After All-American linebacker Sean Harris was pictured on the cover of Sports Illustrated as part of Arizona’s famed 1994 “Desert Swarm” issue, he agreed to sit with me during lunch at Camp Cochise and talk about his upbringing.
I asked about his role models at Tucson High School.
“I played for Charlie Cook and Todd Mayfield,” he said. “And I loved Patsy Lee.”
Was that your girlfriend, I asked?
“She was my basketball coach,” he said. “She’s the best.”
When I returned from Arizona’s football camp that year, I went to the Star’s library and found an envelope stuffed with archival news about Patsy Lee. How had I missed her?
She was the first female to coach a boys high school team in Tucson history — Cook hired her to coach the Badgers’ freshman basketball team when Harris was 15 years old — and it wasn’t just a stunt or an emergency fill-in. When David Gin coached Palo Verde to the 2000 state championship game, the assistant coach sitting next to him was — yep — Patsy Lee.
The great-granddaughter of a Chinese immigrant to Tucson, Patsy Lee quietly retired from 40 years of coaching a few years ago.
There should’ve been a celebration, or an induction ceremony into the Pima County Sports Hall of Fame, but Lee has never been one to elbow her way into the spotlight.
And she didn’t really retire at all. Today she is part of the LPGA Girls Golf of Tucson program, helping girls ages 7-17 learn the game.
She also volunteers for the First Tee of Tucson, and there’s no way the young women she helps to hit a golf ball understand what she means to Tucson’s sports community.
“She’s the most giving person I’ve known,” says Mayfield, the head football and track coach at Tucson and Palo Verde high schools for almost three decades. “She’s always taken care of everybody else’s kids. She even did our stats and our film stuff. If you wanted to get things done, you called Patsy.”
There’s no way anyone could have seen this coming.
Patsy’s older sister and brother got straight A’s. Her aunts were school teachers. Patsy didn’t want any of that, anything that didn’t include a ball or a bat.
“I was a jock,” she says, the 1960s term for ballplayers. “I grew up in the streets by the El Rio Golf Course playing softball and baseball. First base was a mailbox. Second base was a hubcap. I think my mom looked at me as a troublemaker because I was always at the YWCA, playing this, playing that.”
Before she enrolled at Tucson High in the mid-’60s, Patsy and her mom, Jean, talked about the future.
“Where can you get a job that pays you to play?” Jean Lee asked.
Here’s the answer: Over four decades, Patsy Lee was the head coach of Pima College’s softball team, the girls track coach at Tucson High, the boys volleyball coach at Palo Verde High School and an assistant coach of so many sports at so many places that even she has difficulty putting them in order.
She worked for some of the top names in Tucson sports history, from Gerry Lybeck, Will Kreamer, Tim DeMarchi and CeCe Hall to Mayfield, Cook and Gin. She counts as her mentor Mary Hines, the legendary state championship volleyball coach at Catalina. She has worked coaching clinics for Hall of Fame softball coaches such as Mike Candrea.
“I got my first coaching job, girls volleyball, at Tucson High because no one wanted the job,” Lee says with a chuckle. “At the time, the Tucson gym was being remodeled so we had to drive to Catalina every afternoon and wait for Mary Hines’ team to finish
“Well, Mary walks out and says, ‘Can I help you, Patsy?’ Remember, she’s my rival. But she took me under her wing and I can’t tell you how much that meant. I was all into coaching after that.”
After Lee’s first 10 years of coaching, Cook, a former all-state basketball player at THS, asked her to coach the boys freshman team during a period that the Badgers turned out such notable players as Harris and future college players Eric Langford and Val Hill.
“As long as you know basketball, they won’t care,” Cook said. “They’ll follow you.”
And so they did.
If you ask Lee about her playing days — the period that prepared her for a 40-year coaching career — she is all modesty.
“When I began high school, the only girls sports offered were tennis and gymnastics,” she says. “So I went out for the tennis team and got cut. I moped around the gym until I found out there was a girls volleyball program on Saturdays. Believe me, I never left the gym after that.”
After enrolling at the UA, Lee became a mainstay on the Wildcat volleyball, softball and basketball teams. Upon graduation, she indeed found out that someone would pay you to play.
Now, without a full-time coaching job, Lee plays golf. Lots of golf. She’s a regular at her neighborhood course, El Rio, and at the Randolph Golf Complex.
“It’s a lot like coaching,” she says. “Sign me up. I’m hooked.”