When Vanderbilt head coach Shea Ralph encountered Tom Garrick more than 15 years ago, she was impressed. But perhaps not for the reasons you might expect.
At first glance, the fact that he was a former basketball star at the University of Rhode Island didn’t stand out; nearly carrying his alma mater to the Elite Eight in 1988 by beating a powerhouse Duke team was hardly on her mind; being an NBA draftee who played for several different professional teams around the world probably didn’t immediately intrigue her either. But what did was his presence. Plus, he was a good-looking guy.
“I remember looking at him like, ‘Wow, he’s a handsome guy,’” Ralph said of her first impression of the man who would become her husband. “Actually, they called him the Denzel of women’s basketball.”
At the time of their first encounter, Ralph was stationed at Pittsburgh in her first assistant coaching stint. Meanwhile, the “Denzel” of women’s basketball was coaching at his alma mater in Kingston, Rhode Island. The former guard was granted a singular college basketball scholarship back in the mid-1980s. After scoring over 1,500 points in his four years as a Ram, he returned to Kingston in 1998 following a 10-year professional career.
He entered women’s college basketball as an assistant for the Rhode Island women’s team in 2001, and it took him just three years to rise to the head coaching ranks when he took over the program full-time at just 38 years old in 2004.
While with Rhode Island, his team organized a joint practice with Pittsburgh one winter when the Rams were headed to play Duquesne. That was when Ralph first noticed him in person. But it was later that the two coaches searching for their way in women’s college basketball came face to face.
“I remember I would be in certain gyms and I would see him walk in the gym and hear all the women start chirping,” Ralph remembers. “I had seen him but I never thought that he had seen or noticed me. I wasn’t trying to get him to.”
But the coaching profession, as she puts it, is like “one big high school”—everyone kind of knows everyone. So it wasn’t surprising when the two eventually were put face to face in 2007.
For Garrick, however, it didn’t take the coaching profession to notice Ralph—her 1,678 career points as a player at UConn, National Championship run in 2000 and All-American status spoke for themselves.
“I saw Shea play in college and I remember thinking to myself without knowing her, ‘Wow, that kid can really play, that’s someone who I could vibe with because of the way she plays,’” Garrick told The Hustler. “She played like I would play—really hard. She worked her behind off and she competed. And I was drawn to that just from a basketball standpoint.”
Garrick was introduced to women’s college basketball, ironically enough, early in his NBA years. Hooked by the dominance of USC teams led by Cheryl Miller and the McGee twins in the 1980s and then the play of Sheryl Swoopes at Texas Tech soon after, it was only inevitable that Ralph’s skills on the floor would make an impression on her future husband.
“We would actually get off charter flights to go to our games and guys would be going, ‘Hey, what are you doing today? You want to go out to eat, you want to go to the mall? We have like four hours before we have to—and people would be like nah, I’m going to see Sheryl Swoopes on TV. Her NCAA game is on tonight,’” Garrick remembers. “So we started to have an appreciation [for the women’s game].”
It was more than her play on the court that hooked the former NBA guard, though, when he and Ralph first interacted at a recruiting event in July 2007.
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Often on the recruiting trail, coaches are sent to watch dozens of players on dozens of courts. But at one particular event late in Ralph’s tenure with Pittsburgh, she showed up to watch just one player on the only court in a small gym in Virginia.
Garrick also happened to show up that day with intentions of watching that same exact player on that same exact court, and while neither got the player they showed up to recruit, each of their lives changed that day. The URI head coach approached Ralph, a person he admired during her playing days, and asked to sit next to her.
“I was like, ‘You want to sit next to me?’” Ralph said, jokingly.
On this particular day, Ralph had already been up for three hours, rising at 5 a.m.. for the 8 a.m. game. In the face of the early wake-up call, the motivated and eager young coach ditched her summer goal of dressing up and looking professional for recruiting events, showed up in sweats and with unbrushed hair simply prepared to fixate on the game.
Garrick didn’t mind. He engaged in conversation with her and after eight hours of talking basketball and life, the two hit it off. Garrick asked her to dinner afterwards, but Ralph was bound to return to campus by the baton rule that existed in recruiting at the time.
“When we left, he asked me to dinner,” Ralph said. “[In addition to the baton rule] I also told him, this is true too, I didn’t want to go to dinner and ruin it because I’m kind of dorky and awkward. I was like, ‘This has been a great day. I don’t want to screw it up now.’”
