What Our Game has Truly Lost

By Becky Carlson
D-I NCAA Coach, Founder of The Fearless Coach

Reposted from LinkedIn with permission from the author

Thank you, Becky, for writing this most beautiful tribute to Kathy.

Photo Credit: Bill English

The last time I saw Coach Kathy Flores in person was August of 2021 in Salt Lake City, Utah. As one of the largest 7s tournaments in North America, dozens of coaches both NCAA and non were floating around the venue scouting the new talent.

While most coaches on the recruiting trail present a specific demeanor for hunting down the next additions to their squads, our behavior can vary in tempo and habit.

As coaches, we tend to rack up miles of walking between fields, writing down numbers and names, checking athletes on and off lists, scratching down contact information and hustling to catch that one game where our next hopeful may be participating. While Coach Flores was one of the many recruiters out that weekend, her approach was always consistent and one of the more unique.

Whether in the bitter cold or the 100 degree heat, you could find Coach Flores sitting quietly watching games or stretched out up in the bleachers, relaxed and confidently observing. I can only attribute her calmness in the midst of the rat race for recruiting as a symbol of her confidence in knowing that even if she might be the last to speak to an athlete after a two-day tournament, her conversations and connections would likely be the most impactful.

Coach Flores was likable and infectious. She built relationships effortlessly as the stage she built from the ground up never had to venture into the realm of "selling recruiting" or "over-marketing". Her pitch to join the ranks at Brown was far from transactional and when it came to attracting the right athletes Coach Flores offered and promised the exact experience that would largely be on her shoulders to provide. She owned that and never disappointed. Coach Flores and I had a handful of recruitable athletes in common over the years. Every athlete who visited Brown before or after they visited Quinnipiac would without fail, share that they "loved Coach Flores". Each time, without hesitation, I would respond, "Who doesn't?"

In 2006, I first met Kathy where I was presenting in Minnesota for the expansion on the NCAA Women's Rugby initiative. She sat at the back of the room, surrounded by mostly skeptics and listened intently. At the close of the presentation she didn't say much other than, "Just let us know how we can help, ok?" Fast forward to 2014, after a storied career as a player and coach at the USA and senior club levels, she took the reins for the Brown Bears as they elevated from club to NCAA.

It was then that she piled even more challenges onto her plate. On the NCAA landscape, Coach Flores was charged once again with figuring out a way to navigate through the roughest currents where resources and support would never truly match those of her NCAA counterparts. As a reminder, Coach Flores competed at the highest levels of the women's game at a time when the eyes of a nation were far from willing to recognize women as having as much value in sport as men.

The female athlete experience in all sports and even more so in rugby which was virtually invisible to the mainstream media, posed female athletes like Coach Flores as second class citizens. This is all during a period that even by description would be completely beyond comprehension for most of the players of today. The fact that her own opportunities were in such stark contrast to the athletes she led up all the way up until her passing, is a testament to what has been made possible because of pioneers like Kathy.

Perhaps it means even more that after all this time, she was still giving back to a sport that was worlds away from the opportunities and amenities she was never afforded as an athlete and a high level coach. Not once did I ever personally hear of Coach Flores's legendary stories with any hint of bitterness or regret. This is another glaring attribute that Kathy could teach all of us and as many times as we spoke about the future of the game, especially on the NCAA stage, she was humble, grateful and wise.

As coaches now recruiting for our programs, some of us choose to sit away from parents and fans if the space allows so we can focus on the game. Coach Flores was one who would never be left in peace for more than a few moments while observing recruits. Unable to escape her own popularity she could be found waving and shaking hands with the countless number of people who approached her as she tried her best to watch games and find new prospects. The hellos and hugs were plentiful and I recall finishing very few conversations with Kathy without interruption by a friend or fan. Sitting next to Coach Flores or even in her proximity was always a staunch reminder that most of us still had quite a way to go in our resumes not just from a coaching standpoint or game-play experience, but in relationship building.

On the first day of the Salt Lake 7s, Coach Flores was walking on the sidelines near field 2. As not to interrupt, I text her from across the field asking where she would be later as most of the NIRA coaches would ceremoniously meet up for a bit to chat and connect. That evening several of us met in the hotel restaurant for some bad Mexican food and some NCAA coach banter per the usual.

For the first time since pandemic I saw Coach Flores up close and in person. As always, she was happy to see everyone, but something had changed.

