FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – "Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence." Those were the words of revered Hall of Fame football coach Vince Lombardi.
For Northern Arizona senior women's basketball player Rene Coggins, the pursuit of perfection is relentless. Like she has her entire life, she challenged those famed words in the classroom and in one very impressive way, she has defied Lombardi.
With semester-ending finals week on the NAU Mountain Campus starting Monday, Coggins faces it head on just as the more than 30,000 students statewide will do as well. While many will be defeated, Coggins will not be one of them. She is a unique case, a true embodiment of the "student-athlete." If being the only current triple-major in the NAU Athletics Department was not remarkable enough, her unblemished 4.00 cumulative grade point average is awe-inspiring.
In fact, Coggins cannot recall the last time she received a "B," if ever. A perfect academic standing is all she remembers. While her friends were pocketing $5 for every "A," Coggins did not reap the same rewards growing up. Although her wallet would arguably been a lot fuller, she received a much-more intrinsic reward that she credits her scholastic successes to today.
"My parents didn't believe in incentivizing academics because they believed that a want and desire to do well in the classroom should be instilled," Coggins said. "They taught me to invest in my future. My sister is a huge inspiration to me. She got her PhD in microbiology and she now works with cancer cells. She's my role model and I'm so grateful to have the family that I do."
Always sporting an aptitude for mathematics – her glory days in high school included winning a statewide competition – Coggins always believed that would be her calling. Combining her father's advice that every business – regardless of industry – needs a finance office and her love for making other people's lives better, Coggins decided on her academic path.
Her path: majoring in not one, not two but three different programs in accountancy, finance and hotel & restaurant management. The choice would be daunting for anyone, but she would do so as a Division I student-athlete in the university Honors College nonetheless. As her academic adviser would quickly discover, Coggins' drive was not to be questioned.
"When Rene told me she wanted to be a triple major in the Honors program while being on the basketball team, I looked at her and asked 'are you sure?'" said Chris Drake, Coordinator in the W.A. Franke College of Business' Office of Academic Services. "We spoke about other options, but she told me that she needed to do all of this to get to where she wanted to be and do what she wanted to do. She did her research and she wasn't going to be talked out of it."
Ironically, basketball was the one thing that stood between Coggins and valedictorian status while at Mesa Mountain View High School. Her exploits as an All-State prep talent required her include P.E. on her class schedule – a class that was not part of the AP curriculum. Meanwhile her classmates were enrolled in AP band or orchestra leaving Coggins on the outside looking in despite a 4.80 GPA.
Nearly four years later though, Coggins has attained – and maintained – perfection in the classroom. Her sparkling academic resume complimented by her decorated career on the hardwood has resulted in more hardware than Coggins could have ever imagined. In the past month alone, the Athletics Department selected Coggins as its Female Golden Eagle Scholar-Athlete of the Year and its female recipient of the prestigious Lumberjack award at the Louie's Awards.
The awards are a product of her dedication to her craft, both athletically and academically during her recently completed basketball career.
Consider that in-season, her day started at 4:30 a.m. with practice at the crack of dawn at 6 a.m. Often sleeping in her practice gear, she was up and out with a PowerBar in hand following a few snoozes on the alarm clock, understandably. Ankles taped and two hours of practice later – not to mention weights or film to follow – classes ensued. After squeezing in a meal at some point, her focus turned to her homework and studies before finally returning home by midnight after a full day on campus, just in time to recharge for the next 24 hours.
"My mentality was to compartmentalize my day," Coggins said. "At practice, there was nothing I could do about school stress, so I was going to become the best basketball player I could during those two hours. Then there was a lot of studying and while taking some of my tougher classes, I definitely had to weigh keeping my physical health at its peak with keeping my academics at its peak."
While perfection has not eluded her academically, it did at times athletically. But as Lombardi famously said, excellence is attainable when shooting for the stars. Excellence is what she achieved, in abundance, while wearing the Lumberjack uniform, but it came with her fair share of adversity.
Following her true freshman season in which she started 25 games and was voted team captain, Coggins suffered an injury the following year that would hamper her for nearly half of her career. Just prior to her second go-around in the Big Sky, a broken collarbone and sprained AC joint sidelined her for a few games. Upon return, she briefly lost her starting spot and wound up sporting her worst statistical season.
