Pat Summitt and the power of personality

The sport that Pat Summitt helped transform is going through a massive upheaval just as she steps away from the sideline.

The designation last month of the Tennessee Lady Vols legend as “head coach emeritus” added to the more than 60 head coach openings in women’s Division I college basketball in one of the busiest hiring off-seasons in years.

Warlick

After 27 years as Pat Summitt's assistant, Holly Warlick is the new Tennessee head coach.

While the Tennessee job was immediately filled with the appointment of longtime associate head coach Holly Warlick, Summitt’s departure comes as a great generational shift continues in the coaching ranks.

With nearly 1,100 wins, eight NCAA titles, multiple SEC crowns and dozens of Olympians and All-Americans in 38 seasons, Summitt was one of the last coaches dating back to the days of the AIAW, before the NCAA sanctioned women’s sports in 1981.

All that’s left of that small group with 30-plus years as head coaches are Vivian Stringer of Rutgers, Tara VanDerveer of Stanford, Georgia’s Andy Landers, Jim Foster of Ohio State, North Carolina’s Sylvia Hatchell and a few others.

By the time Geno Auriemma’s heralded incoming class finishes up at UConn, he’ll be in that club too, and he might well have surpassed Summitt’s national championship haul.

The coaching personalities who shaped women’s college basketball in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, with greater resources and media exposure, are giving way to a new breed with the additional burden — and I cringe to write this cliché — of greater expectations than their predecessors have ever known.

The money being spent on the sport is colossal and growing. More than 70 Division I programs budgeted at least $2 million for women’s basketball for the 2010-11 season, with 30 of those earmarking at least $3 million. (As these numbers indicate, 228 of the 338 D1 schools are into seven-figure spending.)

Summitt and Auriemma have led the pack of a handful of million-dollar coaches. The next one figures to be Kentucky’s Matthew Mitchell, who signed a nearly $8 million extension last week that makes him the highest-paid coach in the SEC. A good BCS job pays in the mid-six figures these days, as Purdue coach Sharon Versyp’s extension last week revealed.

The number of schools getting serious about women’s basketball increases. Just in my backyard in the ACC, Duke and Maryland remain strong, but in recent years Georgia Tech and Miami have burst on the scene, with hungry, extremely energetic and ambitious coaches in MaChelle Joseph and Katie Meier, respectively.

College stars in their playing days in the early NCAA era, as coaches they truly enjoy recruiting and have relished building national powerhouses despite what were seen as difficult odds. Joseph and Meier are 40ish, part of a generation of Title IX beneficiaries primed to step forward and command the coaching spotlight.

Meier1

Miami coach Katie Meier, a former playing standout at Duke. (Photo by Arlene Langer, IDI Sports)

Yet some highly accomplished coaches not much older than them are hitting the wall. Gail Goestenkors cited burnout as a factor in her decision to resign from Texas after five seasons. Here’s a million-dollar coach whose enormous expectations for herself and the iconic Longhorns program may have been unrealistic, given the national championship success of Baylor and Texas A & M.

When Nell Fortner stepped down at Auburn in March, three years removed from an SEC title, she talked about wanting to get on her paddleboard and “swim with the dolphins” to re-energize herself, if not as a coach for now, then just as a human being.

These women are in their mid-to-late 40s to early 50s. So am I. It’s an interesting age, as you receive notification that you’re eligible to join the American Association of Retired Persons, but you don’t really feel old. You certainly don’t have any desire to retire, even if you could afford it.

But rapid changes in so many fields, especially mine in the media, can have the effect of making you feel more antiquated than you know you are.

These coaches have worked extremely hard, made sacrifices, done everything right, certainly won enough and have been excellent representatives for their profession and their athletic departments.

Their resignations also may be viewed as two coaches who ran into some rare adversity in their careers, and decided to say goodbye to all that.

Regardless, the energy level that’s required to get ahead in the women’s coaching profession now is heading off the charts.

For several years now, the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association has scheduled sessions on “work-life balance” at its national convention. Head coaches and assistants alike openly bemoan the non-stop pace of travel, compounded by social media and text message communication that make it easier than ever to stay in touch with recruits. And make it harder than ever to get off the grid.

Last season Arizona State head coach Charli Turner Thorne wasn’t around at all, taking a nine-month unpaid sabbatical to spend more time with her children. She’s set to return in the coming season, her respite cited as a symbol of the relentless grind the women’s coaching life has become.