I hugged her and could feel that she had lost weight. I gave her a look and squeezed her arms and she said, "We've all got our own stuff, right?". I found this to be Coach's way of saying let's not talk about it now, let's just enjoy the company. I looked at her in silent agreement and took my seat.

As we sat at the table and we all jumped into the usual topic of the growth of our sport, Kathy sat at the head of the table. She was quiet which wasn't completely unusual as her typical demeanor was to observe and only add to the conversation when it was most valuable, solicited or needed. This was something I have always admired in her ability to avoid using 20 words when 10 would suffice.

I recall tough decisions within our league having to be made or voted on and tensions running high with opposing opinions and party lines being drawn. All the usual rugby personnel behaviors when passionate people get into the same room together with contrasting ideas about how we can all get to the same finish line while running different races.

Following calls or moments of high frustration, I would call Kathy to gain her perspective. I would be fired up about the bigger picture and looking for some reassurance and sanity. Kathy would listen and never failed to deliver an honest response. The way in which Coach Flores could make you feel good about your advocacy at the same time she could present her viewpoint without disenfranchising anyone, was a pure art.

Coach Flores's ability to bring a sense of calm to the group and gently throw water on the bridge that many of us would be attempting to burn was always timely. The glue to holding so much of our dialogue together, especially at NCAA Division I level was no doubt administered and modeled through Coach Flores.

We all had our own paths we traveled as coaches in discussing resources, administrative tasks, recruiting challenges and so much more. Kathy was one who never complained. I suppose being such a massive success in the women's game and believing in your ability to lead through the most trying of times is what made her the master of achieving more in the face of being given so much less. We could all learn so much from Kathy at this level of resilience. Over the years in NIRA, Kathy's voice was a staunch reminder to us all about making decisions for the good of the game rather than personal or team gain.

During our Salt Lake meetup, the second hour passed by and the food got worse. I noticed Kathy got up to pay her bill. When she returned to the table we all noticed she had swiped our bills to pay. Several of us got up to object and she put her hand up and gestured as if to say without saying it, "Get over it, I paid it."

I walked over to her to say goodbye and thank her. I gave the legend one more hug and said, "See you out on the pitch, Coach".

She grabbed my elbow and said, "See you soon, Coach. Maybe we will get one last shot at Quinnipiac."

I looked at her, puzzled by the language she was using and then had a sweeping gut feeling that this was something more serious.

"Of course, you will Coach, but we are going to battle many more seasons after this one." She smiled and without another word proceeded across the lobby. I had no idea this was the last time I would see Coach Flores.

Over the next few months, the word was out that our legend's health was deteriorating and suddenly her words from back in Salt Lake made so much sense. After Brown's initial start to the 2021 season, out of the gate they tied West Point causing the usual opponents within our conference to perk up and take notice.

You see, while the last few years have mostly highlighted the other NIRA Ivies in the news and in the standings, Coach Flores had been slowly and steadily building the program on her own, often with less assistance and less resources than most of us within our NCAA space. Kathy's desire to compete and commitment to teaching the game and teaching it well to those on her squad would always trump any list of complaints she could have rightfully lodged given the competitiveness of the pool of NCAA prospective student-athletes. This kind of restraint and diligence in staying focused on what was important could only be derived from someone who is confident enough to coach anyone, anywhere with any background.

On October 16th, 2021, my team at Quinnipiac and our staff boarded the bus to Brown. I thought about Kathy the whole way up to Providence and how she was doing. As we got off the bus and headed over to the field I noticed only her assistant coach on the sidelines. Her alums were all lined up around the pitch adorning their Hawaiian shirts and setting up for pre and post game tailgating. I spoke with one of Brown's beloved alums Oksana Goretaya and had to hold myself back as we talked about Kathy's incredible impact.

There had been rain in the forecast but there wasn't a cloud in the sky. As I crossed the field and spoke to Interim Head Coach, Christine Newcomb she confirmed that Coach Flores would not be able to come to the match due to her health but that she would be watching the stream.

As a veteran coach of 13 years in the NCAA and 11 at Quinnipiac, I had never known a Brown University program without Kathy on the sidelines. I took a deep breath. I turned my attention to my team and grabbed one of my players and looked her square in the eyes and said, "Brown is going to come out today with an energy none of us have ever seen before so we need to be prepared. They are fighting for a bigger cause."

"Yes, Coach" my player responded.

I felt a wave of incredible sadness one which you simply fight through on game day to keep that poker face. I looked over at the streaming cameras set up across the field.