Cole headed home to lead Eagles OC alumnus succeeds his former coach

By Murray Evans

Cory Cole is what Oklahoma Christian Athletic Director Curtis Janz calls “a living OC success story,” a person who had the course of his life changed by his decision to attend the university.

Now Cole will be the one changing the lives of OC student-athletes. Cole – a member of the OC Athletic Hall of Fame – will serve as the seventh men’s basketball head coach in the university’s history.

Cole, 44, has spent the past seven seasons at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, where he currently serves as the associate head coach for GCU’s women’s program, which is transitioning into NCAA Division I. At OC, Cole will succeed his former coach, the legendary Dan Hays, who stepped down at season’s end after 33 years at the helm of the Eagles.

“We had many strong local and national candidates for this head-coaching role,” President John deSteiguer said. “Cory brings strong Division I coaching experience, a great rapport with student-athletes and a very strong spiritual emphasis. All of this, and he was an OC hoops star not too many years ago. Coach Cole will be an excellent impact leader on the OC campus and for our basketball program.”

Cole called the OC men’s basketball coaching position his “dream job” and said he’s honored to be the person chosen to follow Hays.

“With all that I’ve learned from coach Hays, the opportunity is incredible,” Cole said. “He is always going to be there and be a huge part of the program. I want to keep that as part of the foundation. It’s not so much about following and continuing to do what he’s done – we have those ingredients in our DNA. The challenge is doing it at that level with that longevity. I know we will be successful. It’s just a matter of when as far as wins and losses. But more important, it’s about winning the cornerstone things every day, doing things right and working hard.”

Janz said it “will take a strong, confident leader” to succeed Hays and that Cole has those qualities in abundance.

“Everything rises or falls on leadership,” Janz said. “I believe we have hired someone who can lead us in a lot of different ways. He can lead millennials and be able to fit and be a voice that they will understand. I also think he’s going to be a leader in our athletic department as a whole. I’m very excited about the future of Eagle basketball.

“We want to win all the games that we can, but there’s so much more to it than just winning games. He can, and wants to, have the same impact on our current student-athletes as what people had on his life when he was here.”

Cole grew up in Norman, where he played on a Norman High School team that went undefeated in winning the championship in the state’s highest class in 1990. Janz, then a young OC assistant coach under Hays, recruited Cole and said that every time he watched Cole, he liked his game more and more.

“He was always improving, playing hard, adapting – and all those things are things he brings as a coach also,” Janz said.

At OC, Cole developed into one of the nation’s best NAIA players. He capped his playing career in 1994 by leading the Eagles to a 23-11 record that included a berth in the inaugural Sooner Athletic Conference tournament title game and the program’s first national-tournament appearance in 12 years. He was named as the SAC player of the year as a senior and earned first-team All-America honors, one season after making the third-team national list.

He finished his career as OC’s leading career scorer with 1,916 points and he still ranks fourth on that list. Perhaps more amazing is that the 6-foot-3 Cole set the still-standing OC career record for rebounds with 1,322. No other OC player has come within 200 rebounds of that mark.

It was that sort of toughness that endeared him to OC fans. As a junior in 1993, he helped fuel an OC rally during an NAIA District 9 quarterfinal game at Northwestern Oklahoma State, diving for a loose ball near a set of metal bleachers and suffering a sizable wound that stretched from near his shoulder to his hip. OC won the game 60-59, and two days later Cole – despite not being able to lift his arm above his shoulder because of the injury – still led the Eagles in scoring in a semifinal loss to Oklahoma Baptist.

“Cory was one of our best players in the Hays era,” Janz said. “Not only the points and rebounds that he had, but he was able to will those around him to be better.”

Most importantly to Cole, he made the decision to become a Christian shortly after his senior season at OC. Former NFL player Willie Franklin, who had hosted Cole in his home on numerous occasions, baptized him at Memorial Road Church of Christ.

“It was the absolute best decision on campus that I ever made,” Cole said. “I remember walking around campus the next day and the joy and peace that I felt. I remember thinking, ‘This is why I’m here. It’s the relationship with Christ.’ I remember it like it was yesterday. I share with my current players that God has a time and place for you to hear the Word and He’s going to keep calling to you until you answer.”

Cole played professionally in England for the Thames Valley Tigers during the 1995-96 season and was named as a Budweiser League All-Star after averaging 21.3 points per game and 8.6 rebounds per game and leading his team to the second round of the playoffs. He signed a two-year deal to remain with the club, but opted out when the opportunity arose to join the coaching ranks as an assistant, first for one season (1996-97) under Hays, then the next 10 under current OC women’s coach Stephanie Findley.

During Cole’s tenure at OC, the Lady Eagles advanced to eight straight NAIA national tournaments, reaching the round of 16 five times and the quarterfinals in 2003. Cole coached 17 NAIA All-Americans and 22 players who earned academic all-conference honors.

Cole started in 2009 at Grand Canyon, working with head coach Trent May to build GCU into a NCAA Division II power. Cole’s primary duties have included serving as recruiting and defensive coordinator, as well as player development and scouting of opponents.

In the 2011-12 season, the ’Lopes were the Division II statistical champion for scoring defense. In its final season in Division II, GCU gave up just 55.0 points per game and was ranked No. 16 nationally in that category. During the 2010-11 season, GCU allowed a conference-low 57.5 points per game, ranking No. 34 out of 294 schools in the nation.

In the program’s first transition season into Division I in 2013-14, GCU led the Western Athletic Conference in scoring defense at 60.1 points per game and added a second consecutive defensive title by giving up only 58.7 points per game in 2014-15.

This season, Grand Canyon went 16-14 overall and 8-6 in the WAC, surrendering an average of only 59.9 points per game.

“When he was a women’s assistant, Cory and I shared an office suite for 10 years,” Janz said. “Then he went to Grand Canyon, where he gained valuable experience at the Division II level, and finally the Division I level. He has shown he can pursue excellence in many aspects of the game – recruiting, on-the-court coaching, player development – along with the social and spiritual development.”

Cole and his wife, Cristi – a former OC soccer player – have two daughters, Crislyn and Caylor, and one son, Caison.

Summer 2016

View more stories from the Summer 2016 issue of Vision magazine.