Only a few months ago, LSU Shreveport athletic director Lucas Morgan approached his men’s basketball coach with an audacious plea.
Morgan asked Kyle Blankenship if he’d be willing to take on the challenge of also coaching the school’s women’s basketball team this season.
That wasn’t a request Morgan ever expected to make, but these were desperate circumstances. LSU Shreveport’s previous women’s basketball coach had just abruptly resigned a little over two weeks before the team’s Oct. 27 season opener to tend to a family situation.
Morgan didn’t think he had time to conduct an external search for a replacement, nor did he feel the team’s 27-year-old assistant coach was ready to take over. As a result, he turned to Blankenship, the trusted men’s coach who had guided LSU Shreveport to the NAIA national tournament in each of his first 11 seasons.
“Kyle’s the type of person who is willing to take on any challenge you put in front of him, but I wasn’t sure how he was going to respond to this,” Morgan told Yahoo Sports. “We were asking him to run two practices, to recruit two teams, to coach twice in the same night. It was double the amount of work.”
At first, Blankenship was hesitant. He wanted to help the women’s players whose coach had just abandoned them, but he worried that he’d miss too many practices and games as a result of scheduling conflicts. He didn’t see how he could coach two teams at the same time without leaving at least one feeling shortchanged.
Blankenship began to reconsider after Morgan returned with printouts of both teams’ 2023-24 schedules. Morgan showed him there was only one day when the men’s and women’s teams played simultaneously in different states and an assistant would have to coach the women in Blankenship’s absence.
Blankenship, 40, called his wife Alexis to get her opinion.
“Let’s do it,” she told him. “I trust you, and I know you’re capable.”
Then he sought feedback from assistant coaches and veteran players on the LSU Shreveport men’s team.
“If anyone can do it, it’s you,” he recalls many of them responding.
The three-and-a-half months since Blankenship took on double duty have been some of the most taxing yet rewarding of his coaching career. Fueled by a mix of stubborn determination, encouragement from loved ones and excessive caffeine, Blankenship is thriving in a dual role few other college coaches have ever attempted.
The LSU Shreveport women’s team that Blankenship inherited has more than lived up to its billing as the preseason league favorite. The Pilots swept a pair of road games last week to improve to 16-2 overall and tighten their hold on first place in the Red River Athletic Conference.
The time that Blankenship has devoted to the women’s team so far hasn’t detracted from the performance of the perennial powerhouse LSU Shreveport men. At 14-4 overall and 9-3 in the RRAC, the Pilots are one of four teams still in striking distance of a league title.
“I had a lot of people tell me I was crazy when I did this, and I would say they’re probably right,” Blankenship told Yahoo Sports. “But any challenge that is put in front of me, I want to always try to do my best, have fun while I’m doing it and never quit. That’s the mindset I’ve tried to take.”
The biggest hurdle that Blankenship had to overcome was how little time he had to build trust between himself and the players on the women’s team. He held his first practice 11 days before the women opened their season with an overtime loss to Texas Wesleyan, scarcely long enough to learn full names, let alone to figure out what player combinations would be most effective together.
“I had people playing in the wrong position,” Blankenship said. “When I was calling something out, I was referring to them by the numbers on their jerseys. We all look back on those days and laugh at them now.”
The bond between Blankenship and the women’s players grew stronger as they got to know him and his family and realized that this wasn’t just a side gig to him. Blankenship invited the players over to the house for meals. Alexis sent them homemade cookies and cupcakes. The couple’s 5- and 7-year-old daughters celebrated with the team in the locker room after victories.
To Blankenship, the turning point was a Nov. 17 road victory at Philander Smith, an Arkansas school that was unbeaten at the time and was receiving votes in the NAIA national poll. The men’s team had played the previous night in Waxahachie, Texas, meaning that Blankenship had to drive 208 miles back to Shreveport and then another 215 miles to get to Little Rock in time to coach the women.
When the women’s team bus pulled into the parking lot, Blankenship was sitting in his car finishing off a pregame meal. He rolled down his window and yelled to one of his players, “Hey, let’s get a big win tonight.” Her face lit up when she saw it was him, and she said, “Coach Blank, I’m so excited you made it.”
“I tell people all the time I think that was the watershed moment,” Blankenship said. “I think that’s when they realized, ‘Hey, this is for real. Coach Blank is 100% with us.’”
Conference play has been less demanding for Blankenship because the men and women play doubleheaders at the same site, but his to-do list is still never-ending. There are twice as many recruits to visit, twice as many game plans to assemble, twice as many practices to run. When the opposing coach unwinds over a meal after a high-stress matchup, Blankenship still has a second game to worry about.
Assistant coaches stepping up and assuming more responsibility has helped Blankenship, as has figuring out ways to use the challenging situation to his advantage. While the men’s and women’s teams typically practice back-to-back, Blankenship occasionally stokes the competitive spirit by having them compete against each other in the same drills and shooting competitions.
“Our women always seem to go a little harder and to give a little extra effort,” Blankenship said.
The irony of both teams performing so well under Blankenship is that further success could lead to newfound logistical problems for him.
There’s no guarantee that the NAIA will send both the LSU Shreveport men and women to the same site for the first and second rounds of the national tournament on March 15-16. Worse yet, if both teams were to advance to the round of 16, the men would go to Kansas City the following week and the women would travel four hours further north to Sioux City, Iowa.
“If we played on different days, it’s possible we could get Kyle back and forth between the two locations,” Morgan said. “We would definitely try to do that if that’s what happens.”
Morgan is prepared to conduct a national search for a new women’s coach after the season, but he concedes he has joked with Blankenship after some big victories, “You know you’re pretty good at this.” When asked if there’s any chance Blankenship would keep pulling double duty beyond this season, Morgan said, “It’s not out of the realm of possibility.”
“I don’t know if Kyle wants to do it,” Morgan added. “I don’t know if it’s sustainable long-term. We just want to make sure that we continue to ride the momentum that has been created this year, so we have to figure out what the best thing is for our program.”
Blankenship also isn’t ruling anything out yet, especially if the women’s team makes a deep NAIA tournament run for the first time in program history.
“You never know what the future holds,” he said. “There haven’t been many good nights sleep, but I wouldn’t trade this season for anything in the world.”