Even today, nine years after coaching her final basketball game, Karen Stromme still gets asked if she misses coaching.
At first the senior woman administrator at Minnesota Duluth struggled to answer. Stromme missed the relationships with her student-athletes. She missed her teams and the victories that electrified players and coaches.
Stromme answers the question with purpose now, though. She still coaches teams, whether it’s as the new chair of the Division II Management Council or the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee representative at Minnesota Duluth. And there are still victories to savor, such as overseeing a successful tournament or watching her work on the Management Council be rewarded with a successful vote on key legislation.
“I just changed the definition of what a win is to me,” she said.
Her initial struggle is understandable. Stromme was 22, only months out of college, when she landed her first assistant coaching job. She was 23 when coach Linda Larson moved into an administrative role and asked Stromme to take over as UMD’s head coach.
She could’ve stayed in that spot comfortably. She won 440 games and never knew a losing season. She rose to president of the NAIA Women’s Basketball Coaches Association and chaired the USA Basketball Team Selection Committee for the 1996 and 2000 Olympic Games.
Then in 2005, Stromme received an offer to take a much different path: Leave coaching and become Minnesota Duluth’s SWA. The thought was terrifying for a time. Stromme compares it to the feeling ski jumpers get when they peer over the tips of their sticks and see the ground waiting for them.
“I think that’s what defines most of us, is when you’re willing to take a jump and don’t know where you’re going to land,” she said. “But it’s not just risk-taking. It’s a calculated risk.”
At January’s NCAA Convention, as Stromme was preparing to chair her first Management Council meeting, she bumped into Women’s Basketball Coaches Association Chief Executive Officer Beth Bass. They shared a memory of a meeting nine years earlier, when Stromme made a comment that still sticks in Bass’ mind. “What was I thinking leaving coaching?” Stromme had told her.
This time, the memory made them laugh – because in the years that followed, Stromme discovered that athletics teams and administrative committees really weren’t all that dissimilar. They just look different.
She could see that last fall, when Minnesota Duluth volleyball coach Jim Boos walked up to Stromme after the Bulldogs hosted the Central Region Semifinals of the Division II Volleyball Championship. Minnesota Duluth fell 3-1 to Concordia-St. Paul to end its season, but Boos was still pleased.
“You made our student-athletes have an awesome time,” Stromme remembers Boos telling her, “and we were so proud to be at home, and we didn’t have to worry about anything.”
The memory makes Stromme smile. Because that was a win.