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May 22, 2013

Whitaker continues 'West Texas' trend

Candace Whitaker's introductory press conference served its purpose of introducing the new head women's basketball coach to the fans of Texas Tech. But there was so much more to it as the university really enters uncharted waters with three coaches in major sports now in charge of athletic programs at the alma mater.

Get out of the way, 'Michigan Man.' Make way for, well, what are we going to call this movement the Tech athletic department has just completed?

In a calendar year, Tech has hired three Texans who graduated from the university to fill the women's basketball, football and baseball coaching voids while former baseball coach Dan Spencer also attended Tech for some time. We know that the idea is no one can understand Tech like people who actually grew up inside the university's community, but no one has verbally pinpointed what exactly is going on here.

Enter Whitaker, a Canyon, Texas, native taking over the only Tech team to have won a team national championship. It's the crown jewel program to many Red Raider and Lady Raider fans.

The former point guard on two Sweet 16 teams was born into this West Texan thing whereas head football coach Kliff Kingsbury and head baseball coach Tim Tadlock immigrated here from other parts of the state.

"You know how Texas folks are, and I think West Texas particularly, it's a special place," Whitaker said. "I tell people that. I'm very biased, but West Texas is good, hard-working, loyal people that want to support and get behind people that do the right thing. I hope that they view that in me. I view that in myself."

But the West Texan generalizations are just that. Hard working and loyal are terms everyone has been defined by.

Yet anyone who lived in West Texas knows there really is something special here whether they themselves buy into that or not. If you cut it here, West Texas always holds a special place in your heart.

It's an internal sensation you can feel without being able to find the right words.

What makes West Texas special, in a large part, believe it or not, is the place is naturally uninhabitable and long-term life is unsustainable.

West Texas is running out of water. The agrarian and petroleum economies ride on booms and busts and ultimately the resources here will run out. The region will return to what it was when the discoverers wandered through it seeking somewhere else. And yet here in this moment is a university, a sleeping giant at that, being prodded into better days academically and potentially athletically.

The pride West Texans sense is the fact resiliency has been thrust upon them and they have managed to thrive within a region that nature never intended to have inhabited.

It's not all doom and gloom though. Things are better in West Texas than ever before between the new oil boom in Midland-Odessa and versatile agribusiness alongside a growing university. They all give hope the area can move on into the distant future before the region has to overhaul everything.

The intent to put up an honorable fight against nature is recognized and respected, especially here on the front line.

The funny thing is the region is not self-reliant. Which is why it makes perfect sense to put West Texans, naturally born or not, in charge of the three major Tech programs.

They weren't pioneering the place and the Lubbock we know today was well on its way, but here are three people who built themselves up in their final days of adolescence within an environment that is naturally trying to weed people out. They are success stories of kids who played sports, developed a real passion for their sport, and climbed to the top of the ranks in the ultra tough coaching field.

So, they have the wherewithal to immediately understand what they're recruiting into and how to make it work.

Tadlock has reeled in a top 25 recruiting class to Lubbock.

Kingsbury's company of likeminded coaches has shown glimmers of what they're capable of in five short months, and Whitaker seemed well versed in what's happening over there.

"I think it's easy for me because I truly love it here," Whitaker said for her part in the Tech equation. "I think that comes across when you are recruiting someone. I think they can tell if you mean what you say, and obviously, I live it and I've been here and this is the place I chose to come to school. So right away I think I'm ahead with my commitment to them and selling them how much I love this place."

The new head coach promised to not let any West Texas player leave the area without a fierce fight. That's important to this region that considered seceding from Texas when its proposal for a Texas A&M branch was vetoed by the governor in 1921.

"If there's a West Texas player in this area that can play, we will not let them get out of our home and our backyard," Whitaker said. "All of our players want to represent Texas Tech, we want our fans and our university to be extremely proud of who they are as people and the product we put on the floor representing our basketball team."

There's something special about West Texas and being a West Texan, but words don't grasp it.

Michigan has the 'Michigan Man.' Tech now has a similar trend across the major sports.

"I've always been proud to be part of Lady Raider Nation," Whitaker said. "I am just blessed to have this opportunity. This is something I've always dreamed of. From an early age, I wanted to coach, and this is a dream come true for me, and I thank you for this opportunity. Thank you.

