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Big dreams in a small town

Since childhood, basketball has consumed first-year coach Samantha Morrow

Coach Samantha Morrow

Samantha Morrow developed her love of basketball at the old gym in Graford. She makes her home debut as women's basketball coach Nov. 12 against Pittsburg State.

Samantha Morrow’s road to being a head women’s basketball coach at an NCAA Division I program began in a burg so tiny that few people stop unless they have a flat tire or need directions.

Graford has suddenly become famous as the home of Kentucky basketball coach Billy Gillispie, but you might save a little paint for the water tower to add Morrow’s name as the favorite daughter of the town of 494, give or take a few.

Named UT Arlington’s eighth women’s basketball coach last spring, Morrow comes to the University after winning four consecutive Class 5A state championships, 1999-2002, at Mansfield High School. She was the 2002 National Federation of High School Coaches Association’s National Coach of the Year and completed her prep career with 413 wins in 14 seasons.

Her high school-only background doesn’t scare Athletics Director Pete Carlon. He ventured into the prep ranks to hire previous coach Donna Capps, who led the Mavericks to two NCAA Tournament appearances and two Southland Conference titles in the past three seasons.

“There is not a high school gym in Texas that she can’t walk into and have instant respect,” Carlon said of Morrow. “We think she will continue to build the program into one of the best in the nation.”

Morrow took a break from a busy summer schedule to talk about her transition from high school to college coaching. UT Arlington already feels like home to her.

“The people are like family,” she said.

Growing up in Graford, 65 miles west of Fort Worth, basketball was a way of life. Morrow knew she wanted to be a basketball coach when she was in the sixth grade.

The community was too small to field much of a football team, so it didn’t try. The only grocery store bears the Morrow name, and there’s just one restaurant.

“Basketball is a birthright here,” Graford boys basketball coach and Athletics Director J.B. Littlejohn said. “It has always had a strong basketball program. There is a mind-set in Graford: You play basketball, and you play it well. The talk in the summer here isn’t football, it’s how well are you going to do in basketball.

“Billy (Gillispie) and Sam (Morrow) have helped make it OK to be a basketball school.”

Hard work was a way of life in the Morrow home. Her parents and grandparents were ranchers. Growing up, young Samantha drove a cattle truck, hauled hay, loaded and unloaded 50-pound sacks of feed, shoveled oats and stocked shelves at the Morrow Grocery. Her father, Ervin, died in 2000, but her mother continues to run the family’s 500-head cattle business.

“I got a penny for everything I did,” Samantha recalled. “It was good working for my dad, but you can’t call in sick. In the summer, you worked in the day and went to the gym at night.”

The gym was a stone’s throw from the Morrows’ front yard. And with no TV “for a long time,” according to Samantha’s mother, Judy, there wasn’t much else to do.

“In the late fall and winter, basketball was your entertainment on Tuesday and Friday nights,” Samantha said. “My older sister played basketball. The people I idolized were the basketball players.”

She knew the school superintendent’s son, and he had keys to the gym.

“Weekdays we’d play until 9, and on Friday nights sometimes until 11. Basketball was what you did for entertainment in Graford.”

But it didn’t overshadow education. Ervin Morrow taught math and served on the school board. Judy Morrow lectured in sciences before devoting time to the cattle ranch.

Daughter Samantha earned a scholarship to Ranger Junior College and later to Texas Wesleyan University where she received a bachelor’s degree in 1981. She completed her master’s degree at Tarleton State University in 1987 while coaching at Stephenville High School.

She’s an admitted sports junkie. “I can watch any sport at any time. ESPN was the greatest invention.”

In Graford, Morrow played almost every sport the school offered. She won the Class B state girls golf championship as a sophomore in 1975 and was on a region-qualifying relay team in track and field. She’s still an avid runner.

Her decision to leave an assistant athletic director position in the Mansfield school district was influenced by her belief that UT Arlington is a “gold mine” for women’s basketball.

“I believe we have an excellent opportunity to win a game, then two, then three,” she said of the team’s NCAA Tournament prospects. “I want to go beyond being Southland Conference champions.”

This fall she begins her quest to make it happen.

— Bill Petitt

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