Succeeding the First-Class Way

Feb. 6, 2010

Big Ten Black History Month

By Larry Watts

When Felicia Hall Allen talks about her success as a young black businesswoman, somehow nearly everything traces back to her teachings under former Iowa women’s basketball coach C. Vivian Stringer.

“I came to Iowa because of my faith in Vivian Stringer,’’ says Hall Allen, who played her prep basketball in Shreveport, La. “Down in Shreveport at that time, it was all about the Lady Techsters of Louisiana Tech. That’s all I knew. Iowa wasn’t even on my radar because I didn’t play AAU basketball. They didn’t know who I was and I didn’t know who they were.’’

Had it not been for Stringer’s interest in a couple of Hall Allen’s opponents, her career path might have taken an entirely different turn.

“Both of these young ladies told the coaches at Iowa about me and the coaches just happened to see me play when they were making a home visit to one of these players,’’ she says. “The next thing you know I received a call from Iowa asking if I would be interested in making a campus visit.’’

It was late in Hall Allen’s senior year (1987) and she had already made four official recruiting visits. Her last visit was scheduled to be to Stephen F. Austin, a school that had been recruiting her since 10th grade.

“I had been focusing on schools in the South,’’ she says. “Because the coach at Stephen F. Austin had been recruiting me the longest, I felt like I owed him that final visit, so that was a very hard phone call to make when I told him I was taking my final visit to Iowa.’’

Hall Allen visited Iowa on Easter weekend. By the end of the weekend, she had committed to becoming a Hawkeye.

The 6-foot-2 forward/center started three of her four seasons (1987-91) while in Iowa City. During that span, the Hawkeyes won three Big Ten Championships, played in four NCAA Tournaments and were even ranked No. 1 nationally at one time.

“Everything we did under coach Stringer was done in a first-class way,’’ said Hall Allen. “She always talked about representing the state of Iowa with pride.

“Everything we did at Iowa set the stage for the kind of lives we wanted to lead. Coming from a coal-mining city in Pennsylvania, coach Stringer really taught us that you could see the benefits of your labor through hard work. Winning Big Ten Championships and being No. 1 in the nation was within our reach.

“During our stretching exercises, she would always pose philosophical questions to us about life, like would you marry for love or riches or if you won a million dollars, what would you do with it,’’ she added. “She wanted us to think about life outside of basketball. She always talked about transferable skills from basketball to life, which made basketball bigger than a game. I don’t think I ever worked with a group of people who were from so many different places yet became so connected to each other.’’

Hall Allen believes the Iowa experience really made her blossom as a total person.

“Growing up in the South, everything was so black and white,’’ she says. “Our teachers said it would be good to get out of the South and they thought I had leadership potential that was bigger than where I was. If I went to an environment where I could just meet people and not color, they felt I would really grow when the world was presented to me through a different set of lenses.

“The slate was clear white at Iowa, only three percent of the student body was African-American. But I got to see the beauty of Black and Gold and the people who believed in it. I could not have asked for a better intercollegiate experience as a student-athlete. I got to travel the world through Iowa basketball and it was a great ride, four of the best years of my life. And I have so many teammates I treasure and value to this day.

“When I got married nearly five years ago, I had 12 bridesmaids and both the maid of honor and the matron of honor were former teammates,’’ she added. “Coach Stringer really stressed the value of team unity and being one in spirit. We all took that to heart.’’

When Stringer was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in September of 2001 because of her coaching performances at Cheney State, Iowa and Rutgers, Hall Allen was one of the driving forces behind a special recognition by her players. A couple of weeks after the induction, they organized a special night entitled “Three Teams, One Family, the Vivian Stringer Legacy.’’

“The hall of fame reception was $1,000 per ticket and I think Michael Jordan had something to do with that,’’ Hall Allen says. “We decided to do something a little more cost efficient and there were over 70 of her players from the three schools in attendance. We gave her an engraved Tiffany platter, an original painting of her cutting down the net at all three schools and presented her with a $1,000 check to the charity of her choice in memory of her late husband. When we played a special video, there were very few dry eyes.’’

