If his players stop and smile at one another during practice, it probably means Jim Littell has said something weird again.
Sophomore guard Ja’Mee Asberry laughed as she said Littell, Oklahoma State’s women’s basketball coach, always has some unusual analogy to describe what he wants from his players.
“Sometimes I be like, ‘What? What are you saying?’” Asberry said. “He’ll always be like, ‘Caboose a screen. Act like their butt is headlights.’ Who says that? New-school coaches be like, ‘Just follow behind the screen,’ but he always has to put something extra behind something.”
His analogies are one reason Asberry said Littell is an old-school coach. Another is how he corrects his players.
“When we get in trouble, sprints,” Asberry said. “Sprints, sprints, sprints. New-age coaches might give you a chance, but he’s like, ‘Nope. On the line.’”
Littell said he sees himself as demanding, but fair.
“I want kids to be responsible and be held accountable,” Littell said. “I think I correct people when they need corrected, but I think I praise people and am positive to them as well. So, I think I coach where I want our players to have high expectations, both individually and as a team.”
Littell is in his ninth season in charge of the Cowgirls. He served as associate head coach for six years before taking over in 2011.
As of Feb. 26, Littell’s record is 804-225.
On Jan. 15, OSU defeated Kansas State on the road 70-63. That win marked the 800th of Littell’s career. Littell said it meant a lot to him, but he couldn’t take all the credit.
“I think it’s a little symbolic of putting a lot of years in and a lot of hard work,” Littell said. “But it’s also being surrounded by great players, great coaches that help you get there. You don’t go through that by yourself. I think it’s 33 years of head coaching… so a lot of people have come into your journey during that time… It’s about relationships and people that cross your path during those years. That’s probably more important to me than the wins.”
Littell began coaching Division I when he came to OSU as an assistant in 2005, but his coaching career was long established. Littell coached at Seward County Community College in Liberal, Kansas, from 1991-2005. Before that, he coached at three high schools and Friends University in Wichita, Kansas.
He led Seward County to its first national title in any sport in 2002. In 2009, Littell was inducted into the National Junior College Athletic Association Hall of Fame.
The journey to 800 began in 1978 when he took over the girls’ basketball program at 2A Oxford High School in Oxford, Kansas.
In his coaching debut, he led Oxford to victory against Cedarvale 65-56.
“(I) took over a program that had eight losing seasons in a row, and we won the first game that year,” Littell said. “I had a young lady named Lois Neises that was a sophomore, and she got 40 in my first win, and I knew we were gonna be pretty good when I had that kid. We went on to have five good years there and ended up winning a state championship there. So, it’s always good when kids are getting it and understand it and are going from a losing program to a winning program. It makes it fun.”
The state championship came in 1981. That year, Wichita State coach Keitha Adams was an eighth-grader in Oxford who was looking forward to playing on the team. Between Oxford and Friends University, she played for Littell for five years. She said she would not be where she is today without him.
“(He) just always instilled positive things and things that I think all of us, we bought into,” Adams said. “We were successful in our sports. We were successful in basketball, and I think we’ve all been pretty successful in our lives after... I think a lot of things Coach (Littell) ingrained in us at a young age, I think it’s helped us to be successful as adults.
Since Littell came to OSU, the Cowgirls have gone 176-107. They reached either the Women’s NIT or NCAA Tournament each of his first seven seasons.
Junior forward Vivian Gray said playing for Littell is refreshing.
“He doesn’t yell as much as other coaches,” Gray said. “I think when he corrects you, it’s not as much anger and yelling at you. It’s more, this is what you need to do, this is why and then moving on.”
Many of his players describe him as someone who is rational rather than emotional. Although he expects a lot of out his players and isn’t afraid to correct them, he often looks for positives, even after a loss.
When he enters the locker room after a win, he shows he can enjoy the moment with his players. He will complement the team and point out what the Cowgirls did well, but he also reminds them of areas they need to improve before the next game.
Junior forward Abbie Winchester said Littell is thorough.
“If somebody messes up, we stop, we learn how to fix it and then we keep going,” Winchester said. “It’s not as much learn on the fly. Even during preseason, we learn how to do a lot of the stuff. And a lot of coaches I had, it’d be like, you just learn it when you get to it, but that’s not Coach Littell’s style.”
