Whether she realizes it or not, Rochone Dilligard is making a profound impact at the high school coaching level.
Dilligard, a special education teacher and assistant basketball coach at Eastside High, is among the few female coaches you'll ever find along the boys varsity sidelines. "I definitely love being a role model, hopefully opening the doors for other people," says Dilligard, who is also the head coach of the boys junior varsity squad. "There've been many people who have opened the doors for me."
Though she typically shies away from speaking about herself, Dilligard has built quite an impressive resume.
She played basketball for Pat Summitt at the University of Tennessee from 1991-95, enjoying an overall 85-5 record.
"It was not an experience I would trade for anything," says Dilligard, who has a Texas-sized personality. "I think every kid should go to college; it's just an experience you can't explain. It's taught me a lot and made me a better adult. It gave me the opportunity to do a lot of things I probably would have never been able to do."
Dilligard first arrived to Covington one year ago, when she moved from Tennessee to pursue other things. Originally, she had not planned on coaching at all, but that quickly changed once Eastside boys varsity head coach Michael Gerald caught wind of her, mainly her resume.
Despite her gender, it played no factor whatsoever in his decision to approach her with an assistant coaching position.
"I knew she was qualified from top to bottom," says Gerald. "I didn't care; if you can handle the discipline part of it, I think you can coach whatever gender you want to coach."
Dilligard started thinking that it would be a good way to get back into something she loved: basketball.
"You know basketball's basketball," says Dilligard. "Whether it's boys or girls, you're still teaching the game of basketball, so I thought it would be an interesting challenge. Guys are more athletic than girls are, but the fundamentals are still the same. That's the challenge that I like: teaching an extremely athletic guy to be a fundamental basketball player, and that's what's really made me enjoy it a lot more."
Turns out, Dilligard is in essence an extension of Gerald.
"She is vocal, and we think a lot alike," acknowledges Gerald. "If there is something I feel like I need to say, she may say it before I ever get it out of my mouth. It makes me believe even more so that she was the right choice. She knows what's being expected of her for us to be successful."
According to Gerald, he hopes people view her as a success rather than by what gender she is.
"The way things are today there are some who think a female coaching a bunch of males is not a very good idea," he says, "but then you have those who are open-minded, like myself."
Thus far, Dilligard has indeed been a success, leading her junior varsity squad to an 8-4 record. She has also helped Gerald resurrect his program from one year ago, when the Eagles went 9-17 overall.
"They work hard," says Dilligard, "and I keep telling them I'm teaching you lessons now because next year you're a varsity player."
Though there are scattered female coaches at the boys varsity level throughout Georgia, it is extremely rare, which makes this story all the more compelling.
"I think that they really respect her and what she brings to the table," says Gerald of the players. "Early on, there was probably some apprehension on their part, but I let them know from the very beginning that she's just like me. She runs (practice) a lot now, and makes life a lot easier on me around here."
Dilligard admits that she has no regrets accepting this particular position, and that she enjoys working alongside Gerald and with the players.
"We work very, very well together," she says. "We have the same vision (and) the same purpose. I tell him all the time I have the best job in the state."
Fortunately, Dilligard has been accepted throughout the county, as well as other areas.
"I think it's a shocker for some people," laughs Dilligard. "When they see me standing there, even the referees, they'll ask are you the game administrator? I don't take it personally, that's just how it is.
"Our administration has been very supportive," adds Dilligard. "They listen to your ideas, and try to do everything to help. We've got a very good community here at Eastside."
A Brief History
For now, there has yet to be a female head coach of an NCAA men's basketball team. However, Bernadette Mattox was the first bench coach from 1990-94, serving as an assistant to Rick Pitino's Kentucky Wildcats.
Kerri-Ann McTiernan was the head coach at Brooklyn Kingsborough Community College, making her the only female head coach of a men's collegiate basketball team at any level.
In 2003, Teresa Lawrence Phillips coached the Tennessee State University men's basketball squad for one game after the regular coach had been suspended.
"It (has) definitely opened my eyes as far as where I can go," says Dilligard. "I would like to continue to potentially get other women into it, and possibly be a head coach somewhere, maybe even at the college level. If it's supposed to happen, it's going to happen."
A Role Model
Dilligard acknowledges she does in fact realize that there are others who look up to her, especially young females aspiring to either play or coach basketball some day.
"Anytime I step into a role, whether it's as an athlete or as a coach, I do know that there are people watching," says Dilligard, "and that this is possibly setting the precedent to give people (an) opportunity they never thought was possible."
Growing up, Dilligard always wanted to play in the NBA because there was no other option; the WNBA had not yet been founded.
"Now young girls are growing up knowing there's another option for them," says Dilligard, "so it's kind of the same element. Now young people are saying hey, there is someone on the sideline, so it is an option. Until it's presented to you, you may not just think there is one."
Dilligard graduated from Lebanon High School in 1991, where she was a former AAU and Parade Magazine All-America selection. Despite never playing a freshman or JV game, she played varsity for four years, and was so talented that she drew the interest of several major programs, including Stanford and the University of Georgia, among other schools.
However, it was after winning the AAU 16 and under national tournament during her junior year when Dilligard was officially put on the map.
"After that I started getting letters," she says, "but I never, ever thought I'd go on an athletic scholarship."
Upon graduating from the University of Tennessee with a B.S. degree in 1995, Dilligard was an assistant coach at first Lambuth University and then Alabama State University. From there she worked on the Austin Peay State University women's basketball staff for four years.
In 2003, Dilligard took the head coaching position of her alma mater, the Lebanon Blue Devilettes.
Her Role Models
Besides Gerald, Summitt and other former coaches, there have been countless individuals who have helped Dilligard along the way, none more significant than her mother, Linda.
"My mom was my coach when I was young and was very hard on me," says Dilligard. "She is probably one of the reasons why I've made it so far. She was disciplined and very stern. Academically, if I didn't make the grade, I could not even go to practice."
But it paid off. Dilligard was the LHS student government president, voted most popular and most athletic and was among the top 10 percent of her class. In fact, she was an Academic All-American and Academic All-SEC selection at the University of Tennessee, and was voted "Lady Vol Unsung Hero" by her teammates in 1994.
Perhaps the biggest compliment came on Dec. 14 when Eastside traveled to fifth-ranked Dacula. Falcons' head coach Justin Grant said to Gerald, "She's tough. You got a good one right there."
If the possibilities for Dilligard were not endless before, they certainly should be now.