HAMPTON — Ariel Phelps was so angry that she barely spoke to her head coach, David Six.
Hampton University's women smothered opponents on the way to the first unbeaten regular season in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference in six years. They were prohibitive favorites for the upcoming tournament.
Phelps, the energetic senior forward, played with strained ligaments in her ankle, delaying surgery that would have sidelined her for the season and deprived her of a championship ride.
She didn't fill a stat sheet like Keiara Avant or Nikki Hamilton or rain 3-pointers like Olivia Allen. They didn't run plays for her, and everything she got was through hustle and position and determination.
Yet Six was on her constantly in the days leading to the tournament. We need more from you. You have to play harder. We can't win if you don't rebound.
It reached the point where Six would ask Phelps how she felt. Good. Is everything OK? Fine. Anything you want to talk about? No.
Six knew better. He finally confronted Phelps and said: I know you're angry, but you have to let it go; if you don't channel it the right way, you're going to regret it and we won't be the team we're capable of being.
The result: Phelps defended and rebounded like a woman possessed last week, especially in a semifinal win against Coppin State that was much closer than the 78-52 final score.
"I see things in them that they don't always see in themselves," Six said. "It's my job to get it out of them."
There's no questioning Six's track record. He and the Lady Pirates are preparing for their fourth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance in his first four years with the program, when they face fifth-ranked Duke on Sunday in Durham, N.C.
Six rapidly returned Hampton to the top of the MEAC. The Lady Pirates are 99-29 (.773) in his four years, 59-6 in the conference. They have lost just two conference games in the past three years and are a perfect 12-0 in the tournament under him, always with the league's lone NCAA bid on the line.
"Coach Six has changed the culture here at Hampton University, in terms of how he's able to blend those essential elements that are necessary to a winning culture," athletic director Novelle Dickinson said. "It's great to have an idea, but you have to put the philosophies in place to realize the ideas. I think that's what he's done so effectively and efficiently. He's really achieved what we call on this campus, the culture of results."
"I always thought I could do well," Six said earlier this week, "but I'd be lying if I said I thought we'd go to four straight tournaments. But to be honest, I don't think that far ahead. I really do take it one game at a time."
Six often puts his players in uncomfortable positions, with the ultimate aim of making opponents even less comfortable.
What his players may not understand is that he asks nothing of them that he hasn't of himself. He has routinely ventured out of his own comfort zone, whether it was traveling 21/2 hours to school each day growing up in a tough Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood, leaving family and friends behind to enlist in the Air Force, demanding defense and patience in a stat happy era of instant gratification.
Or even, yes, coaching women.
Six was assisting boys coach Walter Brower at Hampton High School when girls coach Joe Melvin got an administrative job elsewhere shortly before the 1992-93 season. In a bind, principal Lowell Thomas asked Six if he would coach the girls' team.
Six originally declined, saying he wasn't interested. He had coached girls, working with Boo Williams' AAU and summer program, but he wasn't interested in coaching girls as a full-time gig.
Thomas came back to him and asked if he would do it temporarily, until he could find somebody else.
"I said OK, but you better find somebody else," Six recalled.
He was no more encouraged when the Crabbers started practice.
"I had eight girls," he said. "Nobody wanted to play basketball at Hampton High School at that time. I had three girls who could play and five hood ornaments."
Six's first Crabbers team finished 12-10. He began to forge relationships with his players and thought he could build a program given time. But the motivation came from an older Hampton High booster, a man whose name he cannot recall, who told him that even though the football and boys basketball teams were state powers, the girls basketball team would never win a district title, never mind a state championship.
"You tell me I can't do something," Six said. "I started to make that my life's mission."
Six won state championships in 2001 and '07 and compiled a 331-93 record. He took a three-year detour to coach Gloucester High's boys in the mid-'90s before returning to coach the Crabbers' girls. Though he was only 22-41 at Gloucester, given the Dukes' meager boys basketball history, that practically counts as a triumph.
