Column: Semrau’s legacy was in creating a personal connection

Person, student, athlete.

Sue Semrau had her priorities right. It was the plan well before she even became a head coach or knew where she would be making all of the decisions. It was part of who she was as a young assistant coach. And what she would be when she set about turning around a struggling Florida State women’s basketball program in 1997.

“She would say it often: ‘I’m going to treat you as a person first, a student second and athlete third.’ That was her philosophy coming in,” said Vanessa Fuchs, a freshman on Semrau’s first FSU team and a longtime senior women’s administrator at the school. “When you talk about her impact on people and her heart for people, I believe the true measure of a coach when they announce retirement like Sue did, is when people first talk about how she impacted others first before they talk about all the championships and the games won. That, to me, sums up coach Sue Semrau.”

Semrau won plenty of games at FSU, 470 of them in a career that saw the Seminoles go from the basement of the ACC to one of the league’s best. And Semrau spent years leading the Women’s Basketball Coaching Association, helping cultivate the sport and shape it in part with her vision.

But Semrau’s vision was to connect with people and help in their development, whether they were players, assistant coaches or fans. Semrau made time for everyone throughout her busy schedule.

“She lived it and it wasn’t in just the good days and the really hard days,” said Cori Close, an FSU assistant from 2004-11 and now UCLA’s head coach for the last 11 seasons. “And I think one of my most vivid memories is a really hard one. It was my second day on the job. When Ronalda Pierce passed away in the middle of the night, and to watch her care for (the players) and it was just all about their hearts and what they needed and coming alongside them. And that’s not a week-long process. That’s years. We’ve been through a lot together and when Alicia Gladden was killed by a drunk driver and watching just the impact that she has on people. 

“But even just the last couple of days, seeing alumni responses to her. There’s some phenomenal basketball players. And none of them are talking about basketball. They’re talking about how she was just a phenomenal human that cared for them like few did in their lives.”

Semrau wanted to win, of course. The relationship was coach-player but it was far closer. And the results on the court weren’t compromised.

“Sometimes people say, ‘Well, that makes maybe winning less important.’ Well, it sure didn’t for her did it?” Close said. “I just think that people run through a wall for people that care so genuinely about them. And the way that she cared for others, it just made you want to run through a wall for her and never disappoint her. And that’s both coming from a coaching perspective as well as student-athlete perspective.”

Semrau also built a connection to Tallahassee and the FSU community. She did it through community service projects both local and international. She coached barefoot for Samaritan’s Feet. And she did it with a smile, grateful for the fans who came to the Donald L. Tucker Center. Semrau often addressed them at halfcourt after games, win or lose, and players showed their appreciation as the Seminole Sound played the fight song after wins. Semrau and the players built lasting connections to the FSU community.

“She’s a unifier of people,” Fuchs said. “I don’t know how she does it.”

Fuchs recalled the texts. Semrau always sent one on her birthday as well as the anniversary of Fuchs’ mother passing away. “She’s incredibly thoughtful,” Fuchs said.

Close admires how Semrau handled the responsibilities of her day and kept up with the many details. 

“She’s a very organized person,” Close said. “As a current head coach, if I could be half as organized and purposeful and prioritize as she was I’d be really good. She’s phenomenal at that. The way she organized, it wasn’t just the team it was the whole program around her vision and how she got everybody involved and fostered such ownership was tremendous. She also was a strong enough leader to hire really strong people around her and was strong enough to let them coach. I was even watching one of their games this year and watching her really let Brooke (Wyckoff), in a very pressurized moment, draw up and execute a really great play. And it takes a really special leader to do that. And Sue was one of those special leaders.”

Semrau’s statement on Monday afternoon stunned many fans and former players. It has allowed time for them to share their appreciation for what she has meant to them as well as what they accomplished together. Semrau has declined interview requests this week, but Fuchs spoke with her and said “she’s incredibly proud of where the program is.”

“She indicated to me that she knew it was just time and when you know, you know,” Fuchs said. “I’m proud of her for making that decision. And thrilled for her and what’s to come in her retirement. I have a feeling she’ll be staying plenty busy.

“She’s earned this, deserves this. And just grateful for everything that she’s done not only for myself but for Florida State University and for our women’s basketball program. She’s one of a kind.”