The way he recruits is another way Littell is different from other coaches. Freshman guard Lauren Fields said Littell is a more honest recruiter.
“Other coaches, they would tell you things you wanted to hear a lot,” Fields said. “I think Coach Littell, of course he would tell us the good things about OSU, but then he also listed the real stuff about OSU.”
Gray said she appreciated the way Littell recruited her, but for a different reason. She said she felt OSU respected her more.
“I didn’t like the recruiting process,” Gray said. “I didn’t want to have phone calls every day, and they respected that. And that’s one of the reasons I actually chose here.”
His approach to recruiting has paid off. OSU has had five players selected in the WNBA draft. All of them came to OSU while Littell was either head coach or associate head coach. The most recent two, Brittney Martin and Loryn Goodwin, played their entire OSU careers with Littell in charge. Each of those players was named Associated Press All-American honorable mentions or better. The only other OSU player to receive that honor, Kaylee Jenson, also played her entire career under Littell.
Winchester said Littell means a lot to OSU.
“He coached under Coach (Kurt) Budke, which I think, after what happened, I think that’s a really big deal for OSU,” Winchester said. “He’s been here for a really long time… I just really think he kind of embodies what OSU is about. Loyal and true, all that fun stuff.”
Littell took over as coach in 2011 under the most difficult circumstances imaginable.
On Nov. 17, 2011, Budke and assistant coach Miranda Serna died in a plane crash that killed two others, Olin and Paula Branstetter. Littell was named interim coach for the next four games before being officially named Dec. 9.
Littell said he and Budke had a special relationship.
“I didn’t take over for my boss, I took over for my best friend,” Littell said. “Best man at my wedding. I coached his wife. So, there was a special relationship there. That made it very difficult, but I felt obligated to continue the job that Coach Budke started here and the mission that he started here.”
Littell honored Budke well that season by leading the Cowgirls to the 2012 WNIT championship. OSU defeated James Madison 75-68 at Gallagher-Iba Arena to secure the title.
Relationships like the one with Budke are important to Littell. His relationship with Adams is another example. They have remained close nearly 40 years after she played for him at Oxford. She became good friends with his mother and spoke at her funeral, which she said was one of the greatest honors she has had.
Adams and Littell have gone head-to-head four times. While Littell was coaching Seward County, Adams coached Independence Community College. They split a pair of meetings. They have played twice since Adams took over the Shockers in 2017. OSU won both.
Adams said they decided not to play anymore because of how much they care about each other.
“It’s hard,” Adams said. “You just really support one another and want for each other to be successful. So, you know, beating each other, playing each other, I think it’s not fun, just because it’s personal. When I was younger, I probably looked at it as a challenge and wanted to do that more so, but as we’ve gotten older, I think we’d rather play somebody else than try to beat each other because we’re in each other’s corner.”
It makes sense for relationships to mean so much to Littell as a coach. His blood relationships led him to coaching.
Littell was born into a family of coaches. His parents and grandfather coached, and Littell grew up loving sports. He wanted a career in sports, so following his family’s lead was an easy way to do so.
He said he didn’t necessarily choose women’s basketball at first. Once he was coaching it, he knew he had found his place.
“I applied for the boys’ job at (Oxford) and didn’t get it.” Littell said. “But they did hire me as the girls’ coach there, and once I became the girls’ coach, I found out that it’s very important to them, they would listen, there was attention to detail. I became a girls’ coach and never looked back.”
Outside of a one-year stint as an assistant men’s coach at Cameron University in Lawton, Littell has exclusively coached women since starting at Oxford. He said though there are differences between coaching men and women, he primarily approaches it as coaching basketball.
“Sometimes, the feelings and emotions are a little different in the women’s game,” Littell said. “But we’ve always coached it hard-nosed and haven’t looked at it like men’s basketball, women’s basketball, but the proper way to play the game.”
Despite all the accomplishments he has had, Littell said he wants to be remembered for more than the wins and championships.
“I guess I want my legacy, first of all, to be known as a good husband and a good father,” Littell said. “And that I helped some kids along the way get where they wanted to be.”