Surgery to repair her damaged shoulder would not come until the conclusion of her junior campaign, but Coggins' determination resulted in dramatic increases in field goal percentage (.305 to .389) and three-point percentage (.237 to .369) from year two to year three. A breakout junior season then translated into a career-defining senior season which left her name etched throughout the program record book.
By the time she hung up her Adidas for the final time, she had started 100 of 113 career games as NAU's floor general. One of 16 players in the 1,000 point club, Coggins wrapped up her career 12th in scoring with 1,053 points. She also finds herself ranked fourth in three-pointers made (167), fourth in free throw percentage (.795) and 10th in assists (267).
Despite enduring a season and a half with a bum shoulder, her 3,909 minutes played rank are second-most in school history. She twice led the conference in minutes per game and played 40 or more minutes in 29 career games – the equivalent of more than a quarter of her total appearances. Her resolve was well-respected as evidenced by her selection as a team captain in each of her four years.
"When we recruited her, we wanted her to be a team leader with her work ethic and basketball IQ," said former interim head coach Robyne Bostick – who helped recruit Coggins to NAU. "She is mature beyond her years and her time management skills say a lot about how goal-oriented she is. That's going to allow her to achieve anything she puts her mind to in the future."
Admittedly, Coggins' achievements do not feel real to her. But her place among the NAU's greats is no surprise when looking at the complete package she brings to the table each and every day.
"My shoulder injury had a huge impact in growing my resilience as a person," Coggins said. "I wanted to be the best basketball player on the court as well as the best student I could in the classroom. The more success I saw, the more I craved it. Everything I accomplished on the court really resonates with me now that I'm finished."
One accomplishment she is particularly proud of is becoming the first two-time CoSIDA Academic All-American in program history. A third team selection as a junior, she earned a second team nod in her final season. In the process, she became only the second two-time women's basketball Academic All-American in the history of the Big Sky Conference.
"It literally brought me to tears both times; I remember exactly where I was both times," Coggins said. "I had to step outside class the first time because I was sobbing. I can't even put into words what it's like to be recognized for my efforts among players from Power Five conferences and all throughout Division I who I have so much respect for."
Between all of her commitments, Coggins still found time to contribute elsewhere. She was a four-year member of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee where she assisted in organizing and planning events, while also reaching into her rooted heritage. With her mother, a Navajo member of the Kiyaa'áanii Clan from Window Rock, Coggins mentored Native American students from the reservation through the Native American Cultural Center on campus.
Now strictly a student with her time in the Blue & Gold basketball threads behind her, Coggins will turn her focus to a fifth year academically starting in the fall with a graduation date next spring.
To no one's amazement, her future beyond commencement has already been mapped out. After exploring her hoops career as far as it will take her, whether that is overseas professionally or in the coaching ranks, Coggins has her eyes set on getting her CPA or MBA with the ultimate goal of operating her own "beachside boutique."
"She's at the top among students who have made an impact on me as much as I hope I've impacted them," Drake said. "Rene has a beauty in her spirit and she is a positive role model for everyone around her. She's someone who invests in people, so when she told me her dream is to have a hotel on a beach, I thought that's perfect for Rene. She connects with people and that's where her beauty really shines."
The only in-state product in her team's senior class this season, the pride she holds as an Arizonan to star at NAU is palpable when speaking to her. She will gladly share what an honor it was to represent this university.
Pride, as it turns out, is a recurring theme with the Mesa native. Pride pushes her to be the best in every realm of life. Pride, and grit, is everything to her. It means having the perseverance to stick with long-term goals and believing that what she does day-to-day will pay off years from now.
Years from now, when she is a chief financial officer of her own hotel chain, her passion for the hospitality industry will radiate through her desire to leave a lasting impression on each of her future guests. Her love for others stems from her appreciation for those who have helped her get this far.
"I've been so fortunate at NAU to have people from my coaches and teammates, to Brent (Appel) and Stayson (Isobe), to my professors and advisors who not only allowed me to pursue my dreams, but supported me fully in my endeavors," Coggins said. "I want to be able to buy my parents a new house and a car for everything they've given me. My dad told my sister and me on our first days of college to get absolutely everything out of this experience. I'm really proud I fulfilled those words and that's how you live life, without regrets."
Perfection may not always be attainable, but that will not stop Coggins' strive for a five-star rating for her bed and breakfast along the beach. Her competitiveness will not allow her to.
At this rate, even Vince Lombardi would be wise not to doubt her.