He won two state titles with the Crabbers' girls, and his resume' also includes five state final four appearances, a regional title, 10 regional appearances, nine Peninsula District titles and nine district tournament championships.
Six left Hampton High following the 2007-08 school year. Despite the success on the court, he said that he was burned out, emotionally, because he wound up as surrogate father and mentor and sounding board to so many students.
He took a job in the Hampton University athletic department as director of intramural sports.
"When he went over to Hampton, I told Dr. Harvey, this is your guy," Boo Williams said, referring to HU president William R. Harvey. "I saw what he did at Hampton High School. I saw what he did with our elite 15-and-under program. You look at his past record, everywhere he's been, he's been successful. He puts in a lot of hard work and he's got a knack for what he's doing. He can relate to kids. He can make the kids play hard."
Six began to get the itch to coach again and got the chance when HU fired Walter Mebane after four seasons. He was running a practice for Boo's AAU team one evening when former HU athletic director Lonza Hardy called and said they wanted him to serve as interim head coach. He was so stunned that he had to call off practice.
Though he didn't doubt his ability, Six's first season got off to a rocky start, when the Lady Pirates lost seven in a row after winning their first two games.
"That doesn't happen to me," Six said. "I took that hard."
Six sensed that his players were often intimidated when they played teams from major conferences. Two years ago, he could tell that his players were nervous in the locker room before playing fourth-seeded Kentucky in Albuquerque, N.M., in an NCAA first-round game. HU had been dump-trucked by Duke the year before in the NCAAs, but he was confident that this wouldn't be a repeat performance.
"I told them, I don't doubt that I'm the best coach here," Six recalled. "I said, they might have more resources, but they aren't better than we are. I said 'Kentucky' is just a name on the jersey. Why can't people look at 'Hampton' as a name, too?"
Hampton played Kentucky evenly, falling 66-62 in overtime — the closest a MEAC team has come to winning an NCAA game in the modern era.
"There's no, 'We don't think we can beat them,'" Six said. "You better not let me hear that. We might not play well, but we aren't beaten when we walk out on the court. I think we've moved on as a program and gotten past that."
Six had the interim label removed and was given a three-year contract after his first season, in March 2010. Neither he nor Dickinson will discuss his contract status, but Dickinson said, "You bet your life we're going to do our darnedest to keep him."
The man who leads the present HU dynasty is a news and current events junkie who describes himself as a bit of a nerd. One of his assistants refers to him as a "Googlist" for his ability to pull random bits of information on a variety of topics.
He has a lighthearted streak off the court and needles his players and assistants about many things. He won't reveal his age, playfully explaining, "That's the source of my power. It's like Samson's hair."
"On the court, it's strictly business," Avant said. "We know the business is about winning games, so on the court obviously our focus is to win games. But off the court, he'll help you with anything and he's always there if you need him. He's a great guy."
Six has won with players he inherited and now with those he recruited and developed. Avant is a prime example. A decent college prospect out of Chesapeake's Indian River High, she improved from a player who averaged 1.9 points per game as a freshman to the MEAC Player of the Year and someone who averages a double-double.
Senior Alyssa Bennett, a Hampton native who Six coached in high school, is the Lady Pirates' most gifted and fluid player. She has developed into a superior defender.
"I think he's done a masterful job," said Coppin State coach Derek Brown, who's taken three teams to the NCAA tournament. "He's been a champion since he's been there, and most of that I think is due to hard work — I know he works them hard — and his defensive philosophy.
"His defense is tremendous. They all swarm to the ball. Basically, the only way to get a good shot against them is to reverse the ball and 'skip' passes back to the other side, and they're just so quick that it's tough to even get it there. He's done a tremendous job, as far as getting his girls to play extremely hard, with the emphasis on defense."
