Editor’s note: Fourth in a series about basketball icons in Colorado. The first three installments profiled Alex English, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and Rudy Carey.
BOULDER — A chorus of singing birds fills the air on a late-May morning when the most accomplished college basketball coach in state history seeks a moment to reflect.
Standing in her backyard, surrounded by trees that frame clouds rolling across the Flatirons, Ceal Barry holds a commemorative basketball from her final home game leading the CU Buffs women’s program when a photographer asks to change positions.
“You’re the coach,” she says, flashing a smile beneath her bright blue eyes.
Barry, 65, now approaches her second CU retirement — this time for good — as an athletics administrator.
On July 1, her incredible 37-year run with the Buffaloes officially comes to an end.
“Mixed emotions,” Barry said. “I’m going to miss a lot of the relationships at CU.”
What’s decidedly not mixed, though, is Barry’s place among the state’s greatest basketball icons.
Her coaching resume speaks for itself: 427-242 record over 22 seasons; 12 NCAA Tournament berths; six Sweet 16 runs; three Elite Eight trips; 140 consecutive games ranked in the Top 25 (1992-96); four-time Big Eight coach of the year; and the accolades keeps going.
The fuel for Barry’s success? A relentless drive to win.
“My mom had eight children in 11 years, so we were a very competitive family,” said Barry, a native of Louisville, Kentucky. “If we went to the swimming pool, we raced. If we played games, we kept score. We were competitive about who got to choose what shows we watched on TV.
“I’ve never liked to lose. But who does?”
Elevating CU from the Big Eight basement into an NCAA powerhouse required an influx of talented players. Barry recruited the nation’s best.
Former CU guard Linda Lappe (1998-2003) held scholarship offers from Notre Dame and other elite schools as a former prep star in Burlington, Iowa. Barry traveled for a home visit and made Lappe a deal over the family’s ping-pong table: If I win in this game, then you commit to CU.
Lappe, a two-year Buffs captain who later returned to coach her alma mater, said, “Ceal thinks she beat me. I see it differently.”
Barry laughed: “She always says that.”
“Ceal knew how to push you to be your best,” Lappe continued. “She was very hard at times, but she also knew when to let up and how to change styles to fit personalities. That’s the mark of a good coach. You can’t coach every player the exact same.
“She cared which way your foot was pointed and if you touched the line. She cared about your hand positioning and which way you pivoted when you caught the ball on the wing. It was ingrained from the very start. Everyone was very clear on what the expectation was and how it should be done.”
A significant turning point for Barry’s CU hoops program arrived on March 18, 1989.
The Buffaloes hosted UNLV in the second round of the NCAA Tournament after CU rattled off 20 consecutive victories and a Big Eight title. Buzz surrounding Barry’s program reached a fever pitch. The result: A record-breaking crowd of 11,199 which marked the arena’s first basketball sellout, men’s or women’s, in over a decade of existence — who watched an 84-74 defeat.
“They opened the doors and people were sprinting down. It was crazy,” Barry said. “The fire marshal closed the doors because people were sitting in the aisles. … At the time, I don’t think I understood the magnitude of that for the women’s game.”
Barry’s work as a trailblazer for women in college athletics had only just begun.
She advocated for her games to be on TV, organized hundreds of youth camps, and coached in multiple roles for USA Basketball. Several of her former CU assistants went on to become college head coaches themselves. Barry’s success building the CU hoops program helped to usher in more Division I women’s sports programs to Boulder — with golf, lacrosse, soccer and volleyball added.
“She’s one of the legends,” said Barb Smith, a former CU assistant coach (1988-97) under Barry. “It wasn’t about Ceal all the time. It was how she could help other programs, people and the game. She did so much and she was so involved.”
Barry joined CU’s athletic administration after retiring from coaching. Her influence was felt department-wide, especially in 2013, when Barry served as interim AD during the school’s search to find a new athletic director.
“I’ve always respected Ceal a great deal,” CU men’s basketball coach Tad Boyle said. “My year-end meetings would be with Ceal as an administrator and she would give feedback. I always appreciated that when I came to Ceal with an issue, she immediately understood it because she could look at it from my perspective as a coach.”
Kris Livingston, CU’s associate athletic director for student success, added: “When Ceal had a gut feeling about somebody or something, I was amazed by how often that it was accurate. She always did things with integrity.”
Upon return to Barry’s backyard, an inevitable final question entering retirement: What’s next?
Barry is the first to admit she struggles to sit still. So, you’ll likely find her volunteering in the Boulder community, working on her golf game, or reconnecting with Buffs alumni. What retirement can’t touch, however, is Barry’s lifelong passion to empower athletes — specifically young women.
Her determination hasn’t faded a bit.
“I don’t really need a break, I’ll tell you that,” Barry said. “I’m not exhausted. I feel energetic. I’m looking for a change. I’m not sure what form that will be. I guess I’ll have to search that out.
“I don’t feel finished.”
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