people and in the classroom. Pulling that all together has been a part of who we’ve been since day one and it’ll continue to be that way."