Indeed, Hampton leads the nation in scoring defense (47.2 ppg), is second in field-goal-percentage defense (.316) and third in 3-point field-goal defense (.238). Skeptics will point out that the MEAC is one of the lowest-rated leagues in the country, but in the past month the Lady Pirates have improved on defense and registered even stingier numbers than their present averages.
"He's found that right formula," Delaware State coach Tamika Louis said. "I think he'll beat a lot of teams. He's beaten teams on the major level, and that's really the biggest difference. Especially in women's basketball these days, if you can get kids to play hard and really buy into a defensive philosophy, you'll win a lot of ball games. That's what he's managed to do over the last three years.
"He's kind of raised the bar and level for the rest of us, especially as a new coach coming in. He's raised that bar and expectation. It's not an offensive game for women's basketball, especially in the league. It's more of a defensive, hard-work type of attitude in order to win."
Though Six has a set of unyielding principles, he is far from inflexible. HU got off to a good start this season and posted several quality wins, but in mid-January he realized that he was coaching this team like last year's team. That group, led by senior guards Jericka Jenkins and Choicetta McMillian, was more cerebral and structured, a team to which he could add plays and sets weekly.
This team, led by Avant, Hamilton and Bennett, is more athletic and instinctive. Six loosened the reins and let them play — within reason, and as long as they concentrated on defense. He is not above burning timeouts in the first half, even with a lead, if he doesn't like the way a single possession develops. He will jump on a reserve in the late stages of a blowout as readily as he does Hamilton or Avant in the midst of a tight game.
"I owe it to the kids to coach every one of them the same way," Six said. "I don't want anybody thinking that one player is more important than another or that I'm coaching the starters differently than the kids on the bench."
Six credits a long list of people with getting him where he is. Among them are James Kearney, his high school coach at August Martin in the Jamaica section of Queens, a no-nonsense leader who instilled discipline and toughness.
"What I got from him," Six said, "is there's nothing you can't do if you put your mind to it. He was always looking for a mental edge."
Boo Williams gave an ex-Air Force staff sergeant stationed at Langley AFB with little previous coaching experience a chance to work with one of the country's premier AAU programs.
Brower showed Six the benefits of organization and attention to detail. Crabbers football coach Mike Smith showed him what was possible, that the same neighborhoods that produced state champion football players and teams also had potentially outstanding women's basketball players.
Hampton High track coach Fred Hamilton conveyed the importance of conditioning, particularly for the style that Six wanted to play. Six absorbed Hall of Fame coach Pat Summitt books and stories like a sponge.
But it all starts with his late mother, Yvonne, a tough woman who raised him and his sister on her own after their father was killed in 1975. She worked at the New York Port Authority for 31 years, rising through the ranks to a position where she helped arrange security for presidents and visiting dignitaries.
"She gave me everything," Six said.
Yvonne Six instilled discipline and the value of an education. She encouraged her son to leave home and test himself when she saw so many of his friends and acquaintances arrested and jailed and dead.
Though he doesn't lack confidence, there are times when he still marvels at where he is and what he's accomplished. That doesn't mean he's satisfied.
The next step is elevating Hampton beyond its so-called station as a low-major Division I program. That comes from scheduling ambitiously, remaining atop the MEAC and winning NCAA tournament games.
An NCAA run, Six said, "would mean everything. People feel slighted, if you look at how we've been seeded. I feel like historically black schools don't get the credit they deserve. If we can do something to break that barrier, it would mean a lot to our school and our program."
NCAA women's tournament
WHO: No. 15 seed Hampton vs. No. 2 seed Duke.
WHAT: First-round game in Norfolk Region.
WHEN: 12:05 p.m. Sunday. TV: ESPN.
WHERE: Cameron Indoor Stadium, Durham, N.C.
The Ted Constant Center in Norfolk will host a Sweet 16/Elite 8 regional March 31-April 2. The top four seeded teams in the region are Notre Dame, Duke, TexasA&M and South Carolina. For ticket information, visit constantcenter.com/events/detail/ncaa.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times