Regina High School's Diane Laffey has been coaching for 45 years. (Todd McInturf / Detroit News)
Warren — How many times has Diane Laffey been in a gym like this one at Warren Cousino, brightly decorated in red, white and blue, and filled with fans cheering and booing her?
How many times has she stood in the middle of a huddle with 15 pairs of eyes eagerly looking at her as she barks instructions and direction?
How many times has her team been one of the opening acts of the Class A state tournament, when one loss equals instant termination?
Laffey was at it again Monday night, trying to hold off hard-charging Warren Cousino (14-6), a new and brewing east side rival. This time she felt bitter defeat as Warren Regina (10-11) lost a 10-point fourth quarter lead and lost to Cousino, 49-44, in the opening round of the Class A districts.
Laffey has coached at Regina for 45 years, which for much of that time stood on the Detroit border in Harper Woods.
Will to win
This defeat was tough to swallow, as they all are.
“We keep telling them they have to play for 32 minutes,” Laffey said after the game, clutching a scorebook in the Cousino gym. “They did everything we asked them to do for the first 27 minutes.”
But kids are kids, as Laffey knows after so many games and coaching so many women. To call Laffey a lifer is understating things. It is amazing that she has stood this long, argued with referees this explosively and ran one of the toughest programs in the rugged Catholic League.
She does it because she loves it. She never thought this run would last this long but it is difficult to run Laffey out of anyplace. You don’t run off legends. You let them run until their legs give out.
“As long as I stay healthy I don’t look forward to retiring,” Laffey said. “I would not know what to do with myself.”
I first met Laffey in 1982 when she coached a team with state championship potential. Regina made the state finals in 1983 but a three-second call against Flint Northwestern doomed them. It was the closest she came to winning a state title in basketball.
She’s had more success in softball, winning five state championships.
Every time she goes to a banquet she is receiving an award for being a great coach or a great motivator. She is one of those coaches who never goes away, never changes and wins with a system that was written on scraps of paper decades ago.
Why change when your way works?
She wants to win just as badly as anybody. Underneath the straight-laced hairstyle and frozen stare lies the heart of a competitor. You saw the fire even as she tried to mask the loss with a smile.
Laffey is a winner even when she does not win. Her girls might not always like her. They might not always understand her but this rough coach with the soft touch has a goal that goes beyond wins and losses.
“I want them to walk out of here as better people,” she said. “It is not just about athletics. I want them to leave here and go to college and better themselves.”
How many times has she coached games in which turnovers are too rampant and missed shots too plentiful? How many times has she tried to look cool on the sidelines as a game goes back and forth as it did on Monday?
“The fire is as intense as it was years ago,” she said. “And I am just as nervous before games as I ever have been.”
Her teams don’t always play pretty. But they defend and fight and wear people down. Regina is almost always a group of no-nonsense girls that fit Laffey’s personality. Players like Emily Davis (17 points) and Erin Nelson (14 points) gave their all but they could not hold off the charge.
It is never easy to beat Laffey, which Cousino well knows. This team was dead and buried but got clutch plays from freshman guard Kierra Fletcher (15 points), junior guard Abby Vojtush (11 points) and senior Alex Ruster (10 points).
Head coach Mike Lee said his team lost 10 straight times to Laffey before he took over. He brought fire into his program and now its battles with Regina are great theater.
“You know I don’t think it became a rivalry until we beat them,” Lee said. “But it is one of the best rivalries on the east side. It is fantastic.”