Coaching USA Basketball: A Road Paved With Gold? – April 2005

If I asked for a quick show of hands, I bet 80% of the people reading this would be hard pressed to identify what the rather inelegant acronym ABAUSA stood for. Of course, since I wouldn’t want to encourage gambling, I’ll give you a hint: ABAUSA was created in 1974.

Still not sure? Hint two: It was renamed USA Basketball in 1989.

Confused? Well, then, please indulge me in as I share a little back-story.

When the United States joined the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) as a member in 1934, it was the Amateur Athletic Union (a very different beast than the AAU of today) that FIBA first recognized as the organization responsible for USA teams in international competitions. While the AAU had been holding U.S. women’s basketball championships in since 1929, the 1953 World Championship marked the very first time a major international basketball competition was held for women. Until the early 1970’s, staff and players for those teams were drawn from AAU teams, sometimes known as Industrial teams, with names like Nashville Business College, Midland Jewelry, Raytown Piperettes and the Hutcherson Flying Queens. AAU All-Americans like Katherine Washington, Doris Rogers and Colleen Bowser competed under the direction of coaches like John Head, Harley Redin and Alberta Cox.

ABAUSA, or the Amateur Basketball Association of the United States of America, emerged in 1974 after a 10-year struggle between the AAU and other U.S. basketball organizations for control of the USA’s international teams. With the recognition of ABAUSA by FIBA, international teams and coaches began to be drawn almost exclusively from the collegiate ranks. The first team fielded by ABAUSA was for the 1975 World Championships. Though coached by Cathy Rush of Immaculata College, it included none of Rush’s “Mighty Macs,” instead featuring such players as Lusia Harris, Nancy Dunkle, Ann Meyers and Pat Head (later Summitt). Choosing Rush as coach “really was a no-brainer,” admitted Bill Wall, Executive Director of ABAUSA from 1974-1992, “Margaret Wade having retired and Cathy having just won three straight AIAW titles with Immaculata.”

Why this walk down memory lane?

Because in examining some of the concerns around college coaches coaching for USA Basketball — Is it fair for them to be coaching potential recruits? Is the process for being a USA Basketball coach open enough? How does one position your athlete to become a participant in USA Basketball? — it’s obvious these are not new concerns.

“We heard those stories way back,” said Wall, recalling in particular the reaction to the rapid elevation of one young person to a coaching position. “We moved Pat Head up very quickly because of the fact she was an outstanding player and, we all know now, had the making of a helluva fine coach.”

This is not to say these issues are not legitimate and worthy of discussion. But it is useful to put them in context of the very explicit mission of USA Basketball: To win gold medals.

To those within USAB, agendas that distract from that goal, especially the idea a coach coaching the younger teams might attempt to recruit those players, seem incomprehensible. Anne Donovan, who has been involved in USA Basketball since 1983, first as a player and most recently an assistant coach for the Gold medal winning team in Athens, seemed almost stunned at the possibility. “I understand and recognize why they’d be concerned but – and forgive me, but I’ve been so entrenched in USA Basketball for more than half my life – that organization is not run with that intent. You’ve got all these all-stars who want to play, all who have been starters, and now you’re the coach that doesn’t think they’re a starter? You’re going to make five friends – your five starters. And you better win a medal, because that also affects their career. USA Basketball program has been so much about gold and silver medals, that anything less than that is almost unacceptable.”

Virginia coach Debbie Ryan, a five-time USAB coach, response was immediate. “I don’t think it’s an issue, to be honest. USA Basketball is real clear about the demarcations between coaches and players. You’re not supposed to do any recruiting. If you do, you just won’t do [USA Basketball] again. You’re a professional and you need to act like a professional.”

Professionalism was a theme echoed by recently retired coach Colorado Ceal Barry during the USA Basketball panel at the 2005 WBCA convention. “If you go in with the idea that ‘I’m going to recruit this player,’ as opposed to going in with the idea that ‘I’m going to win a gold medal,’ you’re already off on the wrong foot,” explained Barry. A coach for nine different USA teams, she noted her most recent team had several unsigned players. At her first practice, her focus was not on recruiting those seven or eight athletes, but, she said with a smile, getting the entire team into “something that replicated a defensive stance.”

“You can disrupt the chemistry if you’re focusing your energy and time on recruiting,” Barry added. “As a head coach, I expected that from my two assistants as well. If one of my assistants was focusing on recruiting, she lost my respect. You may gain a player that plays at your school for four years, but I feel like you’re asked to do a job as important as coaching a USA Basketball team, and there are a thousand other options to coach that team, you’d be foolish.”

