David Six felt a little like he'd just stepped onto the stage at an American Idol audition.
"When you're a singer, and a music exec says sing, you better be ready right then and there," he said.
Six's turn in the spotlight came when, after a year as director of intramural sports at Hampton University, he was appointed head women's basketball coach in April 2009 after four-year coach Walter Mebane's contract was not renewed.
"I've got to prove it right now. This is my one shot," Six said. "I would always tell my mom before she passed — 'I can't change careers now. It's too late. I gotta make this work.' I just tried to kick the door down."
Since the 2009-10 season, Six has led the Lady Pirates to a 68-23 record that includes a 42-6 mark in Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference play. HU's 27-17 non-conference record includes a 15-point win against Florida last season and victories against Pitt (60-37) and Boston College (71-63) this year.
The Lady Pirates, 23-4 and regular-season MEAC champions for the second straight year who will begin their quest for a third straight tournament title on Wednesday, entered last year's NCAA tournament with a 13th seed, the highest ever for a MEAC team, and took Kentucky to overtime before falling 66-62.
"We can play with anybody, no matter what the name on their jersey says," said senior point guard Jericka Jenkins, a first-team all-MEAC selection who leads the nation with 7.4 assists per game. "We're all college women playing basketball. That's it."
It wasn't always that simple.
Six went 331-93 and won two state championships in 14 seasons with the Hampton High girls team, but his arrival at HU signaled a sea change for the Lady Pirates, coming off a 16-16 season.
"I remember our first practices when we came back from the summer — the track and the running," senior forward Melanie Warner said. "It was nothing we were used to."
Change wasn't an immediate good thing. HU got off to a 2-7 start in Six's first season, but that included a 63-54 loss to Georgia Tech on Dec. 28 and a 54-51 loss to Temple on Dec. 8 that gave both coach and players pause.
With the Lady Pirates leading Temple with 40 seconds remaining, Six called a timeout to deliver one vital message: "I told them I didn't care if somebody pulled a gun out — don't turn the ball over," Six said. "And we turned the ball over and we lost by three, and I remember as I was talking to them after the game, I was so frustrated.
"I was telling them, 'Get out of your own way. ... You keep finding ways to not be successful.' I never saw a man who was running forward looking behind, and that's essentially what they were doing — (thinking) 'We're not supposed to be playing Temple tough.' The hardest thing to teach somebody is how to win."
Against Georgia Tech 20 days later, HU led by a point midway through the second half and outrebounded the taller Yellow Jackets 31-30.
"After that game I was like, 'Well, maybe,' " Jenkins said. " 'Maybe we should listen to this guy.' "
HU would go on to finish 20-12, its first 20-win season since 2002-03, and win its first MEAC tournament championship since 2004.
As an encore, the Lady Pirates went 25-7 last season, winning the regular-season league title with the 15-1 record they matched this year, and added a second tournament crown.
The wins have come by identifying and sticking to a formula founded on three non-negotiable principles: ball security, defense and rebounding.
"The way he pushes us, the way he wants perfection — it really kind of forces you to just get it right," Warner said.
Jenkins, Warner (done for the year after breaking her finger in a Feb. 19 practice) and senior guard Choicetta McMillian, sophomores when Six took over, had to buy into his way of doing things — starting with practices all three agree are more taxing than games.
"I was trying to find some more sleep somewhere in the day," said McMillian, who joined Jenkins in HU's 23-member 1,000-point club in Thursday's 86-35 win at N.C. Central. "Of course it gets tiring, but as a player, you have to be mature about it. I just pray, 'Get me through practice today on a good note.' "
McMillian, eighth in the nation with three made 3-pointers a game, leads HU with 14.3 points per game, while Jenkins averages 13.8 and Warner was averaging 10.7. McMillian and Warner were second-team all-conference picks.
Waiting in the wings behind the seniors is a talented group of players recruited by Six, including junior forward Keiara Avant (7.5 points, 7.9 rebounds per game), sophomore forward Alyssa Bennett (7.2 ppg), and sophomore guard Nicole Hamilton (6.3 ppg).
"We've just tried to bring kids in and keep going," Six said. "… We'll miss that experience, but my expectations will not be any less for those kids coming in."
Right now, the Lady Pirates' expectations include cutting down the nets for a third time at the Lawrence Joel Coliseum in Winston-Salem, N.C., and getting another shot at their first-ever NCAA tournament victory.
"I always wanted to prove that it could be done here, that we could gain the respect of people outside the conference," Six said. "Why can't we beat Temple? What's the reason we can't beat them? What's the reason we can't beat Boston College? What's the reason we can't beat Florida?"
In nearly three full seasons, Six has answered those questions — and a few others, too.
"To go from high school to a head (college) coach almost never happens," Six said. "(HU president William) Harvey and the administration even giving me an opportunity to coach at this level was tremendous, and I just wasn't willing to let that opportunity slip — not for no one or nothing."
WHO: Norfolk State vs. Hampton.
WHAT: Women's quarterfinals.
WHEN: Noon Wednesday.
WHERE: Winston-Salem, N.C.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun