Sue Semrau is back in Tallahassee and resumed her job as Florida State’s women’s basketball coach on April 1. Semrau spent the 2020-21 season in Seattle, helping to care for her mom, Rosemary, who battled ovarian cancer but is doing well in her recovery.
Semrau sat down for a Zoom conversation with media who cover FSU. Below are highlights of a candid discussion on her family, the role Brooke Wyckoff played as an interim head coach, the inequality of the men’s and women’s NCAA Tournament bubbles and more.
How is your mom? Did you hear from friends in the business?
Semrau: Her last scan after the treatment showed no signs of cancer. She had the rarest kind of ovarian cancer, which is the fastest growing, called clear cell carcinoma. And so they were pretty aggressive with the chemo treatments to make sure because you couldn’t always see it. So the fact that we can’t see it, we are celebrating. And at the same time, she’s got to meet a lot of different markers every three months. So she’s doing great. She has more energy right now than I have half the time. … And so I’m extremely happy. But I’m glad she’s feeling better. The coaches were absolutely phenomenal as you would expect. The ACC coaches led the way. But it wasn’t just text messages. It was notes, it was letters, it was my team sending a box, a care package to my mom, it was other coaches, putting my mom in a position where she felt valued.
Did you miss the game more or less than you thought. Did anything surprise you about being away?
Semrau: I think there was so many factors at play. What I was able to do for my family, it trumped everything. And so I knew I wouldn’t have a chance to miss it like maybe I would have if I was just hanging out doing something else. But the focus on my family, it really took over. And we developed a much closer relationship than we’ve had. And I am so grateful to Florida State and the administration for allowing me to do that. And not a lot of administrations would have done that, especially in a COVID year. And I just think that when my mom had a full head of hair and was double vaccinated, and my dad was double vaccinated and she has a new puppy, it was like, ‘Ok, now I can go back.’ And so when I came back, that’s when I started to really miss it. And when I met with the players one on one, spent time with them, that’s what I missed. And so now I’m almost overly anxious, and I know how much everybody’s been through. So I’ve got to sit back and not do a lot with the players until they can get some time with their families. And then once we come back together, I think it’ll be really fun.
How tough was it to watch the team play in a game from a distance?
Semrau: I’ll tell you at first it was brutal. First of all, I’m on a couch watching TV, listening to announcers say, ‘What’s Brooke going to do here?’ And I’m thinking, ‘You guys never know what we’re going to do.’ Just watching that, screaming at the TV, for some kid to do something differently. But throughout the course of it, I learned so much about myself. I learned so much more about almost coaching the entire game and a little bit of an overall view versus coaching in the moment, if that makes any sense. I’m really excited to see it from a different viewpoint. I didn’t think we were very good rebounding the ball. And that’s something we do all the time. And I think a lot of that is that Brooke was short an experienced coach on the floor. And so she took care of everything that she could and the emphasis on rebounding for me is going to be different. It was glaring to watch some of the things that Brooke couldn’t control with what she had. And now to be able to have that opportunity to jump in and work on it with her is really exciting.
What were your thoughts about Brooke and her leadership?
Semrau: I know everybody went through something that was really, really hard. And I look at what our team was able to do, and what our coaching staff was able to do, and I’m quite amazed. I’m quite amazed at all of the programs in the country that were (in a) stop-and-start situation. And I know I would have had a really hard time coaching in a mask. I was just downstairs with our team. We were doing some stuff. It was the first time I’d ever coached in a mask. And wow. So, yeah, I was so proud of them. To keep the streak of going to the NCAA Tournament, I think that was really a great feat for Brooke with a relatively new team and all of their different roles.
Did you learn anything about Brooke, watching her coach, that maybe you didn’t know previously?
