RCW: Teammates turned coaches
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. It definitely wasn’t fair. Damitria Buchanan had wanted to take the short drive from Houston to College Station, Texas with her family, just a month or so later, with one or two changes of clothes in tow – not her whole wardrobe.
One of 2005’s touted basketball recruits, Buchanan scheduled her official visit at Texas A&M on the night of the Aggies’ annual Maroon Madness event to celebrate the beginning of the season.
Shortly after the most devastating storm in American history ravaged New Orleans, another – more powerful hurricane named Rita – was barreling toward Houston through the Gulf of Mexico in late September.
As Rita’s path into southern Texas was inevitable, the Texas A&M coaching staff was pleading with Buchanan to reschedule her official visit which was going to coincide with the storm’s landfall. The decision was made at the 11th hour and truly nobody was happy under the circumstances.
Buchanan can look back and fill the room with her indistinguishable laugh about being a high-maintenance recruit now, a decade later. Back then though, 12 years ago, stuck in a never-ending throng of northwest-bound cars on US 290, Buchanan had seemingly bit into one of those face-scrunching chocolates Forrest’s momma warned us everyone’s life is bound to have.
You just never know what you’re going to get. For Buchanan, it was a recruiting trip and an evacuation all rolled into one.
So, with nearly every belonging crammed into their car, the Buchanans slowly made their way toward College Station. Traffic in Houston is always stagnant to put it nicely. America’s fourth-largest city is used to seeing its fair share of log jams on its highways, but nobody was prepared for so many people to be frantically headed inland at the same time.
The last-minute change in plans also meant finding Buchanan a different player host to make her feel comfortable and welcomed during her stay.
Aqua Franklin, Texas A&M’s quiet point guard, knew she wanted to be a coach when her playing career came to an end. Her coaches figured there wasn’t any better way to prepare Franklin for the rigors of recruiting than by letting her serve as a player host. Only this visit would be a different kind of challenge.
It took 14 hours – yes, you read that right – 14 hours for Buchanan to drive 95 miles from Houston to College Station. An impending catastrophic act of nature, coupled with covering only eight miles every hour, almost sent her over the edge.
“I was pretty high maintenance as a recruit and there were so many people leaving Houston,” Buchanan recalled. “It was an awful, awful trip there and it was thrown together last minute. I was so tired, irritated and annoyed.”
“That hasn’t changed,” Franklin quickly interrupted under her breath before Buchanan heard her comment and they both began hysterically laughing.
It still amazes the duo that the mixture of a hurricane and basketball could lead them to be tough and together before it was ever their adopted slogan.
Their personalities couldn’t have been any different, although they both have a shared love of laughter, competition and basketball. Buchanan is incredibly outgoing and never wants to act too serious, while Franklin is soft-spoken and reserved, but solid with comebacks.
Somehow, someway, the two immediately hit it off with their ability to always poke fun at one another. Franklin helped land Buchanan as an Aggie for the 2006 season, although she didn’t find out she was a large influence on Buchanan’s decision until recently.
“That’s the start of our friendship,” Franklin said. “She didn’t even tell me until maybe two or three years ago that I was part of the reason why she chose Texas A&M. I guess I did a good job.”
Franklin is two years older than Buchanan – who is quick to let everyone know she hasn’t yet reached the 30-year plateau like her elder.
“Don’t worry, you’re knocking at the door,” Franklin quipped back.
They shared the court competing, making jokes and having each other’s back day-in and day-out at Texas A&M for two seasons. Drawing on some of those fond memories with Buchanan anchoring the paint and Franklin orchestrating the offense gets pretty animated.
Buchanan jokingly claimed her point guard was constantly getting beat off of the dribble, forcing her to always be in a position to slide over and help before she fills the room with a laugh. Franklin made sure to make it known how seldom Buchanan managed to block her shot in practices, and it wasn’t for lack of trying.
Neither ever mentioned it while they reminisced on their playing days – a trait of their selflessness and blue-collar mentality – but Franklin went on to finish her career with 627 assists, good for third in the Texas A&M record book, while Buchanan completed her four years with an 11th all-time mark of 55 blocks.
The team accomplishments were what they are most proud of, not necessarily winning hardware, but the attitude and relationships they took away from the hardwood. In their first season they each chipped in to help the Aggies win their first Big 12 Conference regular-season championship. In their last year playing together they helped put together a run into the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight.
“We were part of some of the toughest practices that anyone has ever had at any school because that’s what our theme was,” Buchanan explained. “We were blue collar, the first people on the floor and we had to be tougher than our opponent. Because we went through that, we grew to have each other’s back and love each other.”
After a decorated career as an Aggie which saw Franklin earn recognition on two All-Big 12 postseason teams and an All-America ballot, she fulfilled her ambition of becoming a basketball instructor by serving as Texas A&M’s graduate assistant coach during Buchanan’s senior season.
What they thought would be their last season together turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Franklin helped the team to a Big 12 title and a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament from her position.
Due to her experience in the WNBA and playing overseas, Franklin was seen as a valuable asset by Stephen F. Austin’s head women’s basketball coach, Brandon Schneider. She also learned many invaluable lessons from Schneider in her first full-time coaching job.
