CEDAR FALLS, Iowa --- This year has been one of unprecedented success for head coach Tanya Warren's University of Northern Iowa women's basketball program.
The Panthers have followed last March's inaugural run into the NCAA tournament by compiling program-record string of victories and are on pace to complete the winningest season in school history.
As those who've traveled this journey with Warren are quick to point out, her success transcends wins and losses.
"She has a passion for the game and a passion to make a difference in these young ladies' lives," UNI assistant coach Brad Nelson said. "We talk about our philosophy is champions for life. It's not just what we do on the basketball floor."
After over decade of work as an assistant at Iowa State, UNI, Missouri and Creighton, Warren was hired as UNI's head coach in 2007 --- becoming the first black female head coach in Missouri Valley Conference history. She has drawn inspiration from a pair of black coaches who were pioneers in women's basketball --- Marian Washington of Kansas and C. Vivian Stringer, the former Iowa and current Rutgers head coach.
"It meant a lot," Warren said, reflecting on the moment she became a head coach. "Because of how Coach Stringer and Coach Washington paved the way for me, I, too, am paving the way for a young, black female who might have aspirations of being a head coach some day and may be the first at their institution."
Warren feels a deep sense of responsibility that accompanies her status as a role model for female athletes.
"One of the things I prayed about was if I got this opportunity, this isn't something I'd take lightly," she said. "When I look across from a recruit and I talk to them and their parents and I tell them about this program, my vision for this program and how I see their daughter fitting in, it goes way beyond basketball.
"When they decide to come here I don't take that for granted. They become a part of our family."
Inspired by faith, family
Warren credits much of her success to the support she's received from her family. The coach maintains an air-tight bond with her parents, Don and Betty, her "pride and joy."
"They've taught me so much more than my ABCs," she said.
The Des Moines native's passion for basketball stemmed from growing up with two older brothers who excelled in the sport. Pick-up games on the playground became a daily routine during the summer with sessions that would begin after the completion of morning chores, include a break for dinner, and continue until bedtime.
Bruce Rasmussen, who coached Warren at Creighton, recalled his first encounter with the future basketball star. She was a sixth-grader trying to get into a high school camp he was running at Simpson College.
"Tanya was about the size of a basketball," said Rasmussen, a UNI grad who currently serves as Creighton's athletics director. "There was no way she was a high school player.
"We weren't going to let her in, but we ended up working out with her for a couple of minutes and then said, 'OK, we'll let you in.' She was the best kid in the camp."
While she continued to flourish on the court, Warren's basketball career nearly ended before it began.
She was in eighth grade when her oldest brother, Steve, a highly recruited high school senior, died suddenly of a heart attack at basketball practice.
"I'll be honest," Warren said. "At that point, I really didn't want to play the game again. My parents sat me down and said that's not the way Steve would have wanted it.
"I said a lot of prayers and after talking with my parents again I decided, 'OK, if I do this, then I'm going to play this game for the both of us.' That really inspired me and still inspires me to this day."
Warren believes Steve's death brought their family closer. She makes time to exchange texts with her brother Donny in Omaha on a near daily basis.
"Tomorrow is not promised when you go through something like that," Warren said.
A coach before her first contract
After a Hall of Fame prep career at Des Moines Lincoln, Warren helped put Creighton basketball on the map. The undersized point guard possessed exceptional floor vision and leadership while setting the school's assists record during her career from 1983-88. Her jersey number is one of two retired by the institution.
"You make a mistake of judging people by the size of their body, not the size of their heart," Rasmussen said. "She had probably the biggest heart of anybody I ever coached."
In addition to being a standout athlete, Rasmussen points out Warren was a natural leader.
"She probably did a better job of coaching from the player's position than I did from the coach's position," he said. "She coached every day. She talked to the kids before practice, she talked to them during practice. In the locker room she was coaching, in the dormitory she was coaching.
"Tanya was a coach from the first time I met her. I'd have been shocked if she went into a profession other than coaching."
Even as a collegiate athlete, Warren followed a strong moral compass.
"You can tell when someone has character that guides what they do and it's above winning and losing," Rasmussen said. "She wasn't worried about conformity. She was worried about doing things the right way, and at the front of that was her faith."
Starting from ground up
Determined to make a difference, Warren graduated from college leaning toward a career in family therapy. Her first job at Boys Town High School, however, changed the way she viewed the role of a coach.
Four years coaching at the Omaha treatment center for at-risk youth helped Warren realize she could use a game that's played a major role in her life to make a difference.
"When you're in that situation where you're dealing with young people who are yearning for attention --- it doesn't matter if it's good or bad --- then you kind of see things from a different view," Warren said. "I knew then, through that experience, that I wanted to be around the game and I could influence individuals through coaching without there being so much emphasis on the scoreboard. That's really the approach I've tried to take."
Warren estimates she took a $12,000 to $15,000 pay cut to get her foot in the door as a restrictive earnings assistant at the collegiate level. She worked one season for Theresa Becker at Iowa State before being named to Tony DiCecco's staff at UNI where they transformed a program with 12 consecutive losing seasons into a winner, culminating in the school's first WNIT berth.
"It was always fun to work with her because she was always challenging you to get better both with your fundamentals on the court and in your mind," said Kelley (Westhoff) Jacobs, UNI's current women's basketball director of operations who was a point guard when Warren began her tenure as an assistant coach.
Jacobs says she's learned plenty from the manner in which Warren interacts with players.
"She's brought a tremendous amount of energy and she brings that same focus every day," Jacobs said. "Our kids really see that and that's what they grab onto."
A player's coach
Current junior point guard K.K. Armstrong was the first recruit to commit to UNI during Warren's tenure as head coach.
"She's always been an idol to me in how's played and how she's made it in life," Armstrong said.
The former Cedar Rapids Washington standout can list several qualities she admires.
"It's how much fight she has for everything," Armstrong said. "It's just how much determination she has and how much pride she takes in her job and how much love she has for each of us."
Warren has drawn guidance from the words in Stringer's autobiography, "Standing Tall," in which the Rutgers coach details the adversity she's overcome and the impression she's tried to make on her student-athletes.
"We want to continue to enjoy every day of the journey," Warren said. "The most important thing I want is for when my young people leave here to look back and say, 'You know what? I had a great experience there and it was so much more than just basketball.'"