Ironically enough, Barry and fellow panelist Jim Foster, himself a coach of nine USA teams, wondered if coaching the recruitable athlete was actually such an advantage. “Some of these kids have never been through a collegiate practice,” explained Barry. “I told these kids this summer, ‘I’m a college coach, you guys are high school. I’m going to run these practices like college practices.’ I gave them plenty of warning at the trials – told then what to do, how to prepare. And when they showed up, none of them had. In three weeks, you can’t really build trust,” Barry continued. You don’t have that sort of opportunity. When you’re trying to whip a team into shape to get ready for gold medal competition, you have more opportunity to lose them.”

“Every coach walks in to it knowing that the expectation is a gold medal and nothing else is good enough,” said Foster. “You can finish fifth in the league and get into the NCAA Tournament. [For USA Basketball] you’ve got to win the games to get to the medal round, and then you’ve got to win the games in the medal rounds just to know you did what was expected of you. So, when you see a coach, you see them in real time. And they’re not recruiting, believe me.” As an example, Foster recalled the questions raised after University of Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma coached Ann Strother, who later signed with UConn. Foster, a good friend of Auriemma’s said, “If you spend three weeks with him and you still want to go play for him, you’ve seen the whole package. I don’t think it’s an advantage at all.”

USA Basketball is well aware of these concerns, explained panelist Carol Callan, who’s been involved with USA Basketball since 1989, and has been Assistant Executive Director of Women’s Basketball since 1996. “We’ve had many discussions on what we could do to try and make this right.” This past summer, for example, because Barry was practicing during the recruiting time, she was required to open up practices half time so other coaches could attend and observe. But that had it’s own unexpected repercussions. “If you’re the coach trying to get on a kid and they’re sitting there wanting to be recruited, you can imagine what kind of disaster that can be in terms of getting your team together,” said Callan. Additionally, it didn’t really “solve” the problem since observing can’t match the interaction between coaches and those players. A coach spends more time with the team just because they are the coach. And, to be honest, as three-time Olympic medalist and fellow panelist Dawn Staley pointed out, “coaches who are coaching these high school players [are] showing them why they’re one of the best coaches in the country.”

“But I have to say, from a USAB stand point, is it fair to have your best players and not give them the best coaches?” asked Callan. “You want to have the best coaches with the best players. You want Candice Wiggins to become Dawn Staley. But, I don’t know the answer the other than what we’re doing, which is to continue to try and make sure that we select coaches that are the best coaches and will not [recruit]. I can’t say that it doesn’t happen, but we certainly watch it. We discuss it on the front end quite a bit – but if it comes to me during, we’ll confront it. Keep offering suggestions,” she added. “We’re open to them, but I don’t know that it’s going to be resolved in what people might classify as a “fair” situation.”

Issues of “fairness” swirl around the coach selection process because, and somewhat truthfully, it seems that positions are always staffed by the same names. While there is an online application form at the USAB website, it is a committee that chooses both the coaches and players for the Cadet/ Youth, Collegiate and Senior teams. The members of that committee (also available online) evaluate applicants that must meet some basic criteria and fit into limited opportunities. Consider, there are 320 Division I coaches, and in any given summer there might be six USA coaching opportunities, and within each team’s staff, there must be a minority. You must already be a head coach and be willing to commit to a two-year stint. That means giving up summers, being away from your family, adjusting your recruiting schedule, and being part of an institution that is willing to allow you to be away from the program you’re being paid to run. “And frankly,” explained Foster, “the objective is to win a gold medal. It’s not a situation where we want someone to try out for that position. You want somebody who can get the job done.” That often translates into experienced, established coaches who feel pretty secure in their jobs and can afford to take the time away.

Oh, and did I mention coaching USA Basketball is not a paid position?

So, if after all that, you’re still interested, what can you do to be part of USA Basketball? Well, first and foremost, understand that it can take a long, long time.

“The main thing is to be successful in your own program,” advised Ryan. “That’s where you draw attention to yourself. I think they watch very closely your demeanor. They watch the way you develop your players. They watch your players and how they act. All those things matter to USA Basketball because you can’t send kids over there who are going to be flamboyant, use bad language. It’s a very different culture. Very different realm of competition. It’s not about showmanship, because it’s not about the coach. It’s about the players. They’re looking for mature people that can coach the game – but that’s only a small part of it. A lot of it is how they would handle the changes of playing internationally.”

Volunteering is always an option. Some coaches are identified by committee members and are charged with ‘scouting’ players and coaches from different regions around the country. Barry, for instance, volunteered for eight years as a floor coach. Currently, when team trials are held, the coaching staff for those teams are the court coaches, but they’re supplemented with other court coaches from other levels of the NCCA, NAIA or Junior Colleges. Donovan points to being on a committee as another option. “Just get your name out as being someone who wants to be involved at any level,” she suggests. “That’s the start. It’s just like any other elite field. A lot of people assume, ‘They need to call me.’ Well, that’s not necessarily the case. If you’re very interested, that should be made known.”

Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw, who’s just finished a four year tenure as the WBCA representative on the Collegiate Committee, understands the frustration of those looking to break in to the USAB ranks. “I don’t think the problem of USA Basketball is we’re not getting great coaches. We’re getting the best coaches, so we’re doing something right. The thing I look at is how can we get the young people in there with out them having the political clout or the feeling, “Well I know someone on the committee so maybe I’ll get a look. Maybe my player will get a look.” It’s still political, and that’s where you want to fight it. That’s what the coaches who don’t get in think. That perspective, that, ‘You know what, I’m not one of the “in” coaches, so I guess I’ll never get there.'”

Interestingly enough, when McGraw reflects on the make up of her committee as well has her own challenge to wear a “USAB” hat as opposed the more familiar “Big East” hat, she recognizes an intriguing paradox inherent in the overall discussion. “We’re torn constantly in our game. No matter what we’re talking about – everybody’s always trying to be fair. And when you’re trying to be fair, some people get hurt by it.” Consider the collegiate committee is made up of NAIA Appointee, NJCAA Appointee, a WBCA Appointee, four NCAA Appointees, and two Athlete Representatives. Depending on a member’s geographical location, and their overall exposure to coaches, it’s can make the selection process daunting. When picking High School teams, it’s even harder. “If you don’t recruit nationally, you may be sitting in the room with eight people and six of them have never seen 90% of the kids you’re talking about play,” says McGraw. “But, again, you don’t want to say, ‘OK, only schools who recruit nationally can be on this committee.'”

“It’s a difficult task,” acknowledges Callan. “At the Cadet/Youth level, representatives are selected regionally so they have all the bases covered somewhat. (USAB) sends out a letter to 30 colleges and universities asking who they think are the top 12 players in each region.” Based on those responses, as well as the committee’s networking with their High School and AAU people, they try and identify the top 36. “Is it perfect? No,” says Callan. “I think we get the top 30. There’s always argument on #31-36.” The process is somewhat similar at the collegiate level. “In the past,” says Callan “we’ve assigned committee members two or three conferences they pay attention to. We prepare a spread sheet of every school in every conference and we have looked at last year’s post-season’s honors, this season’s pre-season honors and this year’s post-season honors.” Letters are sent to every Division 1 coach and to the National Federation of High School and AAU for distribution so others may have input. The Committee will meet to discuss and then, after talking to colleagues and other people, begin to revise and pare down that list. Once they come to trials, 15 or 16 finalists will be brought to training camp where a sub-committee of the collegiate committee to come to the first couple of days of training camp and identify who’s going to be on the 12 member team.

“If you’re trying to position an athlete to at least get a look, you should go back to who’s on our collegiate committee and talk to them,” suggests Callan. “Let them know and tell them why. We try to be as inclusive and perfect as we can be.” (There is an application form on the website.) Of course, as with coaching, the opportunities are very limited. “When you look come down to the Olympic team, they range over the years – from ages 23-33. There’s 12 players, so you’re looking at probably the NCAA player of the Year for ten different years. So, any given year if you have three players who are the same age on our Olympic team, that’s a lot.”

As Women’s Athletics Director for the University of Texas, Collegiate Committee chair Chris Plonsky has a new worry concerning access to players. “The game is changing at our institutions,” says Plonsky. “Today, if Dawn was a freshman in college, in order to play her season, she has to have 40% of degree program in place by her fifth semester. That’s a big ole semi in the middle of the road compared to everything our head caches in our sport are dealing with. If you think about USA Basketball, it’s in the summer. And what the NCAA rule system has done is make summer part – truly part – of a regular academic semester for our kids. Not only do I think a lot of men and women basketball players are going to school routinely in the summer, now our kids are being allowed to come in early and get summer school so they can get ahead. That will change the access to those young ones, and depending upon how the kids on your own teams are doing [academically], it could change USA’s Basketball access to them. USAB needs to be in step with what’s going on in the college platform. [College administrators] are paid to get young men and women through our system, with a degree within a five-year track, and we are being judged semester by semester.”

“I think the biggest thing,” added Staley, “is I don’t want to detract from is us winning gold medals. If everybody would look at that – all the coaches – look at that, that is the standard that USA Basketball has set. We must not lose sight of that – even with all the other stuff that enters into that. We don’t want to take away that part of USA Basketball, because that’s what makes it special. If you’re fortunate enough to coach, or fortunate enough to play, you’ll know what I’m talking about, and you won’t see it as that kind of advantage. We need to continue to be representatives of the best teams and coaches in any country.”

To that end, Callan encourages open dialogue. “Ask us anything. Tell us anything. And let’s work together, because that’s the only way it’s going to work.”

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