Nancy Funk, a diligent student of basketball who built the Johns Hopkins women’s program into a formidable Division III competitor over 31 years as head coach, died Tuesday after a two-year battle with cancer. She was 66.
The Hopkins women had won just 44 games in 11 years when athletic director Bob Scott hired Funk away from her alma mater, Pennsylvania’s Messiah College, in 1986.
Funk’s teams won 537 over the next three decades, making 10 trips to the NCAA Division III tournament and claiming four Centennial Conference titles. She coached 80 all-conference players, six All-Americans and two winners of the Frances Pomeroy Naismith Award, which honored players of below-average height.
Women’s athletics are less than 50 years old at Hopkins, and the story of their rise cannot be told without Funk as a central figure. She was named to the university’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 2015.
“I think she felt very comfortable in her own skin,” said Bill Nelson, who, remarkably, coached the Hopkins men for the same 31-year span that Funk coached the women. “She was proud of what she did, though she wasn’t one to talk about herself.”
When Nelson met Funk, he was struck by her drive to learn everything she could about teaching the game she loved. In an era when coaching camps were not as prevalent as they are today, she’d travel to any corner of the country to pick up new techniques.
Her fundamental approach didn’t change much over the years. “She taught skills,” Nelson said. “Her players got better.”
One of Funk’s greatest former players, Angie Arnold-Sowers, recalled how impressed she was with the Hopkins coach from the first time they met.
“She was just very classy, very professional, but she had a warmth about her,” the 1998 Hopkins graduate said.
Arnold-Sowers was the point guard on the two teams Funk coached to the quarterfinals of the women’s Division III tournament and later served as an assistant coach for seven years. She’s a prime example of the community Funk built over the years, with alumni remaining close to one another and to their former leader.
To this day, Arnold-Sowers refers to Funk as “Coach.”
“That word has great meaning for me,” she said. “Not everybody earns that word.”
The men’s and women’s teams often traveled together and as the years rolled on, Nelson and Funk, both basketball traditionalists at heart, grew close. Nelson’s youngest daughter, Katie, worked as an assistant coach to Funk for seven years. The programs even shared a husband-wife pair of assistants in Wanda and Ed Richardson.
Nelson watched his friend coach the 2016-17 season as cancer treatments sapped her formidable energy. “She was a tough nut,” he said. “You might see her sitting in a chair to coach practice. But I don’t recall her ever missing one.”
The team went 13-12, and Funk was named Centennial Conference Coach of the Year, the second time she’d won the award. About a month after the season, she told the retiring Nelson, “You and I came in together and I think we should go out together.”
“I cherish the 40 years of coaching that have allowed me to be a part of the lives of so many outstanding young women and their families, both during their time in college and beyond,” Funk said at the time. “The wonderful relationships with our alumni are very special — I am truly grateful for those relationships.”
Arnold-Sowers said the decision to retire was not easy for Funk, “but she had a great faith, and I think she recognized that as great as coaching was, time is short and she had other things she wanted to make time for.”
Funk recruited all the players on the current Hopkins team, which pushed its record to 13-8 on the day she died. A Hopkins spokesman said the players were heartbroken by the news.
The program will honor Funk before Saturday afternoon’s home game against Swarthmore, which many alumni plan to attend.
Funk was born April 27, 1951, in Allentown, Pa., where she developed a die-hard affection for the Philadelphia Phillies. During her years at Hopkins, she frequently attended Blue Jays baseball games wearing her Phillies cap.
Her family later moved to Harrisburg, and she earned a nursing degree at Messiah and then a master’s degree in secondary education at Western Maryland (now McDaniel) College. She coached at Messiah for nine years before Scott brought her to Hopkins.
Funk was a longtime resident of North Baltimore, but she and her husband, Dave, had relocated to Ocean City, N.J., in the year before her death.
In addition to her husband, she is survived by her children, Jared, Courtney and Kelsey, and five grandchildren.