When Ashley Langford was hired as an assistant coach at James Madison in 2017, she made it clear her ultimate goal was to become a head coach someday. This week begins something of an audition for her.
Langford is now the acting head coach, in charge of running practices and leading the team in games after Sean O’Regan tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday. The training staff came to the arena floor during practice and informed O’Regan, who as of Monday hadn’t shown any symptoms, his diagnosis.
The man in his fifth season in charge of the Dukes quickly tossed his whistle, which these days is an electric hand-held model — not the kind you actually blow on — to Langford and quickly left.
“It’s a shame that Sean has COVID and I’m so grateful he doesn’t have any symptoms,” said Langford, a four-year standout at Tulane and a 2009 graduate. “He and his family are doing well, but I’m not going to act like I’m not excited about this opportunity. I want to be a head coach, and this is a great opportunity and great practice for me.”
The Dukes were able to carry on without O’Regan — who traveled separately when the team drove to Towson for a game that was ultimately postponed — thanks to contact tracing technology that determined he hadn’t exposed the rest of the program.
Now, with Langford in charge, JMU is preparing for scheduled games at Elon this Saturday and Sunday. The Dukes have previously had African-American head coaches in men’s and women’s basketball and football. But if this weekend goes off as scheduled Langford will become the first Black woman to coach a game for one of JMU’s three most visible and popular programs.
O’Regan, who could rejoin the team Monday if there are no setbacks, left some instructions and has had some individual conversations with players via Zoom. But for the most part he’s tried to remain hands off since entering isolation.
The rest of JMU’s staff, including assistants Ian Caskill, Samantha Prahalis-Holmes, director of basketball operations Alex Danas and graduate assistant Kayla Cooper-Williams, have also been asked to step up. Prahalis-Holmes has been a head coach at the high school level in New York and played in the WNBA while Virginia Beach native Caskill played for the JMU men and overseas.
Langford was an assistant at Auburn, Bucknell, Denver, Navy and ODU before arriving in Harrisonburg.
“Coach Langford is going to head up everything,” O’Regan said. “I feel really good about that. I feel confident in her. I feel confident in Ian. Sam is a little newer, but still fits in really nicely with that group. I was excited to hear that the staff got together before I even communicated with them.”
Early in his time as head coach, O’Regan wasn’t as comfortable delegating responsibility.
Some coaches are fine about leaving town and letting assistants runs the show. But if O’Regan had to travel for a recruiting trip or meeting, he reworked the practice schedule to make sure he could be there.
That began to change in the summer of 2019. The Dukes had extra time to prepare for the season thanks to a three-game European tour. In preparation, O’Regan let each of his assistants take over the program for two days, giving them the opportunity to run a practice then serve as the head coach for a game.
“Maybe Coach O could see the future or something, I don’t really know,” Langford said. “It gives me nothing but confidence to know that I’ve already run a practice, I’ve already planned a practice and I’ve already had that. I had that experience, but that was a different team. So much of what you do as a head coach is trying to get your team to respond to you and know that you are connected in some way.”
That process really began the next summer.
Mired in the most unique offseason of their careers, the trust between Langford and O’Regan deepened even further. The two discussed how to handle the issues COVID-19 raised for a team full of fresh faces, but also spent hours discussing social justice issues. O’Regan relied on Langford for help in addressing a team that was mostly women of color.
By the time the season began, Langford had been promoted to associate head coach. That move might not have been made with the idea of seeing her slide into the head coach’s chair so soon, but O’Regan wanted to signal that Langford would be ready when the time came.
As it turns out, the time came this week and will allow O’Regan to put a FloHoops subscription to use.
“I’m going to try to say involved, but out of it,” O’Regan said. “I’m not going to be texting Kayla Cooper-Williams during the game to tell Coach Langford what to do during the game. That’s too much.”