Nuts and bolts

Whitaker, who played Lady Raider basketball under her maiden name Candi White, glowed under the lights of the City Bank room inside the United Spirit Arena.

This is her home. It's also her husband Matt Whitaker's home as he pitched for the Red Raider baseball team.

It is now their toddler boy's home and the future home of Whitaker's unborn child.

That's right, The new Lady Raider coach is expecting the family's second child which could make a hectic first year more chaotic.

"We're thrilled for our new baby to be a Texan and born a Red Raider, so we'll give Westin a hard time probably the rest of his life that he's a Kansas baby," Whitaker said. "But really excited to welcome our new child into the Lubbock community. We just can't think of a finer place to raise a family, and obviously know that firsthand."

Westin was, by far, the youngest person in the room and athletics director Kirby Hocutt gave the family a special shout out after greeting Kingsbury, men's head basketball coach Tubby Smith, volleyball head coach Don Flora as well as assistant athletic directors Marsha Sharp and Judi Henry who were instrumental in the process.

"The fact that Matt, her husband, is a former student-athlete from Midland is a Red Raider was a plus," Hocutt said in jest. "And the fact that as they got off the airplane last night, they didn't even have to teach Westin how to throw his guns up."

At that point Whitaker squinted from the podium at Westin with a guns up which the son reciprocated to laughter and applause.

There was a warmth in the room. This hire was an easily acceptable one because Whitaker was a key player on the 2000-2001 and 2001-2002 Sweet 16 teams after starting her college career at Seward County (Kan.) Community College and a Sharp protégé in her own way.

Sharp also signed off on the hire as a key adviser in the search to replace new Alabama head coach Kristy Curry.

"Obviously, a special, special thank you to coach Marsha Sharp for all her trust and confidence, her support, and most importantly her mentorship," Whitaker said. "She's just been an unbelievable mentor to me from day one of deciding I wanted to coach. What a great leader and ambassador for the game, and obviously Texas Tech. She is the biggest resource for me and I will utilize her.

"I've kind of given her a hard time and begged her not to change her cell phone because I'm going to be calling her a lot. But just a resource that I have on campus and obviously has always been there for me to take my calls at all times."

Whitaker emphasized recruiting immediately.

At the same time, the first thing the new head coach can do is control one of the best women's basketball fan bases in the nation.

"It is my goal to reach out to every person in the community that's a Lady Raider fan and that was once a Lady Raider fan and people that want to be new Lady Raider fans," Whitaker said. "We want to continue to grow that, because, again, I can't tell you how special that makes Texas Tech and Lady Raider basketball is to have that support. When you run out of that tunnel and you have those people behind you -- West Texas people are very true and they're with you through thick and thin."

The head coach started her coaching career as an assistant at Valparaiso. From there, she became the head coach at Missouri-Kansas City and built a record of 77-93 over six seasons with a 22-12 record and the 'Roos first WNIT berth in her final year.

Whitaker spent the 2012-2013 season as the associate head coach at Oklahoma State as it built back from the plane crash that killed head coach Kurt Budke and assistant Miranda Serna as well as the pilot and his wife in 2011.

That Big 12 experience will come in handy with a league adjusting to the absence of Baylor's Brittany Griner.

"Baylor will still be good," Whitaker said. "They still have a lot of talent on their team. Oklahoma returns a lot of people. Iowa State returns a lot of people but loses some key people. I think Oklahoma State's going to be very good. Of course, I know them a little bit better up close and personal than the other teams.

"TCU will be better. I think Texas will be a lot better. Texas Tech lost a lot as far as starters and scoring and production goes, as well as K-State and Kansas. There will probably be some unknowns, but I assume it will be like every year that every game's a battle, nothing is easy, and it's a grind day-in and day-out."

The Lady Raiders certainly will be in grind mode with three key seniors graduating and the depth rising to take starting spots, but the fit seems right immediately.

"I've been very impressed with the players so far," Whitaker said. "I had the opportunity, as soon as it was released, I got on the phone. It's late May, they're not around, but I was able to reach out to them and speak with them. And I've been extremely impressed with the conversations I've had. Their personalities and their attitudes."

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