Out in Denver: Doshia Woods’ Journey Inspires Other Coaches to Live Authentically and Escape the Closet
When college basketball shut down on March 12, 2020, due to the coronavirus pandemic, Doshia Woods was an assistant coach at Tulane. The team fell in the second round of the American Athletic Conference tournament days earlier, ending the season for the Green Wave program. But, as the entire nation went into a period of uncertainty, with widespread quarantines and general malaise, a new and exciting opportunity was on the horizon for Woods, after ten years at Tulane.
In late July, the University of Denver announced that it hired her as the program’s 11th head coach. The Topeka, Kansas native became the first female Black head coach at Denver and a member of just a handful of women’s basketball head coaches who are out and proud.
As an uncloseted member of the LGBTQ community, Woods is akin to a unicorn among women’s college basketball head coaches. Even as 2021 approaches, homophobia still has a noxious hold on the sport in the college ranks. Negative recruiting still exists. Coaches who dissuade players from being out still exist. And, of course, ignorant stereotypes of women’s basketball players continue to abound, with social media giving trolls a 24-7 platform to spew their misogynistic drivel directed at players, coaches, and even fans of the sport. None of that fazes Woods, who is deliberate in her efforts to “live authentic and free” not just for herself and her wife, Denver assistant coach Lindsay Werntz, but also as a relatable role model for other coaches as well as student-athletes.
“Especially now in the era of social media, you can control your own narrative to fill in the blanks for people,” Woods said when speaking about her public persona and how she is viewed by her colleagues in the sport.
“I think I learned that people genuinely don’t care, especially once they get to know you. I’m a person. I have all these different intersections. I identify as black, female, gay, all of these different areas…I think sometimes we put too much emphasis on one part of who we are.”
The Beginning of Basketball Love
Like most player-turned-coaches, Woods’ love of the game began as a childhood obsession that never waned. Her introduction to the game came via her best friend, who received a basketball for Christmas and shared it with Woods.
While in middle school, she played organized basketball, and she was “faster than anyone else” up and down the court. She also had the opportunity to be a ball girl for three years for perennial Division II powerhouse Washburn under head coach Patty Dick. That experience exposed her to the emotional intensity of college competition, from practices to postgame activities.
“I’ll never forget how competitive and passionate they were,” she said of the team she recounts as being like big sisters to her.
She also loved softball and played volleyball, and ran track. Her family, including her mother, who passed away in 2013, took her intense love for sports in stride. She said they “didn’t have a lot” growing up, but her coaches helped fill in the gaps by giving her rides to practices and other activities.
Woods’ foray into competing in college came via junior college. She played for Barton Community College for two seasons before transferring to fellow Summit League member, Western Illinois, where she earned a degree in English in 2001. During her senior year at WIU, the team had eight freshmen, and Woods jokes that during that season, it was her first time coaching since she was a team leader to so many newbies. That is when she began to think seriously about the profession.
“I really started to kind of cultivate that and tried to figure out what that would mean for me at the next level in terms of coaching and with practice with my teammates; sometimes as the listener and figuring out ways I could talk to the coach to be a little more effective, to be that bridge that between the team and her.”
Head coach Leslie Crane encouraged the budding interest. Woods started out as a graduate assistant for WIU and, in total, spent three seasons on her alma mater’s staff. Her subsequent stints included time at New Mexico State, Oregon State, and Missouri before landing at Tulane.
Hoops, Love, Out and Proud
As far as her personal life and coming out, things for Woods came to a head when she was at New Mexico, when she was around 25. With a strong and conservative religious background, she tried to pray away the gay.
“I remember the year I spent at New Mexico State, there was always the joke that I spent more time at church than I did at the gym.”
She even spent four days fasting and praying to be different. However, she eventually accepted herself and decided, in a deliberate manner, when she left New Mexico, “I’m going to try and get a girlfriend and see if this is what it is.”
And that was that.
“So, once I realized ‘okay, this is who I am,’ I didn’t really give people a chance. I just gave myself a chance to just live. So, I never really truly came out or had this big kind of announcement. It was just showing up with a girlfriend.”
There was no big production, even with her mother, who had a comical response.
“Even with my mom. You know I told her, and she was like, “I’ve been knowing,” and I’m like, “well, you could have told me.”
Becoming a Positive Role Model
Each year during the Final Four, Woods would get together with a group of friends that included Werntz. One season, after knowing each other for years by now, they were both single. The two began seeing each other, and on one occasion, Woods asked her future wife if she’d be upset if Woods were to date other people. Werntz said yes, and Woods responded, “so, you’re my girlfriend.”
And they have been together since, over a decade ago.
“We were both single, and I think we had just gotten out of long-distance relationships, so we probably knew what we wanted. It was our late 20s, and we had been through other things, so it worked, and it continues to work.”
For Woods, there’s no sneaking around. There’s no hiding your girlfriend or wife from your colleagues or having your loved one wait in the car for you after work instead of in your office.
In fact, being out has enabled other coaches, sometimes even couples, to approach Woods and Werntz. They joke that they hold “mini counseling sessions” as coaches pepper them with questions.
“I just encourage them to just live and not overthink,” she recounts about the advice that she gives and what makes her a trusted confidant.
“I think we’re in a position to, because we live so authentic and free that people will see that from afar, and we can give them advice of how it worked for us and then to just live.”
With student-athletes, “it was never really an issue,” a characteristic that Woods said she loves about the current generation.
“Some come in straight. Some come in gay. Some don’t like labels.”
When it comes to Woods and her wife, she’s happy to “show them a healthy relationship.”
On the court and within her new program, Woods wants to build on things she learned at Tulane, including making sure that her student-athletes are thriving academically.
“We want everybody to feel valued, respected, and appreciated. And, our players hear that, whether you are playing 40 minutes or you don’t get the game. We want to be consistent and really prepare you for life after basketball.”
In moving from New Orleans to Denver, she admits that living in relatively progressive cities for a major part of her career has also helped her be open about her same-sex marriage and uncloseted life. But talking to people civilly and respectfully is where it all begins. In describing the respect she receives from her peers and others, she communicated that a significant key to getting people to relate to you as an equal is to start a conversation.
“When you’re open to having a conversation, you’re able to kind of break down some stigmas that they may have…You can’t truly advance if you’re not ready for the actual dialogue.”
At this point in her career, being openly lesbian is “really a non-issue.”
Overall, whether it’s counseling colleagues who are struggling in the closet or mentoring student-athletes who are trying to find their place in the world, Woods wants how she lives her life to help others on a journey “to get to their authentic selves.”
“Authenticity is something that we just try to live, to get past the labels that people put on us.”