Semrau: I always knew that she could lead by example. But she really stepped in and led with her voice. And she’s not had to do that all that much. She never did it at Florida State. She led by example when she was a player. She led by example in the WNBA. Overseas, she did learn Spanish, so I’m hoping that’s where she learned her voice. She has a voice in practice, but certainly to see the poise with which she coached, the adjustments that she was able to make, again it’s really hard job to move that six inches, as everybody says. And I think she really proved how talented she is. For her to be coming back is such a gift. For me, for the players, it really gives us a kind of a 1-2 punch in a very different way. And she’s excited. She said, ‘I can help you more now that I’ve been in this position.’ And I can help her more now knowing what she’s able to accomplish on the court. But then we had a lot of things that weren’t having to be done because of COVID that a head coach does. You’re so much of a CEO in so many phases. And I want her to experience that side of it this year. And she’s excited about that really as the associate head coach directing everything off the floor to really let us let me get back to focusing on the floor, with recruiting and then with building the relationships back with the players.
FSU hasn’t been as impacted by the transfer portal. Why is that?
Semrau: Well, we did just have two of our graduates go into the portal. Say Say Lassiter and Savannah Wilkinson, they both have entered the transfer portal. And I will be really honest with you guys: It’s a very difficult situation for all coaches right now. Because with injuries and with an extra year of eligibility and freshmen coming in, we were going to have 16 players on our roster. And that’s impossible to keep 16 people happy. And so I was really extremely honest with them about the rotation that I play, the number of minutes that people get, and it’s really almost identical to the same statistics in the top 25 in the country, which is about 7.5 people in a rotation and 5.2 played 20 or more minutes. So you got 16, some of you aren’t going to be happy with your playing time. And rather than just hold on and say, ‘You can get it down the line or something.’ I really had to open my hands and say, ‘I will help and encourage any of you that feel like you’re not going to get what you need out of your basketball experience here to go and take a look somewhere else. And so those two, having gotten their degree, were able to say, ‘You know what, coach Sue, it is somebody else’s turn. And I really would like to take advantage of this and get my masters at another school.’ So I’ve been talking to coaches about those two already. And it frees up some of the freshmen probably to get some time on the court. And I think the portal is not a bad thing. It can be a really good thing for everybody. We’ve just got to understand that it’s going to take some time for it to really even out and level itself.
What were your thoughts on the contrast in funding and how the men’s and women’s NCAA Tournament bubbles were handled operationally? Were you involved in conversations with the NCAA?
Semrau: It was such a unique year with COVID. So many issues that affect many, many different people, different cultures came to light, starting with George Floyd. And we got a chance to really watch and witness and educate. And then on and on and on, things came to light, people stood up and said something about it. And I think much of America and the world, this was very educational this year, the gender equity piece was just another and people able to step up and say something. And we got on a call with the WBCA coaches with (NCAA president) Mark Emmert. And were able to speak very directly about what we’ve seen for years. And I think what we really want and need right now is to understand what is women’s basketball to you, NCAA? What is women’s basketball to you, institutions? What is women’s basketball to you, media? And once we have that answer, then I think we can do a better job of really searching for what equity is going to look like, if indeed, and I know I’m going to go on a soapbox here. And but if indeed the NCAA has an equitable playing field then why is it that you would spend more on one sport than another? And I think you could ask tennis or soccer what that means right now. And if you’re not, it’s OK, we signed up for it. But tell us. Help us understand. And it’s very different what we’ve just accepted so much and been grateful for so much. But if the NCAA is an entity and is a business that is supporting the other sports, then let us know that. When I was the (WBCA) president, we were fighting to get the opportunity to do more. And were told those very things. ‘No, you don’t make enough money. You guys have to stay at host sites the whole way.’ And we were fighting. You saw how exciting the (NCAA) tournament was. So I think a lot of work needs to be done. And we just need to follow up with every single issue that’s out there.
How important do you think that was that in a year where there’s so much spotlight on gender inequality to put out such a great product in the NCAA Tournament to get past some of those old stereotypes of women’s basketball?
Semrau: Huge. It was so great. Those games that were on national TV, for the first time ever, every game was aired in its entirety on some type of ESPN network. And that’s never happened. And to be a fan, which I was and you guys were a lot, it was awesome. It was tremendous. And to see it from that side was better than I could have expected and or ever imagined. And excited for us going forward.