His no-nonsense, nose-to-the-grindstone philosophy seemingly runs at cross-purposes with his flair for court-side dramatics. Understanding the ante—and the antics—of Taffe Charles, the coach who brought Ravens women’s basketball out of a slump
By Paul Gessell
Coach Taffe Charles, BA/94, complains, only half in jest, that some folks attending Ravens women’s basketball games spend too much time watching him. No surprise. Mere seconds before the opening buzzer, he does a Superman-quick change of clothes from baggy sweats to a debonair suit and then never sits still.
Charles is as animated as the women on the floor of the Ravens’ Nest. During arguments with the referees, he shouts and flaps his arms to show them, his team and its opponents, just who is boss. He stands by the bench, practically vibrating, hollering at his players: “Motion! Motion!” He scowls at errors and, in the wake of a really bad Ravens screw-up, has been known to do a solo instant replay, angrily dribbling an imaginary ball in front of the bench, bending almost double to elude an imaginary opponent and then passing said ball to an imaginary teammate.
That’s how he shows the team what went wrong, how it could have been better and what he thinks about it all. It’s quite a show. “I kind of wear my emotions on my sleeve,” Charles says, in a grand understatement.
The arrival of Charles as the Ravens women’s head coach in 2007 made all the action—on the court and on the sidelines—considerably more interesting. Indeed, Charles has turned the Carleton women’s basketball team from perennial also-rans into major contenders. This year, for the first time ever, the women’s team reached the Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) national finals in Windsor. The Ravens were eliminated after two successive losses—but just getting to Windsor was something of a miracle. The Carleton women were a wild-card pick for the nationals. That means they were invited because of a stellar performance throughout the year, even though they lost their last qualifying game 64-59 against St. Francis Xavier X-Women.
That loss was a bitter disappointment. At the game-over buzzer, the players retreated to their bench. No words or glances were exchanged between Charles and the team. The coach simply walked, eyes downcast, past the lineup of gloomy athletes toward a garbage can to discard a wad of gum. Later, Charles spoke bluntly, as he tends to do after a loss. “The players just weren’t at their best. The implication is always that they could have done better; they should have done better.” Don’t expect excuses from this coach, because the goal for Taffe Charles is to develop a team with both the skill and the drive to win.
Charles turns 40 in July. Half the life of this Ottawa native and married father of a four-year-old girl has been associated with Carleton. As a student, he studied history and geography, and for five years, he played Ravens basketball, scoring 2,437 points for a 17.4 career average, the third best in the history of the men’s team. He was named an Ontario University Athletics (OUA) all-star in 1992, 1993 and 1994. He recently stopped playing recreational basketball, claiming he is getting too slow. But he still plays Monday-night hockey with pals.
At one time, the son of St. Lucian immigrants had thought of becoming a teacher. Instead, he pursued a career in sales after graduation, which seemed like a good fit for a man with a friendly, outgoing personality and the gift of gab. But being a salesman was just a job; sports remained his real passion. Charles kept his hand in basketball, first as assistant coach for the women’s team from 1995 to 1998, then as assistant men’s coach for nine years.
Charles helped the men win five CIS championships. His previous years with the women were very different. At one point, they won only one game out of 53. Charles always felt the women could do better. He had applied for the women’s head coach position in 2004 and lost out, but then he landed the job when Christie Lauzon left in 2007. “I really thought I could add something,” he says. “I thought I could do something a little bit differently. I thought there was room for opportunity.”
Charles was right: the women could do better. In 2009-2010, Charles was named OUA coach of the year after the Ravens topped the standings in regular-season play. That year the team reached the east division finals for the first time ever but, in the end, lost to crosstown rivals, the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees. Then this past season, Charles led the team into the nationals for the first time ever, while the Gee-Gees were sidelined.
Gee-Gees’ coach, Andy Sparks, says the Ravens have been “equal” to his women in the past few years. This year the Ravens had the advantage of more-seasoned players. “He has an experienced group, and experience certainly pays off,” says Sparks. Players such as Alyson Bush, Courtney Smith, Ashleigh Cleary and Bailey Lomas are in their third or fourth year with the team. They know by now what the coach wants and how to achieve it.
Charles particularly lavishes praise on Bush, a 5’7″ guard. Sports writers quote him as saying Bush is the team’s key player: “When she plays well, we win. That’s the bottom line.” Part of the Ravens’ success has been that Charles has spent the past four years recruiting, retaining and improving players like Bush. Says Sparks, “He’s getting players that buy in and work hard with his system.” But there’s something more than the players’ talent and the coach’s technical know-how. It’s called attitude. It’s building a team that wants to win and believes it should win. “What they do now,” says Sparks, “is compete.” It wasn’t always that way. “One of the things we’ve been really successful in is having a different attitude,” says Charles. “If you put the work in and put the time into it and really want to do it, you can win.”
Relations between Charles and the players have had their bumps. Any new coach trying to shake things up can leave players feeling off balance and confused. Charles was accustomed to using sarcasm to make a point, especially when criticizing a player. The tactic had seemed to work with the men’s team, but not with the women. “I learned not to be sarcastic,” he says. “As one of the girls told me: ëJust tell me what to do. You don’t have to put it any other way. If you want me to do this, just tell me to do this.'”
Generally, the team gives Charles good reviews. Bush was quoted on the Ravens website as saying she loves playing for Charles. “He always pushes us to reach levels we never thought existed,” Bush says. “He demands the best from us and is constantly pushing us to reach our goals.” Cleary, a 5’11” forward, told the website that Charles has shaped her into the athlete she is today. “For some players, the coaching style takes some getting used to, but once you are in the swing of things, it comes as second nature,” she says. “[Charles] lets you know what he expects, so you and your team know what to expect from each other.”
Charles definitely expects his players to practise efficient time management. Students generally have 15 hours of class a week. That leaves plenty of time for studying and for basketball, he says, but only if a student does not fritter away her time with too much socializing.
Being coach also means counselling students in areas of their life beyond basketball. He doesn’t want anyone on the team distracted by home life, relationship troubles or academic problems. Charles recalls an 18-year-old player approaching him during his first year of coaching to discuss school, basketball and life in general. “You’re like my dad,” the student said. That remark really hit Charles. “I don’t try to get involved in every situation,” he says. “Some people more freely tell me stuff than others. But at the same time, you realize you can really be a role model, a father figure, to these girls. It’s quite a big responsibility.”
There’s considerable self-interest in helping players through personal problems. A player who quits because of such issues means one more player Charles has to recruit and train. Counselling a troubled player tends to take less time than replacing her. “So make sure they’re doing well in school,” says Charles. “If they’re not doing well in school, they probably are not going to be playing basketball.”
A group of well-adjusted players is necessary to build a winning team. And it takes a winning team to build respect in the community so that the team can attract more talent and sponsors over the long term. “You’re always trying to build respect,” says Charles. “We’ve done that in a short period of time. Now we’re in a situation where they have to take us seriously.” If it all comes together, Ravens spectators will increasingly be keeping their eyes on the players—not the coach.