Michigan women’s basketball coach Cheryl Burnett first met
associate head coach Karen Rapier nearly 20 years ago. Rapier was a
ninth grader, participating in a summer basketball camp in
Missouri. Burnett, then an assistant coach for Southwest Missouri
State, was looking for up-and-coming talent.
“I had not seen a player play with the passion, the
spirit, or the effort that she brought to the court,” Burnett
Over the next three years, Rapier fine-tuned her skills while
Burnett — who in the meantime had been promoted to head coach
at Southwest Missouri State — followed the high
schooler’s success. After graduation, Rapier joined
Burnett’s team in 1989 as a power forward. She was the first
recruit Burnett ever signed.
Coincidentally, the team Rapier joined was very similar to the
struggling Michigan team (6-10 Big Ten, 13-16 overall) first-year
coaches Burnett and Rapier are trying to transform now. During
Rapier’s first year on the team, the Lady Bears’ record
was 9-17 overall.
Four years later, when Rapier was a senior, Burnett had given
the team a complete makeover and she would take it to the NCAA
Final Four that year.
“Watching a program transform from not being very
successful to exploding was just incredible,” Rapier
Rapier described Burnett as a coach able to bring out the best
in every player. Rapier was no exception. Burnett called Rapier
— who averaged 10.8 points and 4.6 rebounds per game in her
senior year — the “heart and soul” of her
After graduation, both Rapier and Burnett suspected it would be
the end of their close relationship. Rapier, who had a degree in
computer information systems, went out to work in corporate
But after just one year, she realized basketball was her true
love. In 1994, she returned to Burnett and the Lady Bears as an
assistant coach. Over the next eight years, Burnett, along with
Rapier and the rest of her staff, continued to churn out successful
teams, making 10 NCAA tournament appearances.
After taking a year off, Burnett came to Michigan to head its
ailing program. Rapier followed, becoming associate head coach.
“I always tailor job descriptions of assistant coaches to
what their strengths are,” said Burnett, describing
Rapier’s job at Michigan. “Our computer skills really
separate us from other programs simply because of her expertise.
She’s also instrumental in our strength and conditioning
program. She recruits, she scouts, and of course is one of the main
coaches in terms of X’s and O’s.”
Rapier said she hopes that this coaching staff can do the same
for Michigan that it did for her alma mater. She and Burnett have
already made strides toward this goal in their first year,
improving the team’s conference record by three games and
even setting the school record for attendance at a women’s
“We know what kind of electricity can be generated with
heart and passion and teamwork,” Rapier said.
For now, Rapier is excited to take on the challenge of turning
around the Michigan program, but Burnett says she would not be
surprised if Rapier soon becomes a head coach herself.