Where You Lead, I Will Follow… – A Call for New Leadership April 2006

25th anniversaries are great, aren’t they? You ponder the future and get to reminisce with some of the leaders in women’s basketball about their early days. Days when you had to make basketball courts out of trees you chopped down with your bare hands. When basketballs were hand sewn by small children and, and… And then Jody Conradt snaps you out of it.

“Usually when you ask someone to reflect back, they talk about how hard it was then. In retrospect, it was pretty easy,” chuckled Conradt, coach at University of Texas for the past 30 years. “It was about coaching and primarily what happened on the court. There was not much visibility, you didn’t have media issues, traveled on a shoestring. You didn’t have distractions as far as the players were concerned. Many times they played without any scholarship aid. They played for the love of they game because they were passionate about it.”

In her twentieth year at Division II Bentley College, Barbara Stevens avoided some barriers her fellow professionals encountered. “Bentley was at the forefront of giving women’s basketball, and women’s sports, what we needed to be successful,” recalled Stevens. “Back then we were fully funded scholarship-wise, we had full-time coaches – and I say plural in that a lot of our league didn’t even have a full-time head coach at that time. We basically had whatever resources necessary. The success we had, because of the resources we were given, helped to spur on the other programs within our league to then match us.”

Flip the coin and you find Division III Ohio-Wesleyan. “Twenty years ago you pulled out one section of bleachers,” noted coach Nan Carney-DeBord. “The budget was less than half the men’s. The uniforms were too small. I had a player, I remember in my very first game with her, she put on the uniform, sat down and it ripped. I brought it to the Provost’s office, laid it on his desk and said, ‘You know, athletes are bigger now. We need new uniforms.’ I was young and obviously brazen. Who would do that?” Fortunately, the two became friends. “He said it was the most incredible visual to have in terms of budget inequities.”

It’s possible Carney-DeBord is related to Gie Parsons, coach at Division II Clarion University (PA) for 17 years. Back when cheerleading and gymnastics were the only sports available to high school girls, she used a mix of subterfuge and stubbornness to pursue her passion. “I would hide a basketball during gym class,” she admitted. “Then I told my dad to come and get me an hour after [gymnastics] practice was over. I’d then get the ball that I hid and I’d shoot in the auxiliary gym. Until the ball hit the floor. Then my gym teacher would come and kick me out.” The school refused to start a high school team. Parsons started her own, serving as player-coach, running practices in a nearby church gym and scheduling games. “When I went to Slippery Rock, after I graduated I promised wherever I went – that was 1971, pre-Title IX – I’d start a basketball team.”

These are just a sampler of the journeys the leaders in women’s basketball have taken to arrive where they are. Whatever their path, whether they are nationally recognized or someone who’s earned the respect of their conference peers, they reflect the diversity and richness of a leadership that has simultaneously won games and served the sport. But as we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the WBCA, it is important to acknowledge a simple truth: These leaders have been at this for close to three decades. In the not too distant future, they are going to step away from the game and, well, do whatever it is people do when they step away.

When they do, are you going to step in to those leadership roles and meet the challenges the next 25 years bring?

Doubtless, the instant reaction to being called to lead is, “But I have no time.” Family crises, recruiting trips, essential public appearances, numbing administrative work, the courses you are teaching, the doctorate you are pursuing, the camps you are running. You can’t possibly.

“The danger,” acknowledged Oklahoma’s Sherri Coale, “is that young coaches get so enthralled, so focused with such a singularity of purpose on building their program and reaching their own goals, that they forget that they have a responsibility to grow the game. You can’t take that lightly.” A member of the WBCA’s Board of Directors, Coale counters with an old adage: “‘the busiest people get the most done.’ You’re going to have to prioritize: Is it really important that the coaches have a voice in officiating? In the NCAA tournament? In recruiting? In practice time? In student-athlete welfare? If the answer to that is, ‘Yes,’ then don’t look around for anybody else to do it. You need to do it.”

The only Division II coach to serve as WBCA president, Stevens encourages her colleagues to participate, even though the Association can appear very Division I driven. That, she admits, is where the money, power and, when necessary, the media spotlight is. Yet, said Stevens, “there are so many more coaches of women’s basketball that are not Division I, that still have needs and want to see this and that happen. I think the organization tries to meet the needs of all of those people with good intentions. They have vehicles by which we can all have a voice in our legislative committees. They’ve fought for legislation at all divisions. There are some things that we want that are Division I driven and there are a lot of things that we don’t want. The one thing we do have is a voice in the organization to express that.”

The WBCA leadership has grown to encompass the exchange between a larger, more diverse group of representatives, and those discussions have shaped the organization’s agenda. “That interaction is an important piece of it because,” Coale noted, “we need to understand those on all sides of us — it’s not necessarily above and below, but on all sides – and how they attach to and affect one another. At the end of the day you have to break out and go address the issues that are particular to your level, but that interaction and understanding of the challenges that each level faces is very, very important to the overall growth of the game.”

“It’s the responsibility of that ‘old guard’ to make sure that the people that are following us in this game have good mentors,” said Marsha Sharp, who recently resigned after 24 years at Texas Tech. “That we’ve adamantly included them in meetings. That they’ve been able to watch that process and they do understand that, no matter how good the individual program is, if the game’s not strong it’s not going to be what we want. We have some young coaches, quality, terrific people who have already shown that they’re willing to step out of the comfort zone of their own program and try to move the game forward.”