The two didn’t exchange numbers and didn’t see each other for months after that first conversation. But as is the case in the coaching world, they ran into each other plenty over the next handful of years.
As they continued figuring out who they were as coaches—and people—their conversations and brief interactions continued. Those conversations fostered a close friendship which, in time, turned into a relationship along the way very “organically” and as Ralph puts it, unexpectedly.
“I told him that right before we actually met and had a conversation, I had a conversation with myself about being okay with being a cat lady,” Ralph said, laughing. “I love this work, I love my job, I have a great family. It’s okay that I don’t get married or have kids. I’m allergic to cats, but I saw in Austin Powers there was a bald cat that I can get—all these things that I was talking to myself about.”
But as the strength of their relationship grew, they were thrown a new challenge in the difficult industry that is coaching. However, it was through this challenge that they were introduced to Vanderbilt University.
When Garrick resigned from his post at Rhode Island in 2009, a very different opportunity came about in a place he was completely unfamiliar with.
At the time, Melanie Balcomb was amidst an impressive stretch of success at Vanderbilt. The Commodore head coach from 2002-2016 had massive shoes to fill in succeeding Jim Foster, but was doing so in impressive fashion.
Garrick signed on to be an assistant coach on her staff in 2009 after Balcomb had already led the Commodores to seven straight seasons of 20-plus wins. He saw a terrific opportunity to learn from an accomplished coach and learned to balance SEC coaching with his emerging relationship with Ralph.
“I saw a storied program. I saw history. But I also saw progression,” Garrick said of his impression of Vanderbilt at the time. “I saw that there was an African American athletic director and a young female African American associate athletic director, I saw that they were progressive, and I saw that they were innovative and I wanted to get behind that.”
Garrick spent six years learning the ins and outs of SEC women’s basketball. He experienced five NCAA Tournaments, helped players such as Jasmine Lister and Christina Foggie reach Vanderbilt stardom and perhaps most importantly, began forming a relationship with Candice Storey Lee.
Lee, now Vanderbilt’s athletic director, was the senior female administrator under the late David Williams II at the time. Soon after his departure in 2015, she would take over as deputy athletic director. But the impression she had on Williams and the relationship they developed set the foundation for a move Garrick would make six years later.
“I knew Candice and I have had extensive conversations with her in my six years here as a coach and we became really, really close friends,” Garrick said.
Ralph was simultaneously off making her own headway in the coaching industry. After leaving Pittsburgh in 2008, she returned to the UConn bench to assist her former head coach, legend Geno Auriemma.
During her early years at UConn, Ralph and Garrick battled the challenges of a long-distance relationship. But Ralph, who was comfortably positioned at the top women’s basketball program in the country in Storrs, Connecticut, and Garrick, who was thriving in the SEC under Balcomb, made things work. And ironically, they created fond memories in the process.
Garrick had the benefit of being in Nashville—one of the best up-and-coming cities in the United States. Despite the credit card bills that ensued from her frequent trips to Nashville, the time Ralph spent here with her future husband gave her confidence to make her next career move down the line.
“The things that are most important are the things you have to work the hardest for,” Garrick said of maintaining their relationship from a distance. “So we understood that it was worth working at. It was worth exploring further and going deeper into, so we committed to it.”
After years of long distance, the two were reunited thanks to Garrick’s next stop in his basketball journey. He spent three seasons as an assistant at Boston College and subsequently took over at UMass Lowell in 2019—around 90 minutes from where Ralph was winning national championships at UConn.
He was instrumental in helping turn around the UMass Lowell program, leading the River Hawks to 16 wins in just his second season. But then, yet another new opportunity came along and it involved his wife, too.
This opportunity trumped the job security and individual success that they had both had at UConn and UMass Lowell respectively; it was in a tremendous city where they could raise their child, Maysen; and presented the chance to turn around a storied program under the guise of an athletic director devoted to making waves in the SEC.
It was a ‘no brainer’.
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“I loved my previous job at UMass Lowell being the head coach. I still knew I had to come here, wanted to come here, needed to come here,” Garrick said. “My father always said that book smarts are great, but common sense is the most important asset you can have. So I like to fashion myself as a common sense guy. This just made sense.”
When Ralph was offered the Vanderbilt head coaching job in April 2021, little discussion was needed to convince them to move to Nashville and build a program together at Vanderbilt. Garrick knew what Lee was all about, Ralph knew she was ready for her shot at a head coaching gig and both of them knew that Nashville would be a terrific place to begin building their family roots.
