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The Mesabi Range turnaround under Tee Moore

One of just three women coaching a men’s college team, Tamara Moore has the Minnesota college on the brink of a national tournament bid.

Tamara "Tee" Moore is one of only three women head coaches in men’s college basketball in the entire country, and the first African-American.
Tamara "Tee" Moore is one of only three women head coaches in men’s college basketball in the entire country, and the first African-American.

Tamara “Tee” Moore rarely sits when she coaches, so she’s easy to spot on the Minnesota North College Mesabi Range-Virginia sideline. She’s the woman with long green-tipped braids and a dark green Mesabi vest, constantly giving instructions, often crouching and extending her arms in a classic defensive pose.

“My knees still work,” she said with a laugh.

Of course, you could have stopped at “woman” and picked out Moore in any gym in the state. One of Minnesota’s all-time great players and a state champion at Minneapolis North High, Moore, 42, is one of only three women head coaches in men’s college basketball in the entire country, and the first African-American. And the job she’s done in obscurity on the Iron Range may be about to get her noticed.

More than a week ago, Mesabi Range notched its first victory in the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Region XIII Tournament since 2016-17 while reaching the championship game for the first time since 2002. A 79-69 loss to Rochester Community and Technical College (RCTC) in a hotly-contested final cost the 19-10 Norse an automatic berth in the national JUCO Division III tournament in upstate New York. (As in the NCAA, Division III junior colleges don’t offer athletic scholarships.) Mesabi could still make the 12-team field for the first time since 1950 via an at-large berth, to be announced 1 p.m. Wednesday.

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“I think we have enough of a case to get an at-large bid,” she said.

Mesabi Range is a junior college in Virginia, Minnesota with about 950 students, many from the Twin Cities. Moore’s Norse reflect the personality of their coach – defensive-minded and feisty, diving for loose balls and hustling all over the court. No surprise there; Moore was the 2001 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year at Wisconsin and a two-time team MVP, as well as Minnesota’s first Black Miss Basketball (1998).

Tamara "Tee" Moore
Tamara "Tee" Moore
“I’m a very passionate coach, because I was a passionate player,” said Moore, who logged 12 seasons professionally in the WNBA and overseas. “I always want my guys to know I’m in with them every possession of the game.”

Moore was hired with great fanfare in April 2020 after coaching girls at Minneapolis Edison High and launching a semi-pro men’s league, but saw her first season cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. When Mesabi finally took the court in 2021-22, it won its opener, lost the next seven, then rallied to finish 9-17 overall and 7-7 in the Minnesota College Athletic Conference (MCAC) North Division. The Norse suffered a stinging 85-79 overtime loss to RCTC in the Region XIII quarterfinals, when a foul call at the buzzer allowed the Yellowjackets to tie the game. Moore’s message: Finish games better, and never let one come down to the last possession.

Last summer, Moore flew to New York to be honored on “Good Morning America” as a Title IX Trailblazer and accept a $10,000 check from U.S. Bank. Soon after, the Boston Celtics hired her to work with their summer league team in Las Vegas.

Back at Mesabi, Moore found eleven sophomores returning, including All-MCAC guard Mark Campbell II from Minneapolis Patrick Henry High, along with some promising freshmen and transfers. Moore set some goals: More conference victories, more overall victories and a conference title. Moore was originally hired as Mesabi’s housing director and women’s softball coach as well as men’s basketball coach, but she stepped down from housing and softball to focus on basketball.

An early 79-76 road win at Riverland Community College, then ranked No. 8 nationally, gave the players some confidence. So did a mid-January victory at home over Minnesota North College-Rainy River, which cracked the national rankings a few weeks later. Mesabi finished the regular season third in the North Division at 10-4, two games back of Rainy River and Central Lakes Community College.

Including playoffs, the Norse ranked fourth in the 15-team conference in field goal percentage defense (40.5%) and fifth in points allowed (69.8 points per game). Leading scorers Nataj Sanders (12.5 ppg.) and Campbell (12.3 ppg.) were named to the MCAC North All-Division team.

“Yeah, we’re a JUCO level, but she’s not a JUCO coach,” said sophomore guard Glentrel Carter, another Minneapolis Patrick Henry High product. “I feel like she’s a coach at a D1 level. Knowing we’ve got a coach that can get us to the highest level means a lot in this league.”

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And yet, a woman coaching men is still so rare that Moore says she occasionally encounters an opposing coach or referee who’s not thrilled with it.

“Not every ref is happy to see a woman yelling at him,” she said. “What man wants a woman yelling at him? But now, the biggest thing is, they know I know the game. They’re not going to get things over me. It’s a process, but it hasn’t been terrible.

“My philosophy is this: I’m going against three male coaches every night, and three male refs every night. I tell my players, I’m not going to go against you as well. You guys have to have my back in every moment of the game.”

They do.

“It’s been amazing; a great experience. I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” said Zah Davis, a sharp-shooting sophomore power forward. “It’s like being around the house with your mom and your sister. It’s good. They’re going to make sure they get their point across.”

Zion Sanford, a sophomore guard who transferred from Central Lakes, especially appreciates Moore’s guidance. Sanford, like Moore, a Minneapolis North grad, left college after his mother passed away and Moore invited him to come up to Mesabi. Moore runs three- and four-guard sets, and Sanford plays almost 20 minutes a game off the bench, providing defense, court savvy and occasional scoring (4.5 ppg). Sanford suffered a broken jaw colliding with a Rochester player during the championship game, but earlier in the tournament spoke with gratitude about his coach.

“Playing for Coach Tee has been a real blessing,” he said. “She basically gave me another opportunity to show what I needed to show. This whole year has been awesome.

“My mom passed away last year. I had anger issues. I had to calm myself down. With her around, she makes sure I’ve got my head on right, and she makes sure everything is perfect for me.”

However the bids fall Wednesday, Moore plans to return to Mesabi next season. Sarah Gayler of Brescia University, a NAIA school in Owensboro, Kentucky, and Carly Flowers of the University of Maine-Fort Kent are the only women head coaches besides Moore in the men’s college game. (UM-Fort Kent belongs to United States Collegiate Athletic Association, a consortium of small colleges separate from the NCAA and NAIA.)

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“I want to keep winning on this level and showing women can do it,” Moore said.

Beyond that? Moore’s first choice would be an NBA job. But she would also enjoy coaching men in NCAA Division I or II, or women in the WNBA.

“I just want to coach at the highest level I can make it to,” she said.

“I definitely think I’m a better coach from three years ago to now. I’m learning coaching women is different. There’s an emotion behind that. Coaching men, you’ve got to know your X’s and O’s. You’ve got to be student of the game. Once they know that you know what you’re talking about, it makes it even easier.”