Gender and coaching women’s basketball

The moves of Wisconsin-Green Bay coach Matt Bollant to Illinois and Bowling Green’s Curt Miller to Indiana this week raised a different set of eyebrows than they might have a decade or so ago.

In leaving established, NCAA-successful women’s mid-major teams for long-downtrodden Big Ten programs, Bollant and Miller represent the kinds of hires some athletics directors are favoring these days: Individuals with demonstrated success as head coaches at a different level of the sport.

This hasn’t completely replaced the trendy practice of hiring top assistants — notably recruiters — at elite programs but who haven’t been head coaches. That approach worked at UCLA, which hired then-Tenneseee assistant Nikki Caldwell three years ago, and at LSU, which in turned hired her away from Westwood last spring. All along, her name has been in the conversation of who may become Pat Summitt’s eventual successor.

Miller, who took Bowling Green to the Sweet 16 in 2007, is getting an annual base salary of $275,000 at Indiana, which frankly hasn’t seemed very committed to women’s basketball. His press conference on Wednesday, at the Hoosiers’ splashy new basketball practice and office complex with his new team in attendance, appears to signal a significant change in emphasis in a basketball-mad state.

As Graham Hays of ESPN/espnW notes, there’s also the subject of gender, as two males are replacing females:

“There is a larger systemic problem in American sports when it comes to women and coaching. As an example, consider the world of Division I college basketball. An aspiring male coach coming out of college has more than 600 head-coaching positions theoretically available to him down the road — all of those in both men’s and women’s basketball. Given that we don’t seem any closer to women coaching men’s basketball, an aspiring female coach coming of college has half that number of opportunities when she looks into the future.

“Aspiring female teachers aren’t limited to all-girls schools. Aspiring female doctors aren’t limited to practices that see only women. But when it comes to basketball, it’s accepted as a societal norm that aspiring female coaches will work only within their gender. In turn, that reality creates understandable pressure within women’s basketball to promote, literally and figuratively, women coaches. If only half of the coaching positions available to women in the first place are actually held by women, what incentive is there to go into coaching?”

During the 1990s, it would have been extremely difficult for Bollant or Miller even to be interviewed for these jobs. Back then, aspiring assistants like Tom Collen at Arkansas and mid-major head coaches like Bill Fennelly at Toledo wondered if they would get a fair chance to move up.

This was a time of highly-charged Title IX litigation that reached the U.S. Supreme Court and the publication of books alleging that macho football was a hindrance to women’s progress in sports and a menace to women in society. Sentiments were running high that women needed to be considered for virtually every major opening, to seriously begin cracking “the glass sneaker.”

Collen eventually led Colarado State to an Elite 8 (with Miller as an assistant), then moved to Louisville and this season guided Arkansas to the NCAAs. Fennelly also moved up, to Iowa State, which was an atrocious job when he arrived in 1995 but he has since taken it to multiple NCAA tournaments and crafted a national attendance leader.

While Hays makes some good points about the limitations on women in coaching, there are a few other factors involved. I can think of a few young women who played the game at major programs, got into coaching and left the business. One simply wanted to go into private business, and while she attends the Women’s Final Four and keeps close ties to people in the sport, she hasn’t looked back. Another was a star on a Final Four program, was given the heady responsibility of recruiting, but she also left for the private sector. She wanted to get away from the hectic lifestyle of constant travel and relentlessly chasing after high school players.

Another young woman played at a BCS school and became a recruiting coordinator at a conference rival, helping it reach the national elite, before crashing out a few years ago. She now coaches a high school girls team, but as she started out she embodied everything women’s sports leaders prized in a future coach.

Coaching burnout in the women’s game is becoming a more prevalent topic, especially with the resignation of Gail Goestenkors at Texas. Various reports last night indicated that former Longhorns assistant Karen Aston, who’s been at Charlotte and now North Texas, has interviewed for the position. Her Texas connections are seen as a plus, something Goestenkors didn’t have and which cost her in recruiting.

While there will be those who grouse that there aren’t more women coaching, athletics directors who invest millions in a money-losing sport want at least to get something of a return on that investment by hiring coaches they think will be the right fit. Whether it’s male or female, black or white, mid-major or BCS assistant, the choice generally comes down to some very bottom-line factors: Will this person win? Will they represent what we want to embody?

I’ve long believed that the game needs all of the very best coaches it can get. So many men like Bollant and Miller have worked in dedicated obscurity in women’s basketball for so many years. Now they’ll get their chance to show what they can do at the top level.

If they’re as good in the Big Ten as they’ve shown elsewhere, this can only be a good thing for the sport.

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