“The opportunity here for us to do something incredibly special together was the right opportunity at the right time and we knew it was the right place,” Ralph said. “My perfect day for a long time was doing exactly what I’m doing right now. That’s what my perfect day looks like. And I get to live that every day. How cool is that.”
What might go unnoticed in their journey to Nashville is Garrick’s sacrifice. Known as a coach on the floor during his playing days, Garrick has nearly a decade of head coaching experience. But that never deterred him from the opportunity to take a backseat to his wife so that she could achieve her dreams.
“It just shows the kind of selfless, really great person that he is because I think he knew that this—what we have and what we can do together here—is something like a once in a lifetime kind of thing,” Ralph said. “Our personal goals and the way we want to raise our daughter, and the ability to have our families come here and support us and our ability to support our families—this opportunity changes all of that and in the most positive way. So we did it for each other and for ourselves and our family number one.”
Ralph knew that taking over a Vanderbilt program that had gone just 46–83 in the last five years would not be easy, and the process of building a winning culture is still ongoing. New locker rooms, a trio of impressive freshmen and a promising first recruiting class have Vanderbilt women’s basketball looking up. Heading into her team’s final home game of the year on Thursday against Florida, improvement has no doubt been evident.
The Commodores (12-16) need just two more wins to match their most in a season in the past five years. Vanderbilt’s tenacious defense has wreaked havoc on its opponents and the Commodores are already knocking on the doorstep of big-time wins. Their improvement down the stretch on an individual level has also been palpable.
The growth of freshmen like Iyana Moore and De’Mauri Flournoy and the emergence of Brinae Alexander have delighted Commodore fans all year long. Ralph attributes much of that to her right hand man, Garrick, who she deems the best player development coach she’s ever encountered.
“He’d be texting me at work while at UConn, ‘You got to teach Katie Lou Samuelson this move and send me a clip, Krystal Dangerfield should know how to do this,’” Ralph recalled. “And they’d do it and then it would be successful. He was coaching his team and mine.”
While he has experience turning around a program, Garrick knows better than most that messaging is most impactful when it comes from the top. And oftentimes, he seeks opportunities to fall into the background of Ralph’s coaching operation, slowly figuring out ways to empower his wife without interfering with her vision that he knows can succeed.
“[For example she told me], ‘Hey I want you to talk more during timeouts.’ I was like, ‘No, no, you need to talk during timeouts. When I need to tell you something that I think the team needs to know that you’re not saying at that moment or you might be focused on offense when we can add some defense to it in practice, I’ll definitely speak up,” Garrick said.
The two had always pondered coaching alongside each other, but Ralph vows that they would only do so under the right conditions. They weren’t prepared to move their family somewhere that didn’t make sense; they weren’t prepared to step into a situation without an administration’s support; they weren’t willing to give up the comfortable situations back in New England to force coaching alongside each other.
But Vanderbilt had the perfect setup.
“We’ve been doing this long enough to know what’s special and what’s the same. This place is special,” Ralph said. “And now we just have to come in and do our jobs the right way and create what we have dreamed about creating together since the time we met.”
If you watch the sidelines during Vanderbilt’s games, you might see Garrick calmly addressing individual players as Ralph takes a knee and wills her team to compete on defense, almost like she’s a player herself. He finds ways to make his knowledge useful and complements Ralph’s fiery approach to the game in a beautiful fashion—a chemistry they have been honing off the court for years.
“They never really clash heads in practice or anything like that. He’s like a mediator to her. He’s supportive of her,” freshman Sacha Washington said. “You never know what’s going on outside, but while we are in the gym, they handle business. They make sure we are doing what we are supposed to.”
With just two regular season games remaining in their inaugural season on West End, one thing is abundantly clear already: Shea Ralph will lead the Commodores to new heights. And by her side, through it all, will be Tom Garrick.
Their journey through women’s college basketball has culminated in an opportunity to rejuvenate a once storied SEC program. What better spot to leave a family legacy?
“It happened exactly the way it should have happened,” Ralph said. “I am the face of the program and I understand the gravity that that holds. But in a lot of ways this is ours, because I couldn’t do what I do here the way that I need to do it if I didn’t have the best coach in the country by my side and that’s him. Hands down.”
Theirs is a basketball story, and now that they are settled in Nashville, quite a few new chapters are about to be written.
“It’s a basketball story, right?,” Garrick said of his relationship with Ralph. “On a personal level, I wanted to help uplift my wife and see one of her dreams come true.”
This story was originally published on The Vanderbilt Hustler on February 23, 2022.