Hall Allen graduated from Iowa with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and then she spent another three years at Iowa obtaining her law degree. After passing the bar exam, she spent three years working for Nike in Beaverton, Oregon.

“Initially, my job was to focus on the growth of girls’ and women’s basketball nationally, primarily focusing on the top 20 market,’’ she says. “I had to identify the next great up and coming phenom and create a demand for the Nike product by the girls and women playing the game. It was all about developing the sport at the grass roots level and identifying the talent.’’

Hall Allen would eventually start a camp in Indianapolis, reaching out to the top high school players nationally. Over 80 girls and 300 different college coaches attended the first camp.

“The women you see dominating the WNBA now, I remember a lot of them from high school and that camp,’’ she says. “In my final year at Nike, I had a chance to manage our women’s basketball sports marketing division and was responsible for high school, college and professional players.’’

The owner of the Charlotte Hornets noticed her work at Nike and she was hired as the director of business operations for the team’s WNBA franchise, the Charlotte Sting, making her the youngest executive in the league.

“I arrived in March of 2000 and the season started a month later, so I had to play the hand I was dealt,’’ she says. “I was responsible for what was happening on the business side as well as what was happening on the basketball court. And I made it clear I was used to winning.’’

The Sting finished 8-24 in her first season, missing the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. And Hall Allen immediately started making changes, one of which was bringing in hall of famer Anne Donovan as the new coach.

“I wanted everyone who worked hard and wanted to win to remain in the organization,’’ she says. “For those not accustomed to working hard toward winning, I wanted to help them go to different organizations to fulfill their dreams.’’

However, the Sting opened the 2001 season by dropping 10 of its first 11 games. That’s when Hall Allen made an appearance in the locker room.

“We had an incredible group of people and I just reminded them why we were there and what we could do if we were committed,’’ she says.

After the speech, the Sting finished the season 18-14 and won the Eastern Conference. In the playoffs, they knocked off No. 1 seed Cleveland and No. 2 seed New York in Madison Square Garden before getting swept by Los Angeles in the finals.

After the 2002 season, when the Sting again finished 18-14 and lost to Washington in the first round of the playoffs, Hornets management decided to move the team to New Orleans. However, they didn’t take the Sting with them.

“The organization was in limbo and, instead of waiting for someone else to make the decision, I decided to work for me,’’ says Hall Allen, who was vice president of business operations at the time. “I remembered someone at Nike once telling me, ‘Now that you have your law degree, the world is really yours. You don’t have to work for anyone else and can choose your own destiny.’ At this point, I felt my calling had changed and believed it was my job to help other people’s dreams come true.’’

Her decision took two paths. She and her husband, Johnny, opened the Allen Leadership Group, where they train corporate and non-profit organizations in leadership development. And she also started Felicia Hall Allen and Associates, where she goes around the country to consult and give motivational speeches, mainly to athletes, and also serves as the sports agent for approximately 20 women’s basketball coaches.

“I challenge them to use some of the gifts they have been given and use them to have a positive impact on the environment they serve, whether it’s where they work, live or play,’’ she says. “I felt like I could inspire and challenge people to rise to the occasion.’’

Branching out into becoming a sports agent actually came about three years ago when three coaches contacted her. She initially balked at the idea.

“I didn’t pursue it,’’ she says. “All three of these coaches wanted to become head coaches. They convinced me I would be doing a lot of people a disservice if I didn’t try it because they were asking me to be part of their lives and they were trusting me with their livelihoods.

“I only represent coaches, not athletes, because I still want to go on college campuses and speak. If I represented the athletes, it would be a conflict of interest.’’

And a great deal of what she talks about comes from lessons learned at Iowa, especially from Stringer.

“The University of Iowa will always be part of who I am because I think I developed the potential to bear fruit based on all the people who nurtured, supported and challenged me while I was there,’’ she says. “I still go back there twice a year to talk to student-athletes.

“That close-knit environment endears you to the university. This is the life I always hoped to have because so much is about developing relationships, staying connected and making people feel like a family. I learned so many of those lessons as a student-athlete at Iowa. I always love going back there to see how much Iowa City has changed. I’m an Iowa Hawkeye for life.’’