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Wesmen Women’s Basketball Star Player Tanya McKay Filled Legendary Coaching Shoes

Tanya McKay | Head Coach | University of Winnipeg Wesmen Women's Basketball

I grew as a person and player under Tom. As an assistant, I learned more about what was going into preparing for practices and games. There were so many moving parts with players, staff, academics, travel, games, administrative duties, managing egos, motivating, counselling, etc. when coaching.

Tanya McKay

Head Coach

University of Winnipeg Wesmen Women's Basketball

× The interview with Tanya McKay was conducted via a typed conversation. Editing changes were made to make it easier to read while maintaining the voice of the interview.

You were a very successful Wesmen player, being named a CIAU All-Canadian 3 times. What got you into coaching basketball after your career?

After I finished playing in 91’, I graduated with my first degree and got married. I really thought the next phase of my life would be in the business using my degree.

I was encouraged at the time by Larry McKay to coach, give back to a sport that gave me so much and maybe consider taking my Education Degree so I could teach and coach. So, in 1991/92, I started coaching at Silver Heights Collegiate and working as an administrator at Camping Manitoba. Dennis Schrofel, who was a teacher at Silver Heights Collegiate then, took a back seat and to let me learn and coach the Varsity Girls Basketball Team. That was an eye-opener.

I don’t remember winning a game that season – But I do remember losing to Westwood 54-6. I was devastated. At the moment I felt there was no way I could coach. Dennis sat me down after that loss and told me not to give up. He encouraged me to get to know my players, learn their strengths, enjoy being in the gym, coach to improve your team and bring the passion you had playing to your coaching.

By the end of the season, I was hooked. I wanted to coach, win or lose. My driving passion was to get back to the University level where I had just played 5 years and was a 3 Time CIAU All Canadian. So, I met with Tom Kendall, Head Coach of the Wesmen Women’s Program and my head coach when I played. I shared my new vision with him and he then offered me an opportunity to be an Assistant Coach with the program starting the 1992/93 Season – the first year of the streak.

You became an assistant coach with the Wesmen Women's basketball team shortly after your playing career, joining a team who tied a historic North American basketball collegiate record 88 straight wins. What was your role as an assistant during those years?

My role as an assistant coach was to work with younger players individually on their skills outside of practice. In practice, I was learning the game by observing, helping in drills and mentoring younger players in practice and games.

The best advice that the head coach Tom gave me was to watch the game away from the ball. So in practice and games that was my focus. I was a sponge – listening and learning the game every day through a different set of glasses.

How was the dynamic with the players since you were teammates with some of them previously?

The players I worked with individually were players in their 1st and 2nd year of the program. I was already a year out from playing and felt respected returning as an assistant coach. As the season progressed, we were winning – everyone was in a groove and doing their jobs.

I was the fourth assistant. Gail Kendall, Keith Pruden and Craig Kennedy also assisted in the program.

You played under legendary Wesmen coach Tom Kendall and were also on his coaching staff. What was your experience like playing for him in contrast with coaching alongside him?

Over my 5 years playing I grew as a person and player under Tom. He pushed us and expected us to work hard on and off the court. From a players’ perspective, he was tough. We competed every day in practice. We had very detailed game plans before every game. We were always prepared.

As an assistant coach, I learned more about what was going into preparing for practices and games. There were so many moving parts with players, staff, academics, travel, games, administrative duties, managing egos, motivating, counselling, and the list goes on when coaching. Tom always seemed to have balance and have everything in control. He had similar expectations for his assistant coaches that he had for his players: be engaged, work hard and be committed to the vision.

He made sure that we as assistant coaches didn’t assume that because I, for example, was a great player that I could coach. He taught me to be a student of the game.

In what way did Tom Kendall impact your coaching style or philosophy?

Having now coached over 25 years I can honestly say the biggest impact Tom made was recruiting me to come play for the University of Winnipeg after High School in Sackville, Nova Scotia in 1986. He lived up to all he offered and shared about Winnipeg, the University of Winnipeg and playing for the Wesmen Basketball Program. He was committed, loyal and driven as a person and as a coach. He believed in me. I feel I am the same in my recruiting and relationships with players.

