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Mike Lopresti | | November 12, 2021

Sue Semrau is back as Florida State coach, after 'best decision ever made' to go home and help ailing mother

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This is not about Sue Semrau, the winningest coach in the history of Florida State women’s basketball. This is not about the 2020-21 season, when the Seminoles went 10-9 and landed in the NCAA tournament. She was nearly 3,000 miles away while that was happening, helping schedule chemo treatments and doctor’s appointments.

This is about Sue Semrau, the daughter. This is about moving to the opposite side of North America from Tallahassee — taking a year’s leave of absence, handing the steering wheel to a trusted assistant, veering completely off the path from her normal life — for the most deeply felt of reasons.

This is about the season — last season — that Sue Semrau went home. Her mother needed her. The experience would change her coaching, not to mention her life.

“It’s the best decision, I ever made” she said the other day.

The 2020-21 season was to be Semrau’s 24th at Florida State, where she has been ACC coach of the year four times and led the Seminoles to 15 NCAA tournaments, five Sweet 16s, three Elite Eights, and 453 wins. A woman on the job that long and that successful understands something about overcoming adversity and never giving up. Back home in Seattle, that’s just what Rosemary Semrau needed.

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Rosemary had fallen after surgery, and a scan to check for any problems unexpectedly found something else — a rare form of ovarian cancer. This was fall of 2020, and the road ahead would be very hard for Rosemary and husband Jerry, both in their 80s. The treatments would have been difficult enough in normal times, but COVID was knocking at seemingly every door in Seattle, making trips anywhere risky. What were an elderly couple to do, when danger lurked outside the door?

Three time zones away, their daughter knew what she had to do.

“When your mom — who you don’t get to see enough — is battling cancer . . . ” Sue said, her voice trailing off. She went to the university with her idea and got the OK. She would be gone for the season, with longtime assistant Brooke Wyckoff taking over. She would return to the Seattle house that was once her grandparents – her parents had since moved there – and stay in the room she once visited as a little girl. There, she would help her mom fight the good fight. She would run the errands and do the grocery shopping and coordinate the meals. She would go to the doctor’s visits and chemo treatments, even though COVID regulations meant she usually had to wait outside in the parking lot.

Sue Semrau looks to jump right back into things this year.

And something else. She would, in a way, be a coach. As she had done so many times, trying to coax and will her team through the bleak moments, now it would be her mother.

“Because I’ve been able to see that if you have that hope and you push through and fight that there is another side,” she said. “And there were times, especially with COVID, you were wondering can we even go to a hospital and get chemo? I remember sitting there listening to my mom ask the doctor what it’s like to die from cancer and what it’s like to die from COVID, because she felt like that’s where she was making the choice.

“There were many times she didn’t want to live. To be able to listen to her and hear what she was feeling and then be able to impart some kind of truth of what was hopefully going to happen, we were able to push through it.

“I think she appreciated just having hope.”

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The months went by with many dark passages, such as when Rosemary lost her hair. There were days Sue could only say to herself about the treatment plan, “I hope this works.” And it did. Rosemary got better, the cancer ebbed. Meanwhile, Sue watched every Florida State game from that house, sitting with her parents. A distant spectator to the Seminoles maybe, but certainly not a detached one.

“They asked a lot of questions. My mom said, `Why do you keep saying attack, attack, attack? So I had to explain,” Semrau said. “I was able to sit there and watch but I can’t keep my mouth shut. We got my mom a new puppy and that puppy would freak out, like, why are you yelling?”

She would occasionally get a look at practice tapes, but did not study game film. She was on the phone almost daily with Wyckoff and took part in recruiting efforts when she could. She agonized what the team was going through with COVID, where nothing was certain, including the next game. She understood the athletic department was taking a financial battering and that’s why she didn’t take a salary, figuring the money could be used to help fill the gaps. She chatted with her players but “I wanted Brooke to have all of their attention. She was the head coach and there was nowhere else for them to go. I never talked basketball with them except to talk about improvement and how they had improved.”

As time went by, Semrau sensed something changing within her. She studied her own personality and didn’t like what she had found. Those months in Seattle produced a different person.

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“I felt so right being there. It changed who I am. It taught me to be more present. It made me look at things and have a better sense of self-awareness,” she said. “What I realized is maybe I had gotten a little bit too identified with being a basketball coach and there are so many more things. That’s one thing I wish I could impart to other people now. It was hard to pull away because you’re almost addicted to it. You’re a human doing it instead of a human being. I think I became much more of a human being.

“I wanted to change and I wanted to grow. I wasn’t who I thought I was, in the workplace, as a friend, as a daughter. And I wanted to be.”

So now she’s back in Tallahassee with Florida State returning all five starters and No. 16 in the Associated Press pre-season poll. In some ways, it feels like yesterday since she was on the bench. In some ways, it feels like a hundred years. “I will say that when we had a close scrimmage, that did not feel normal,” she said. “Sometimes I’ll crouch down. I stood up and I got light-headed. It was kind of like I was out of crouching shape.”

Might basketball mean more to Semrau now? “The people mean more,” she said. “Just being present with these players means so much more. That’s what makes me happy every day, is being with them. I’m a little bit different than them; I didn’t have to go through what they did last season with COVID. I just want to be self-aware and conscious enough to understand that these guys are going through something different than I am.”

Semrau was recently reading her email and found two items from Delta Airlines. Her parents had used some of her miles to get two tickets. Her mother is doing so well, they’ll be in Tallahassee in February for a three-game Seminoles home stand.

“I was never sure if they’d ever be coming back again,” Sue said. “That’s a really special moment.”

Those tickets, in a way, were confirmation they had all made it through a year that was scary but also enriching, exhausting but also enlightening. The mother, the father. The daughter who is also a coach, and in a family crisis found new ways to be both.

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