The devil at the bottom of the wishing well

When longtime Old Dominion women’s basketball coach Wendy Larry resigned on Tuesday, it didn’t come as a surprise. Athletics director Wood Selig announced several weeks ago that he was not going to extend her contract beyond the 2011-12 season.

Larry, who was an assistant on the great Old Dominion AIAW national championship teams that featured Nancy Lieberman and Anne Donovan in 1979 and 1980, got the Lady Monarchs to the NCAA title game in 1997 and as far as the Elite Eight in 2002.

But that’s a lifetime ago in the rapidly pressurizing world of big-time women’s college basketball. Even at Old Dominion, which had dominated the Colonial Athletic Association until recently, the wishes of a new AD have resulted in a rather quick and contentious change at the top. After 24 mostly winning seasons as head coach at her alma mater, but no NCAA appearances sinc 2008, Larry will see out that last year in a fundraising role.

Selig, who replaced the venerable Jim Jarrett, one of the most passionate ADs for women’s college basketball shortly after the advent of the AIAW era and after it was ushered into the NCAA age, is operating in a very different time. He stepped down from his position on the NCAA women’s basketball committee last year to take the Old Dominion job, which came with a new football program that Jarrett had created in one of the most competitive mid-major conferences in the country.

Larry’s departure wasn’t a pretty one, and is the latest casualty in a busy spring clearance of coaches whose careers have dated back to AIAW times. Debbie Ryan of Virginia and Naismith Hall of Famer Van Chancellor at LSU also were edged out, also unwillingly but a little more gracefully, replaced by younger coaches with fresh recruiting success.

The notables remaining from that pre-NCAA era can essentially be counted on less than both hands: Pat Summitt of Tennessee, Vivian Stringer of Rutgers, Tara VanDerveer of Stanford, Andy Landers of Georgia, Sylvia Hatchell of North Carolina, Jim Foster of Ohio State and Gary Blair of Texas A & M, who last month, at the age of 65, became the oldest coach to win an NCAA title.

In the last decade and a half in particular, the stakes in major women’s college basketball have grown dramatically higher. More schools are getting ambitious about the sport, which has been a good thing, although parity at the very top levels of the game remains elusive. With those ambitions have come bigger salaries — in some cases, astounding pay checks — along with more intense pressure to win. That in turn has ratcheted up a recruiting scene that doesn’t have as deep a talent pool as the men’s game.

And the usual suspects are again scoring big in the current chase for the best high school stars: UConn, Tennessee, Stanford, Duke, etc. Texas, which is desperately trying to elbow its way back into the national picture, had its heart broken last week when a coveted in-state recruit reneged on a verbal commitment and after considering UConn, said she would play at A & M.

What have you won for me lately?

The realities of these greater demands have become enough of a concern that for the last few years, the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association has scheduled roundtable discussions at its Final Four convention to address issues of work/life balance. The money is alluring, but, says WBCA chief executive officer Beth Bass, it also comes with a much steeper price:

“You have to be careful what you wish for. You have to be careful of the devil at the bottom of the wishing well. . . . You’re going to be held to the same standard as on the men’s side. We have make sure we’re ready to go for what comes with that.”

What’s required to be an accomplished head coach while trying to raise a family recently prompted Arizona State’s Charli Turner Thorne to take an unpaid leave of absence for all of next season so she can devote more time to her three young sons.

Not only is that an unprecedented move given her employment at a school in a BCS conference, but Turner Thorne is still in her 40s. She’s one of the younger ones. She’s also richly successful, with nearly 300 wins in 15 seasons, including an Elite Eight finish three years ago.

She’ll miss the first season in the expanded Pacific 12 Conference, which is basking in the glow of a new $3 billion TV contract with ESPN and Fox Sports, the richest ever for a college sports conference. As that was being negotiated, commissioner Larry Scott, formerly the head of the Women’s Tennis Association, said women’s basketball could turn a profit — someday. After the jaw-dropping terms of the new media deal were unveiled, including the addition of a Pac 12 Network, Scott also called it a “turning point” for women’s athletics because of the massive boost in exposure that’s certain to come.

While he acknowledged this development may take years — decades seems more likely — Scott must address first the lack of competitive balance in what has been the Pac 10 and the lowly attendance numbers that have come with it, even at powerhouse Stanford.

But at least he’s stating something that’s rarely heard in his lofty circle of college athletics. He’s raised a very high bar, but it’s one well worth talking about and pursuing at all levels of the sport. Perhaps he can persuade ADs in his conference and elsewhere to do more than just throw money at the game. They need to put more of what I like to call “emotional” support into it, much like Jarrett did at Old Dominion, before money became the element it is now.

Marketing, promoting, boosting attendance and concerted efforts to make women’s hoops a little more commercially viable are lacking, and have been for years. The aggressive young coaches who are getting the plum jobs — and the money and the pressure to win — are in prime position to improve the product, and to broaden its appeal off the court as well. It’s the only environment they’ve known.

Yet the downside of this — the loss of loyal, dedicated coaches like Larry who have struggled to keep up — also needs to be acknowledged. The women’s game is changing — on balance, I think for the better — but some of its finest ambassadors are feeling just than a little more than displaced.

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