This toll is being felt by more than coaches. In response to criticisms of Baylor coach Kim Mulkey and the NCAA sanctions imposed on the recent national champions, Brad Wolverton of The Chronicle of Higher Education mentioned a 2010 NCAA survey that reflected growing player dissatisfaction in women’s basketball. The blame was placed primarily on coaches, with their increasing demands on the time of players listed as a major factor.

With increasing salaries come more pressure to win. The growing pains of the women’s game, now 30 years into the NCAA area, have reached this point, and there are varying opinions on whether this is a good thing. As WBCA CEO Beth Bass noted last year, for some coaches this moment may be a breaking point:

“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.”

That these concerns are ramping up as Summitt takes her leave as an active coach is more than ironic. The sheer force of her will and personality has been widely hailed in tributes, including corners of the sports media that don’t pay much attention to women’s basketball. Her decision nearly brought a champion NBA coach to tears. Summitt transcended her sport as perhaps no other woman has, with the exception of Billie Jean King.

When Summitt said at the formal announcement of her emeritus status that coaching basketball has been “the great passion of my life,” it was more than an understatement. The most driven individual in the history of the women’s game has simply had no equal in that department.

So many young coaches have cited her as a role model, mentor and even a reference. Meier has never forgotten the good word that Summitt put in for her as she interviewed for an assistant’s position at Tulane, her first full-time coaching job. Will this reaching out continue as the stakes get higher? As ESPN.com’s Dana O’Neil wrote last week, old-school coaches on the men’s side are lamenting the loss of tight-knit relationships and even friendships.

The frosty relationship between Auriemma and Summitt that led to the cancellation of the UConn-Tennessee rivalry thawed a bit at the Final Four, as they were seen visiting courtside on the open practice day. Auriemma, like Summitt, is in his late 50s. His personality, drive and vision carry on. So does Mulkey, who’s about to turn 50.

There’s budding 40-and-under coaching talent in every corner of the country, including unexpected ones.

But who’s got the outsized personality and ridiculous drive and energy level that Summitt demonstated for nearly four decades, and that is needed more than ever to accommodate the increasing demands of her beloved profession?

That’s a question that has no easy answer now.

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3 Comments

  1. Bern
    Posted May 7, 2012 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    The Beth Bass quote is spot on. I don’t think that being a top performing coach is much different than being a top performer in other vocations. To be among the very best at anything it takes an almost fanatical dedication. Most people, men or women, really aren’t up to the challenge, either personally or professionally.

    The problem with college sports is that many “average” coaching performers are being paid “exceptional” salaries due to the competitive nature of the coaching market.

    Seems a lot like business hiring to me. There are exceptional performers out there, but they are rare and difficult to parse out and hire. When properly identified and placed their performance is frequently incrementally better than the average performers. The secret of course is to accurately identify the exceptional skill sets and place them at a cost that the organization can benefit from, both from a monetary and a performance standpoint. It’s hard to do.

    In college sports it is a particular problem because there doesn’t seem to be an offset to the expense of hiring a supposedly qualified, expensive coach. In business you could terminate that person if he or she failed to perform as expected or promised. In college sports there are contracts involved and because there is no real “bottom line” like there is in business no one is relating revenue to expenses in a rational way. Hence our current reality.

    I think we can expect this to get worse before it gets better. These average coaches making $500K +/- just look at athletes as being inventory. They don’t seem to feel any responsibility for their players physical health when they are playing or after they leave unless that health somehow impacts their ability to continue to receive their paychecks. Concussions, ACL’s, whatever, it’s just “collateral damage” to a given coach’s career.

    In any case, appreciate the links. You consistently bring information to the table that no one else in women’s sports does. Thanks

  2. Posted May 7, 2012 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    Charli Turner Thorne talks at length about work-life balance and the need to take a breather even in the midst of the grind of being an DI WBB coach:
    http://wp.me/pwd9L-4TG

  3. Chris
    Posted May 7, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    I think D1WCBB is on the road to being a victim of it’s own success just like every other successful sport. I think Pat represented the purity, intensity and success of the game at it’s highest level. That is what so many of us loved. As long as she stood courtside we could not forget that. Her presence carried it. The challenge is definately there as far as direction of the women’s game. Once big money/notoriety gets introduced into a picture there is an inescapable segment of greed and coldness that goes with it. It is big business now. D1 WCBB is fast losing the ‘mom and pop” store feel to the ‘big time’. Universities need the money to compete. Players want to be showcased. Media scrutiny and attention is constant. Coaches have enormous pressure. Fans demand success and are little tolerant of growing pains. Right now I am still encouraged by the number of coaches who see themselves as teachers. They all will need our suport to take up the torch Pat carried for so many years.

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