Oklahoma women's basketball coach Sherri Coale retires after 25 seasons

Oklahoma women's basketball coach Sherri Coale, who led the Sooners to three Women's Final Four appearances and won six Big 12 regular-season titles, announced her retirement Wednesday.

"Being the head coach at the University of Oklahoma has been the privilege of my lifetime," Coale said in a statement released by the university. "... I am grateful to my players for letting me coach them. That's a gift I've never taken lightly and a joy unlike any other I have ever known. I want them to know that they've left pieces of themselves in me and I am better for it."

Coale, 56, has been the Sooners' coach since the 1996-97 season, leading OU to four conference tournament titles. The team, using primarily a seven-player rotation, finished 12-12 this season.

"It's never easy to leave no matter how great a thing you are running to, because something is always left behind. It's hard to leave these players," said Coale, a native of tiny Healdton, Oklahoma. "This seasoned bunch of gritty competitors who built their wings in the fiercest of winds clawed their way to the sacredness of team. This season will always be one tattooed on my heart. But that's the trick about sports and the magnificent gift of team -- it gets in you and it never goes away. Lucky, lucky, lucky me."

Coale, who led Oklahoma to 19 NCAA tournament appearances, had a 512-293 overall record with the Sooners. The four-time Big 12 Coach of the Year reached the Final Four in 2002, 2009 and 2010.

She was inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2016.

"Sherri Coale has encouraged everyone from players to peers to 'leave your story better than you found it,'" athletic director Joe Castiglione said in a statement. "She walked her talk. Her transformational impact on women's basketball at OU which, in turn, inspired generations of young girls throughout our state to play the sport is nearly impossible to measure. There are certainly milestones, from halls of fame inductions to Final Fours to conference titles to All-Americans and beyond, but it was the elevation of the program's profile to the nation's elite that will be best remembered."

In August, Coale apologized after some Black former players wrote on social media that they felt there was an atmosphere of racial insensitivity in her program.

"Over my career, I have taken pride in the work that I have done on the court and the commitment to the personal growth of the women I've been responsible for leading," Coale, who is white, said as part of her apology in August. "While I have always had the intent of expressing care for others, it is clear that there have been moments where my intent has not been the same as my impact -- for that, I sincerely apologize."

The Sooners had a 19-year run of NCAA tournament appearances end in 2019 after they finished 8-22.

Coale graduated from Oklahoma Christian University before starting her coaching career.

She was hired to take over at Oklahoma in 1996, when she was a 31-year-old coach at Norman High School, where she won two Class 6A state championships and went 147-40 from 1989 to '96.

She then took over at Oklahoma, and the Sooners claimed six Big 12 Player of the Year honors on her watch. She also produced 14 WNBA draft selections, including six first-round picks.

"In April of 1996, I accepted this, my dream job,'' Coale said. "As a native Oklahoman, I was pretty sure I had died and gone to heaven. Though the task would not be for the faint of heart, I just wanted to build a program that this great state and this storied institution could be proud of. Twenty-five years later, I still cannot believe the ride Oklahoma women's basketball has taken me on.''

Oklahoma announced in 1990 that it was discontinuing its women's basketball program because of low attendance and poor results during the tenure of coach Valerie Goodwin-Colbert, who went 32-51 from 1987 to 1990. This despite the fact that the Sooners had been nationally ranked and went to the NCAA tournament in 1986.

The decision drew harsh criticism nationwide and was reversed eight days later. After three seasons under Gary Hudson (39-45) and three under Burl Plunkett (52-36, including an NCAA tournament appearance in 1995), Coale was hired. She led Oklahoma to it first Women's Final Four in her sixth season, falling to unbeaten UConn in the 2002 national championship game behind star guard Stacey Dales.

Other top players to compete for Coale included NCAA career leading rebounder Courtney Paris, the only Division I player who has surpassed 2,000 rebounds (2,034 from 2005-09). Paris played 10 seasons in the WNBA, winning a championship with Seattle in 2018, and was on Coale's staff at Oklahoma this past season. Danielle Robinson, another former OU star under Coale, is currently a guard with the Indiana Fever.

Coale's son, Colton, has been on her staff since 2015, including the last two seasons as an assistant coach.

Sherri Coale also served as a head coach for USA Basketball, guiding the women's national team to the gold medal in the 2013 World University Games.

ESPN's Mechelle Voepel and The Associated Press contributed to this report.