‘Finding the clues to the puzzle’: SLCC’s women’s coach trades dreams of detective work for a life of hoops

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Marcilina Grayer is ready to take the court as head coach of the Salt Lake Community College Lady Bruins basketball team, June 26, 2019.

Marcilina Grayer is an eligibility expert for college sports. So she knows that only five months remain in the phase of her life where she was labeled a rising star, even before being promoted as the Salt Lake Community College women’s basketball coach.

The “Thirty Under 30” list published by the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association in 2018, featuring mostly Division I assistants, endorsed a coach who’s known for being driven to get where she wants to go, ahead of the crowd.

She could have made a “Twenty-five Under 25” ranking when she coached a junior college track and field team, driving a van from the campus in a tiny California mountain town and carrying thousands of dollars in cash for travel expenses. Or a “Fifteen Under 15” list, when she coached a Junior Jazz team in the Salt Lake Valley. Or a “Two Under 2” ranking, from her early years as a coach’s daughter. As her mother said, “She’s grown in the game with me, from her car seat on up.”

From that starting point, Grayer has covered a lot of ground in less than 30 years, with her birthday approaching fast. Having grown up in a multiracial family in West Jordan, she’s the second female African American head coach of any Utah college athletic team, joining Velaida Harris of Weber State women’s basketball.

“You don't see a lot of black women in the coaching industry, so I think it shows that you can get there,” Grayer said. “To be a model for that is huge for me … especially in Utah.”

Grayer labels SLCC a diverse, inclusive campus, as framed by president Deneece Huftalin. Grayer's staff reflects that emphasis, with Azjah Woodson-Bass as her newly hired assistant and Grayer's sister Kehana as a volunteer coach.

Their job is to extend the consistency of Betsy Specketer’s work over the past 23 seasons. She retired in April after six straight trips to the NJCAA tournament, including a semifinal appearance in 2017. Specketer’s 545 victories made her the state’s second-winningest coach in a women’s or men’s basketball program, behind former University of Utah coach Elaine Elliott, and she’ll have a lasting influence at SLCC as “another mother to me,” Grayer said.

None of this would have happened if Grayer had followed through with her original plan of becoming a homicide detective. Coaching may seem like a radical departure from that path, yet her mother connects the two jobs, with problem-solving skills. ”It's finding the clues to the puzzle,” said JoBe Grayer, a special education teacher at Cyprus High, “which is the same thing you do with a team.”

After playing basketball for Copper Hills High School and SLCC, Marcilina Grayer moved to Dixie State University's program and pursued an education in criminal justice and psychology. She discovered that detective work would be too consuming and unpredictable, so she looked into becoming a juvenile probation officer. The challenges of that role include not becoming too emotionally attached to the children in the system, which bothered her.

Coaching is different. Grayer considers her players “my babies,” taking them for two years of junior college and hoping to build lasting relationships.

Even though Specketer gave her a lot of responsibility, Grayer is adjusting to a new role. She’s managing a budget, deciding about recruits and feeling more stress. She does have some experience of being in charge. This time, thankfully, she has a company credit card.

Grayer’s first full-time job came at Feather River Junior College, where she was hired as an assistant basketball coach and unexpectedly became the head coach of the men’s and women’s track teams — drawing from her background as a Copper Hills sprinter. The school would issue her thousands of dollars in cash to pay for trips, creating a whole other level of anxiety on the road.

After one year in northern California, she joined Specketer’s SLCC staff in 2013 and established herself as a likely successor. SLCC Athletic Director Kevin Dustin conducted a three-week search in April, confirming that the top candidate was just down the hall at the Lifetime Activities Center.

These are interesting times at SLCC, where the men’s basketball program had only two coaches during Specketer’s long tenure with the women’s team. Kyle Taylor recently was hired to replace Todd Phillips, who joined the Utah Valley University staff.

“I believe Marci is one of the best young coaches in the business,” Dustin said, while labeling Grayer as “a strong part of our administrative team.”

Yes, she has two jobs. That’s partly by her choice. Grayer remains the eligibility coordinator for SLCC’s seven teams and is a member of the NJCAA board of regents. She wants to build her administrative credentials, in hopes of becoming an athletic director someday.

Judging by her first 30 years, that’s likely to happen. Check back in 2029 or so, to find her on a college athletics list of “Forty Under 40.”