Sylvia Hatchell is a survivor in more ways than one.
The veteran UNC women’s basketball coach has the chance to become the fourth all-time to earn 1,000 career victories with a win on Tuesday, and Hatchell has done it against some steep odds. The steepest, of course, was her battle against Leukemia, which sidelined her for the 2013-14 season.
Hatchell not only beat cancer but wrote a best-selling book about her greatest victory – “FIGHT! FIGHT!” – which became a best-seller in the health and fitness category on Amazon. She has been an inspiration to thousands of Americans who were fighting, or had family members and friends fighting, the disease.
Hatchell has also survived as Carolina’s coach for 31 seasons, inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame the year before she grew ill. After winning a small-college national championship at Francis Marion in 1982, Hatchell’s 1994 Tar Heel team won the NCAA title on Charlotte Smith’s buzzer beater in Richmond.
Among her biggest victories have been upsets over UConn and dethroning Duke as the ACC champion in the 1990s. Her teams went back to Final Fours in consecutive seasons although failing to win another national championship. But her biggest on-court challenges were still ahead.
Her program has dipped over the past 10 years, failing to win an ACC title or go back to another Final Four. Hatchell has hung in there against mounting criticism close to home that women’s basketball spends too much money in today’s college athletic climate and that there is little return monetarily or in ultimate victory.
Most recently, Hatchell’s job appeared to be in jeopardy after women’s hoops was embroiled in the NCAA probe into academic irregularities at Carolina. It seemed a paper trail existed between academic advisor Jan Boxill and several players to find some NCAA violations, but as with the rest of the UNC programs that were implicated, Hatchell survived with no penalty other than the same recruiting setbacks and player attrition suffered by Roy Williams, Larry Fedora and several Tar Heel coaches.
Off the court, Hatchell is a successful investor and real estate developer who could have given up coaching through any of these recent challenges. But she fought them all and won them all, and now she can reach an elite category indeed with a victory on Tuesday afternoon. Congratulations, Coach!