My style of coaching and philosophies have developed over time with my coaching experiences. My playing career definitely played a role and Tom was a big influence. I have also had many people support and make an impact on me throughout my coaching experiences. Dennis Schrofel, Tom Kendall, Dale Bradshaw, Bill Wedlake, Richard Gooch and Tami Pennell are just a few associated with the University of Winnipeg who have been part of my coaching journey. Without them, I would not be who I am as a coach and I may not even be coaching at all.

When did you know that you wanted to be a Head Coach of a university basketball team? Did you get coaching experience coaching during your time as a Wesmen player?

During my playing days, we would coach at the summer camps at the University of Winnipeg. I also had the opportunity to visit schools for basketball clinics and coach in the summer at the Peace Garden Camps in 89 & 90. I can honestly say not once during the 5 years of playing did I ever imagine I would one day be the head coach of the Wesmen Women’s Basketball Team. I was quiet, shy, didn’t like speaking in front of groups and I knew I led by action, not voice.

It wasn’t until I finished my University playing career I actually thought about coaching as a career. Tom was a great coach throughout my time as a player and an inspirational mentor during the 92/93 season when I was an Assistant Coach. Being part of the beginnings of the 88 game win streak was incredibly motivational and an unbelievable learning experience.

For me, coaching replaced playing. The gap after my playing career until the beginning of coaching was a very hard overwhelming transition. It was only a few months but it felt like an eternity. I was lost when I was not training and playing with my buddies. Coaching and staying with basketball was a dream come true. When Tom said great players don’t make great coaches – it motivated me.

In the winter of 1995 was interviewed to be the head coach for the Manitoba Provincial Women’s Basketball Team competing in the Western Canada Games that summer. One of the questions asked was – As a young female coach what is your coaching goal? My answer was – I will be a Head Coach of a University Basketball Program within the next two years. And ironically a year later I was offered the job at the University of Winnipeg. Aubrey Ferris was the athletic director at the time and I am forever grateful he gave me the opportunity to Coach at the University of Winnipeg now almost 25 years ago.

What has been your fondest memory as a basketball coach and what is your favourite thing about being the HC of the Women's Wesmen basketball team?

Two moments come to mind when asked this question.

  1. The first is being an assistant coach during the beginnings of the 88 game winning streak, which was amazing. That year we won the National Championship in Victoria. Tom did such a great job throughout the season and we just rode the wave through the Championship tournament. The players were prepared, confident and hungry to win.
  2. Our University 2002/03 season. We hovered around .500 all season and entered the playoffs as 6th in Canada West and 9th in Canada. We knew we had a lot of work ahead of us to prove we were a top ten team. We first upset # 3 UBC and #2 Alberta on back-to-back weekends on the road in the best of 3 series. We then played #1 SFU on the road in the Canada West Final but unfortunately lost to a very good team. We advanced to the National Championship as the 2nd seed out of Canada West.

    We finished the season with a bronze medal, four weeks on the road and the beginnings of a tough, competitive attitude to win going forward. I learned a lot about my team, staff and the journey. When you are all on the same page with the same vision anything is possible. We didn’t win a championship but the experiences we all faced were tough and we fought through it as a team.

In terms of my favourite thing, it is more than just the wins. Celebrating on average 7- 8 players a season being recognized as Academic All Canadians is tremendous, having players play 5 years and graduate, watching young women grow into confident independent strong women over there university career, and having my son in practice and on the road as he was growing up being exposed to amazing role models is more than I could ever ask for.

Matias Bueno Matias's Final Thoughts

It was very educational and inspiring to speak with Wesmen Women’s basketball star player turned Head Coach Tanya McKay about the story of her coaching career. I was able to watch her team’s games for the last few seasons working at USports basketball games and it is enjoyable to hear more about her backstory. I had known she was part of the most iconic Women’s collegiate basketball team in North American history, but hearing the details of how she got to where she is now is amazing. What I have learned from this interview is that having a great coach/mentor matters, it is a rewarding career path and that to be successful you must constantly be a student of the game. Never stop learning about the sport you are coaching.

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