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Lessons in Leadership: Leading from the Court

UNCW women's basketball coach Karen Barefoot

Karen Barefoot, UNCW women’s basketball head coach is a leader of leaders, and those leaders are making history on the court.

With a season record of 18-12 after finishing in the CAA Tournament opener last month, Barefoot’s 2018-19 team posted the most wins since the program’s 2011-12 season. The team also won every home game this year except one.

Until Barefoot came along two seasons ago, the women’s basketball team “lost an average of 22 games per season for five years.”

“We had to change the mindset with teal color mentality. We bleed teal,” Barefoot says. “Last year, we improved a lot, and in this new year, everyone came together, and we had the first winning season in seven years.”

The team’s fresh perspective and work ethic earned Barefoot’s team a No. 3 seed going into the tournament this year.

“We have a championship effort, but we’re doing it in the right way. We believe in each other. There’s no selfish play,” Barefoot says.

“Red Bull,” a name Barefoot earned in high school, has been on a path to success since childhood, always questioning, challenging, and dominating.

“Everyone was always like, ‘You can’t play with boys,’ but I had to play with boys because there was no girls team. My family always taught me to be bold. Stay confident. Have a voice. And, that has been my whole philosophy,” Barefoot says. “So, why not us? It goes back to then and followed me through when I was the first player to score 2,000 points.”

Barefoot, who played at Christopher Newport University, was the first player – man or woman – in NCAA history to score 2,000 points and have 1,000 assists.

“I have been a lady of many firsts, and I tell my girls to be fearless, go out there, and take pride in the defensive end, and your energy, enthusiasm, attitude – take pride in things we can control,” Barefoot says. “There’s no exceptions, no negotiations within that.”

Always ready for a challenge, right out of college Barefoot accepted a head coach position at The Apprentice School of Newport News, Virginia, to build a program from scratch.

“I had six players my first year. I had no experience coaching, but I learned a lot from my mom, she’s so strong; my dad, his work ethic; and my brother, who taught me the game,” Barefoot recalls. “I was always the kid who stuck up for the kid who was bullied in class and stood up for people, so being a young head coach at twenty-two wasn’t hard for me.”

Barefoot’s family values and work ethic leads the charge with her Seahawks.

“It is our family versus everybody,” she says. “It is family first. We are sisters, and we are united.”

Barefoot’s leadership focuses on LOVE, an acronym that drives her coaching: Learn every day. Overcome adversity. Visualize. Expect nothing, give everything.

According to Barefoot, “The secret ingredient is playing and developing future leaders. That, to me, is everything.

“It is never tough love. It is love tough. It is about team building and bonding. It is so important to be able to lead, be bold, and be OK with your voice,” Barefoot says.

“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care, and with passion and purpose you’re unstoppable,” she adds. “I love what I do, and I am at the point in my career where I really care about what I do, who I am doing it for, and who I am doing it with.”

Like the name Barefoot implies, “I want to leave footprints with people and make a difference in their lives.”

Making a difference in the program and within the community is a priority for Barefoot.

“My goal is for my team to play two hours of inspired basketball, and if someone walks out that door smiling, motivated through our teamwork and togetherness, then we’ve done our job,” she says.

Attendance was at all all-time high for the UNCW women’s basketball games this season, and Barefoot is encouraged by the attention the team is getting, but she wants to make more of an impact within the community.

“As great as it is, I want more support, and I want to be a top program in the country. The buzz is out there, and I want people to get involved and support the team,” she says. “These girls are great. They have a 3.0 average as a team, so they are getting it done on the court and in the classroom. I want them to come and get hooked and inspired by the story of a team that says ‘We are a family first.’”


To view more of photographer Megan Deitz’s work, go to megandeitz.com.

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