When Suzy Merchant bounced into town, the people of Greater Lansing received more than a new Michigan State University (MSU) women’s basketball head coach. They got a small town gal with a big heart set to make a huge impact in the community.
There are a lot of sports figures and personalities that find a cause and spend time making a difference. Merchant doesn’t focus on one specific area, but on the general good of a community that has embraced her.
“I’m involved with many charities … I’m not very good at saying no … I guess I really don’t want to,” said Merchant. “I love to be involved with organizations that help the community. It is especially important when it touches children and women. I also work with organizations that I have a personal connection to, like Sparrow Hospice.”
Winning games is important, but Merchant admitted that family, people and community are what life is all about. Relationships matter whether she is at home, on the court, serving in the community or supporting the biggest Spartan fan — Pat Canning.
Canning was a Spartan through and through. She was a constant face in the stands for more than 40 years and absolutely loved women’s basketball. In fact, Canning considered each and every team member part of her
family. It was no different for Merchant or her team. Having a supporter like Canning in the stands always ensured a friendly face, no matter the outcome on the scoreboard, Merchant said.
“Pat was a great lady, and I miss her a lot. She was our team grandma,” Merchant said, smiling. “The girls loved her, too. When she got too sick to be with us, we made sure we were with her. We visited her in Hospice. It was a difficult time, but Hospice Services did everything they could to make things easier. We were able to sing the Spartan’s fight song to her before she passed.”
As a tribute to a true Spartan, Merchant and the team are involved with Sparrow Foundation’s Hike for Hospice fundraiser, held this year on October 4 at Hawk Island Park in Lansing. She said she hopes the Greater Lansing community will join her as she hikes for Hospice.
Some say you can never go home again. Merchant may be a long way from Traverse City, but she has brought her hometown values to the Capitol City.
“I loved Traverse City growing up, and Lansing reminds me of my hometown,” she said. “It’s a big deal when communities focus on the successes of its young people. Lansing newsrooms report on these student successes in sports, and it reminds me a lot of Traverse City.”
She said her childhood was full of fun, love and activity.
“Growing up, I was sandwiched between two brothers. Until I was about 15 years old, people might have thought there were three boys in the family. I grew up as a true tomboy,” Merchant reminisced.
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Merchant’s father was a huge inspiration to her when she was young. He was active in the schools and played sports regularly. Merchant recalled how competitive the members of her family were and shared a special moment that clearly set her on her path.
“I loved sports. My defining moment happened when I was eight years old. My dad was into sports and had played baseball at Western Michigan University. He taught and was the principal. And I have to say that I was very proud to be Glenn Merchant’s daughter,” she smiled.
“One day, my dad was playing softball. Whenever there was a foul ball hit, the kids would run and try to get the ball. On this day, a foul ball was hit and I started to run after the ball. I leaped out to get the ball with my left hand extended as far as I could,” she said with her arm extended, reliving the moment. “I ended up catching the foul ball with my left hand in mid-air as I skidded across the ground. My dad isn’t a very emotional man, but as I looked up, my dad smiled and winked at me. That moment put a stamp on my world.”
Although Merchant never forgot that eight-year-old moment snagging a foul ball, she didn’t quite have an athletic coaching career plan mapped out. After graduating from Central Michigan University, Merchant took a few jobs until her true path became clear.
Working with students on and off the court solidified a coaching dream, but a possible move to Eastern Michigan University (EMU) as the women’s basketball head coach was a tough call to make. The school had not been winning games, and friends said EMU was a bad decision.
“Prior to taking the job, I called some mentors who said not to take the job because they were the worst team in the league and it would be a career killer,” she said. “I truly cherish my time at EMU. I was a 28-year-old head coach.”
Coach Merchant made things happen. The EMU Eagles began winning. Her 2003-04 team claimed the MAC West Division and MAC Tournament championships for the first time in school history and earned the first ever bid to the NCAA Tournament.
“I’m smart enough to know how this business works. I thought I could do the job first and foremost,” Merchant said. “I contacted a friend of mine and said ‘what’s the deal? Can we win?’ No one believed it could be done, and that made me want to do it more.”
Merchant said she has fond memories of her time at EMU and truly felt like she left a legacy after her nine seasons there.
Over the years, MSU has made many dreams come true. Merchant said that even though she considered MSU a little out of reach, a girl’s got to dream big. And, Merchant is a redhead; so green really is her color.
When a coaching position opened up, Merchant decided to get a little inside scoop and called a friend at MSU. The word wasn’t exactly what she had dreamed of, but exactly what she expected.
“I said ‘OK, I want to get the real deal.’ I knew the role was available,” she said. “I asked him to call and see what my chances were. He said, ‘Merchant, here’s the deal: if there is a list of 10 — you’re tenth. If everyone turns it down or dies, you’re in.’”
Although the dream could have faded then, it didn’t. Merchant picked up more than milk and eggs while grocery shopping one day. Her list didn’t include a meet and greet with MSU, but she left the store that day with a message in her voicemail from MSU regarding the position.
“I didn’t call back right away,” Merchant said. “I was getting ready to pick up the phone as my friend from MSU called me. He said, ‘Why haven’t you called?’ I told him that I was number 10 on a list of 10, so I didn’t think it was urgent. But, in less than one week, I had my dream job.”
Once the MSU position was offered, there were many things to consider. Her husband, Gary Rakan, and new son, Tyler, were at the top of Merchant’s mind as she processed what the new role would mean. Merchant’s philosophy is that people are products of their environments.
“When Ty was three months old, I believed it would be a dream to be sitting right in this office. I didn’t have a doubt about taking, wanting or doing the job, but I also had other people involved in the decision,” Merchant said. “Before I could even verbalize my needs, it was my parents who said that they would make the move here.”
Merchant’s parents now live with the busy coach and her husband to help take care of Tyler and any possible future Rakans that may arrive. This situation allows the coach to spend the needed time to support her team’s demanding basketball schedule, but it also allows time for building relationships.
“My greatest moment was never cutting down a net,” Merchant acknowledged. “It has been the conversations with players, impacting their lives. I really like to get to know them. I really enjoy making an impact on that stage in a female’s life.”
Motivating players isn’t done solely with a basketball.
“Everybody has a story. We have to stop and get to know players. It’s important to motivate them to a place that they don’t even know they can get to,” she added. “You have to understand their dreams and backgrounds.”
Merchant hopes to impart solid basketball principles, but there are many skills a college athlete needs that show up off the court.
“It’s hard for young girls to be authentic and genuine. Society makes them shift from who they are. I want them to learn to find their own voice and have a strong sense of self. I want them to be able to voice it and stand up for their beliefs,” she added.
One of Merchant’s favorite times of the year is when young girls from all over converge on MSU’s campus in the hope of learning from the best of the best in college athletics.
“I love to be at the camps. I generally meet with the girls, and we never touch a basketball,” she said. “I meet with them and talk about character, work ethic and passion. These are just as important as the technical skills.”
If Spartan fans were wondering where things are headed this season, they should trust Coach Merchant to make sure the team is ready to go. And, if you want to see how the spunky coach gets things done, don’t hesitate to head to the Breslin Center and catch the season’s action in person.
“Last year, we had a great run, given our challenges; we really had a good experience in the post-season,” Merchant said. “We’re really excited about the next season. We’ll have everyone back but one, Mia Johnson. Fans should expect good things.”