“Brandon ran a different offense and that’s something I needed to get better at because I played for a coach in a different system,” Franklin said. “I wanted to grow in what I knew and that’s one thing that Brandon obviously knows and helped me with.”
Buchanan began her coaching career at A&M Consolidated Middle School while also teaching and pursuing a master’s degree from her alma mater.
The tight-knit basketball experience they had shared in college made both Buchanan and Franklin hope they could again one day influence the game together like they had at Texas A&M.
“We’ve always had that dream,” Franklin said. “Even when we were at different places we couldn’t wait until the Final Four because we got to hang out.”
When Franklin moved on to be an assistant coach at Kansas under Bonnie Henrickson she made sure to suggest a name to Schneider as her successor before she left for Lawrence. Just like that, Buchanan filled her old teammate’s position for two years and left in 2013 to help build Texas Tech’s program.
Simultaneously as Buchanan had gone to coach the Lady Raiders, Franklin was on a new venture at Mississippi State. It was then, in 2014, they really began thinking of a dream scenario where they could work together for a great coach.
“We always talked about how we loved Brandon as a head coach and we loved working for him,” Buchanan said. “We then said how it would be cool if we could get Brandon as a head coach. It wasn’t something we always thought of, but it was something we spoke about, not really thinking it would happen one day.”
Until one day, as fate would have it, it did happen.
On April 20, 2015 Schneider was named the head coach at Kansas and on May 5 he hired Buchanan as an assistant, particularly in charge of recruiting efforts. Her relatable personality and outgoing nature made it an easy decision.
“I believe Coach D is one of the top up-and-coming assistants in the country,” Schneider said upon hiring Buchanan. “She is a relentless recruiter and has a unique ability to build and cultivate relationships with players. She will be a terrific role model for our student-athletes.”
Eight days later, on May 13, Schneider officially named Franklin as KU’s associate head coach. A quieter role model, Franklin would be relied on to mentor the team’s guards.
“I believe Coach Aqua to be one of the premier recruiters in the country, and the signing classes she has been a part of prove that point,” Schneider said after her hire. “The fact the she was a Big 12 Champion, led her team to an Elite Eight and played professionally both overseas and in the WNBA gives her instant credibility both with current and future players. She is a terrific teacher on the court and has a great feel for how to develop young players. Our student-athletes will benefit tremendously from her experience, expertise and leadership.”
Going on two years now, the genuine nature of their personalities isn’t always fun and joking. There’s a time to be serious and exemplify the tough and together mentality. The competition Buchanan and Franklin harnessed on the floor together has evolved to the sideline and to the other coaches as well. It’s never a selfish competition, it does no good to earn bragging rights if the team doesn’t win. But when the Jayhawks are successful, the coaches are proud to point out why.
“I think we’re always making each other better in whatever we’re doing,” Franklin said. “Coach Brandon breaks up the scouting and if we get a win and it’s my scout I’m telling everyone about it. It’s always a competitive thing with the overall goal being that we win and that our players get better on the court and as people.”
As Schneider’s lead recruiters, Buchanan and Franklin barely find the time to stay up-to-date on the latest in the pop culture and fashion high schoolers are interested in given their time constraints with practices and games. So, when they have a spare minute they like to give their recruits a phone call together. They might just be the funniest, most down-to-earth recruiters in the country given how they constantly play off of one another’s antics.
“We are typically making fun of each other and recruits think it’s funny and that’s just pretty much who we are all the time,” Buchanan said. “It’s genuine because we are best friends. We don’t have to pretend to be someone else at any time. If you are genuine it’s recognizable and our recruits know it. They trust us automatically because we’re pretty transparent in who we are.”
The No. 1 selling point Buchanan and Franklin offer to prospective Jayhawks is a transparent, family-oriented atmosphere.
With the help of an easy-going staff, Kansas landed several notable transfers now making significant contributions in Schneider’s second season. Guards Jessica Washington and McKenzie Calvert are both averaging over 13 points-per-game. Washington leads the Jayhawks in assists, while Calvert and Kylee Kopatich each have 25 steals through 15 games.
“Tough and together isn’t something we just say, it’s something we are,” Buchanan said. “It’s a family. We know each other and we’ve all been around each other before. It starts with us and then it becomes contagious for our players to see it is a family. We care about each other and have each other’s back.”
Buchanan and Franklin are incredibly thankful for the sport of basketball. It has opened so many doors already with many more waiting to be unlocked. Both are extremely proud of their current jobs at the University of Kansas.
Nobody ever could have anticipated a hurricane or basketball bringing about this lifelong friendship. That’s why Buchanan and Franklin cherish the opportunity to be a positive impact on people’s lives, while sharing the sport that means the world to them.
They each summed up the chapters of their intertwined story thus far in their own way. One longer and enthusiastically spoken. The other short, sweet and to the point. Only, for the first time all afternoon, there was no laughter from either side to conclude the statement. Just a silent appreciation for the unpredictable nature of their journeys.
“We wouldn’t be who we are today if it weren’t for us playing college basketball for four years,” Buchanan said. “That’s one of the things we learned; that basketball is way bigger than yourself. It’s way bigger than if you’re making shots or making stops and winning games. It provides way more for you in the long run that you can benefit from.”
“It gives you lifelong sisters and best friends,” Franklin said.
After all, you just never know what you’re going to get.