McKay says goodbye after 36 years at U of W


Tanya McKay officially cut her ties with the University of Winnipeg two months ago.

The emotional connections built by her 36 years as part of the Wesmen women’s basketball program, including the last 26 years as head coach, will probably never be broken.

Former teammates, players, co-workers and other well-wishers paid tribute to McKay at a special gathering Friday afternoon. The 54-year-old Sackville, N.S., product has accepted a job at Dalhousie University in Halifax where she will guide the school’s women’s basketball program.

Citing a desire to return to her home province to help care for her mother and stepfather, McKay resigned her U of W post shortly after leading the Wesmen to a berth in the U Sports national championship final.

The Wesmen dropped a 70-48 decision to the Ryerson Rams in the gold-medal game.

Alyssa Cox, McKay’s former assistant, was hired as her replacement on May 24.

“It was hard, right?” said McKay of telling her players she was leaving. “Because it was a great group and a very successful season and a lot of them are returning next season. Next year’s team is going to be very good. They’ll be looking to be a top five team in the country and I think that Alyssa will do an outstanding job.”

McKay’s influence and dedication will be missed at the Duckworth Centre.

“She was a big part of my career,” said forward Alyssa Porco, who will be entering her second season at the U of W this fall. “I’d been talking to her for quite a while (through the recruiting process) and getting the opportunity to work with someone like her, it’s hard to see her leave. She’s made such a big impact on this program. We’re definitely gonna miss her.”

JoAnne Small (nee Wells), who played for the Wesmen from 2000 to 2005 and earned the Nan Copp Award as player of the year in Canada during her final season, said McKay’s coaching style was consistent and effective.

“I don’t think she changed as a person,” said Small. “I think that’s why she’s so successful. She always connected and made time and just really related to her athletes and I think she carried that all the way through her time here.”

Small said she witnessed McKay’s uncanny ability to coax more out of her players.

“There’s the relationship building side and then there’s the coach side,” said Small. “She was amazing at holding you accountable, pointing out mistakes, talking about where you needed to improve and work on, but doing it in a way that was respectful and just demanded more and I loved that about her.”

McKay’s coaching exploits also drew praise from outside the program.

Ken Opalko, who starred on the U of W men’s basketball team from 1976 to 1981 and coached at the high school level for more than three decades, marvelled at McKay’s ability to transition from star player to assistant coach and then to head coach.

“When she was playing she was very competitive and she led by example,” said Opalko. “And so when her playing days were over, going into coaching just seemed a very natural thing because she’s always been a leader and people respected her.

“She treats people well. I mean, here we are 30 years later, and she’s had this all these great accomplishments and people that say wonderful things about her. That’s just plain and simple hard work.”

Opalko said the program’s reputation was impeccable.

“The other thing that I’ve always really noticed about her, and I told her this today, I just loved how hard she worked as a player and as a coach,” said Opalko. “I said, ‘Your integrity was so important to you. Look at all these years, you’ve never had a scandal, you’ve never had anything go really off the rails and that’s hard to do when you’re working with people.’ ”

McKay leaves the Wesmen with a career record of 528-306, a win total that ranks fourth all-time in Canadian university history and second among active U Sports head coaches.

Going home for McKay is unlikely to be a seamless transition. Dalhousie went 0-18 under interim head coach Anton Berry but McKay has embraced the challenge of rebuilding.

“They were 0-18 and many of the kids are wanting to return,” she said. “And there are a lot of recruits, so I think we’ll probably have 24 kids in tryout camp.”

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Mike Sawatzky