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The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

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A legacy left in paint

Photo by Graphic by Robert O’Brien & Casey Stavenhagen
Maroon Life Photo: 800 Wins.png

When an Aggie attends their first women’s basketball game at Reed Arena, they may be caught off guard when they take notice of a silver-haired man, clad in a dress shirt and tie, marching the perimeter of the hardwood with a bucket in hand, throwing candy to fans.
That man is coach Gary Blair, one of the winningest coaches in collegiate women’s basketball history. But in that moment, he isn’t coach Blair. He isn’t the guy who’s led the Aggies for nearly 20 years. He isn’t a Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame member. He isn’t the man with just one losing season in his collegiate career.
In that moment, he is building relationships and a family with all in attendance. And whether you’re an Aggie, a fan of the opponent or even an official, no one is safe from his underhand tosses of Kit Kats.
After 19 years with the maroon and white, Blair’s days as a candy-throwing legend — and as Texas A&M’s head coach — are coming to an end. On Oct. 28, 2021, Blair announced he will retire after the 2021-22 season.
“I always evaluate myself on, ‘Am I giving everything I have? Is my health good and am I still able to make an impact on young lives?’” Blair said. “I am fortunate that my health is still great, and I believe that I can still make an impact on our student-athletes and that I can give all my effort every single day. However, I know that it is time for this to be my final season.”
Coach Blair has always seen family as an important pillar when building a program, assistant coach Kelly Bond-White said.
“We’ve built the program around family,” Bond-White said. “You walk through our facilities, that’s all you see. We’ve always emphasized the ‘A’ and the ‘M’ are a part of family.”
But, Blair hasn’t reached his level of success just from relationship building. He’s been described as having high expectations for his players. He’s demanding, but only because he’s knowledgeable about the game, former player under Blair, former WNBA athlete and a current member of his staff Sydney Carter said.
Before Blair became who he is today, he had entirely separate aspirations: A dream of becoming a baseball coach. Having played America’s pastime growing up, and even at the collegiate level for a season with the Texas Tech Red Raiders, he felt qualified for the role. However, at South Oak Cliff High School in Dallas where he was teaching physical education, he was offered the gig of starting up a women’s basketball program instead.
He accepted the job and never looked back.
With the South Oak Cliff Golden Bears, Blair won three state titles in seven years, winning just under 93% of all his games coached. He began to receive interest at the collegiate level and was offered a spot as an assistant coach at Louisiana Tech. As a member of the Lady Techsters’ staff, Blair coached another two national-title-winning teams in five years.
Blair’s first head coaching job in the NCAA took him back to his home state of Texas where he took over the Stephen F. Austin Ladyjacks program in 1985. After seven-consecutive conference titles, an 83% win percentage and numerous AP top-25 appearances, Blair was finally ready to join a Power Five school.
His journey took him to Arkansas next, where he and the Ladybacks’ reached the NCAA tournament five times in 10 years, going as far as the semifinals in the 1997-98 season. In 2003, though, Blair would once more have a homecoming to Texas, joining an A&M team without a winning season in its last seven years, a decision that forever made him an Aggie.
“[Texas A&M] is different because of its student body,” Blair said. “They have bought into the Core Values and traditions and doing things the right way.
“I lost my [college ring] after my first year that I graduated from Texas Tech. I still love Tech, but it wouldn’t occur to me to go buy another senior ring and wear it. But if I was an Aggie, I would wear it all my life.”
Traditions, such as Ring Day and Muster, — that both occur at A&M and also tie in Aggies across the world — are what separate A&M from other schools, Blair said, and is why he will always consider himself an Aggie.
Things started slow during the dawn of the Blair era at A&M, as the team went just 9-19, the first — and only — losing season of his collegiate coaching career. The very next season saw immediate improvements. Despite finishing 4-12 in Big 12 play, the team was one game over .500 and received its first postseason invitation since 1996, reaching the quarterfinals of the WNIT.
That second season was the turning point for the Aggies, who, over the next five years, won two Big 12 tournament titles and made five-straight NCAA Tournaments, gradually inching closer to the big game, but never quite reaching it. The closest A&M got during that stretch was a conference title and an Elite Eight appearance in 2007-08.
During the 2010-11 season, Blair’s eighth season in College Station, his team finally made that leap. They finished the season with 33 wins, a personal collegiate best for Blair, and beat two No. 1 seeds in Baylor and Stanford in the NCAA Tournament. The Aggies then beat Notre Dame 76-70 in the championship game and claimed the first NCAA title in program history.
Despite not even being the championship matchup, the game against the top-seeded Baylor Bears is one of Blair’s favorite games he has ever coached.
“We had lost three times to them in close games during the year,” Blair said. “And then, all of a sudden, we go up there with the perfect gameplan to be able to stop the best team in the country.
“In front of friends and family … that took us to the Final Four, but winning that game gave us the confidence to win the national championship. It wasn’t an upset, it wasn’t luck, it wasn’t a last-second, half-court shot; we controlled the game.”
After one more season and another Sweet Sixteen appearance, Blair and the Aggies transitioned from the Big 12 to the SEC. Nothing changed as they continued to shoot for more titles. Since then, A&M has earned one conference title and made the NCAA Tournament in every full season. That includes one Elite Eight appearance and three consecutive Sweet Sixteen appearances.
Even in his final season, the goalposts have not moved, Carter said.
“I don’t think his approach to this season has been any different,” Carter said. “He’s done it so long and every season he wants to win, and every season he wants to get the most and the best out of his team. That hasn’t changed for sure.”
When the season inevitably comes to an end, Carter said she doesn’t expect Blair to fully move on from basketball. In a sport with no true offseason due to recruiting and practicing, Carter said Blair surely will want some time to travel, something he seldom had time for, but will work his way back to the game that has been such a big part of his life.
“I know he 100% wants to travel, but he’s always said that he’s going to be here to help any of his staff and anybody that’s a part of his coaching tree with whatever they need,” Carter said. “If I know coach Blair as well as I think I do, he’s going to keep doing his stuff around the community that he does like his charities and his golf tournament.”
Building a community has been part of Blair’s legacy. Beyond basketball, he is also influencing people’s lives.
“Even dating back to his first team at South Oak Cliff High School in Dallas,” Bond-White said, “All of those young ladies, as well as our graduates from last year, all of those young ladies share a fellowship with everyone in between that. It’s a sorority that he’s built to keep those girls together.”
Bond-White said this bond culminated in this season’s game against Auburn when over 100 of Blair’s former players met up to build a network.
On Feb. 17, A&M’s Board of Regents appoved to rename the hardwood in Reed Arena to “Gary Blair Court,” a permanent legacy left in paint.
But when you ask Blair what he wants to leave behind, he says he wants to see lasting success in the program that succeeds him. He likened it to a one-hit wonder, not wanting A&M’s perennial success to be a flash in the pan, but to continue well after he retires.
“Once you’re an Aggie, you’re an Aggie for life,” Blair said. “I’ll wear this championship ring until I die. I’ll wear my wedding ring on the other hand until I die.”

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    Photo by Graphic by Robert O'Brien & Casey Stavenhagen

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