Susan Johnson, who’s been at NAIA Georgetown College (KY) for 28-plus years, relishes the time she had in the WBCA. “It really gave me an opportunity to network with Division I coaches. Sure I should take the initiative and every day call one DI coach and talk to them,” she admits with a grin. “But to have those meetings where I could converse? It was just an invaluable experience.”

“I have gained so much more from serving on that track than I have ever given to it,” reflected Sharp, a board member at the WBCA’s inception in the 80’s and also served as president from 2001-03. “A lot of that has to do with relationships that I’ve formed with coaches across the country. We’ve become good friends because we’ve sat shoulder to shoulder in meetings and fought some battles for women’s basketball. It’s a great way to get to know people across the country and at all Divisions.”

That and, let’s be honest, it looks good on the resume. And you get nice nametags at official functions. And hey, if you’re lucky, you get to spend two days in August in beautiful Atlanta!

This year, when North Carolina’s Sylvia Hatchell received the RUSSELL ATHLETIC/WBCA Division I National Coach of the Year award, every other award went to a man. “I’m not saying the men shouldn’t have opportunities to coach, but where are the women?” wondered Hatchell. The most recent studies show the decline in female coaches that started as more money came in to women’s athletics has continued. Contributing factors include the loss of female athletic administrators, the fact women are no longer limited to the traditional teacher-nurse-secretary jobs and, well, admitted Hatchell bluntly, “It’s a lot of hard work. A lot of people don’t want to put in the time.”

“I think these kids arrive at the age of 22 with a sense of entitlement,” said Janice Quinn, New York University’s (DIII) head coach for 18 years. “I see them jumping into coaching as ‘What they can get out of it?’ There are some really good people out there, but you really have to encourage the right people to get in to it. Being a leader is hard. Being a coach, being an administrator is a very challenging profession right now. The challenge is to curb the sense of entitlement with, ‘Hey, the fact that you’re getting so much out of this — what is your responsibility to give back?'”

“There has to be an appreciation for our history,” explained Howard University coach Cathy Parson. “And it happens across the span of life, where we feel the younger generation doesn’t quite embrace it the way they should. We have a responsibility that they understand it, because as they become older, that’s when they embrace it. I’ve never asked any of my younger coaches, ‘Do they feel entitled?’ but their actions indicated that they feel entitled. It’s very clear that the issue of paying your dues has not been preached so much to them as it was to myself,” Parson explains. “You have to work hard and nothing is promised to you. For me it’s like, ‘Okay, why are you involved in coaching? Is it because you have a passion for the youth? Is it that you really want to leave a legacy for the next generation? Is it because you really want to make a difference? Or is it that you really just want to go out there and make a name for yourself as quickly as you can, make as much money as you can and then just get out of it as fast as you can?'”

Georgetown’s Johnson knows a quick fix. Consider, she said, what a Junior College coach did this past convention: brought along a former student, now at another institution, and took her to everything, including the celebration of the 25th NCAA Silver Anniversary team. During the question and answer period, the young student-athlete asked Tennessee’s Pat Summitt a question (one of the few who dared). “Pat offered that woman a job at her camp because she had the gumption to get up,” Johnson pointed out. “Now that young woman is networking with people who can make a difference in her life. Who can encourage her to go in to coaching, to pursue her dream. If every coach in the country had done that, we’d be set with women coming in to the profession.”

Rutgers’ C. Vivian Stringer dubbed it the “Quick Twitch Reaction” — the pressure on coaches to instantly produce or perish. Coaches have lost their jobs; most visibly at the Division I level, but it is happening across the board. “It’s disturbing,” said Stevens. “We’re not going to be on TV. We’re not going to be generating thousands of dollars for our athletic programs – we’re nothing. And yet coaches are getting fired left and right. I know there are always two sides to a story, but the fact that because you didn’t win enough you get fired – at the lower levels – come on. Let’s take a step back.”

“We all get in this and we know we are being judged based on the number of wins I have beside my name,” Steven admitted. “If there are a lot of wins, wow, I must be something special. And you know, I might be the worst person in the entire world, but everyone thinks that I’m this hot coach because I’ve won x-number of games? Is it all about this or is it all about what you’re actually doing to help these kids grow as people? I would hate to see our game and our sport become all about winning and losing. To have that be the value that our kids see. You’re a success or a failure – there’s no in-between.”

Ah, the pressure to win and its impact on recruiting. You can hear the whispers at every level: Will that Division III school lower their academic standards and manipulate financial aid in order to get that athlete? Will this Division II coach feel the need to “retaliate cheat” because everyone else says you have to if you want to win? Is the Hollywood “cash in the shoe box” of the men’s side surfacing on the women’s Division I side?

When it comes to regulation, Coale has little interest in getting bogged down in all of it. “‘Is this the number of days we should have on the road? Do we want to legislate text messaging?’ All these ‘little’ things that I know are big things. At the end of the day,” says Coale, “you cannot legislate morality. We better be teaching people to be ethical individuals and to do things with the right mission and the right purpose.”

Russ Davis of Vanguard University (NAIA) accepts the challenge. “In our leadership we need to make sure we have more discipline with ourselves, our teams, the people we recruit and the people who we deal with,” he said. If you are in a position to use your influence to encourage more ethical behavior, do so. For example, Davis coaches a high profile club team. He will not play in a tournament if it includes teams or coaches that he thinks aren’t working with integrity. Additionally, “there are tournaments out there just gouging the coaches,” he explained. “They’re [charging] $600 for coaching packets and the big time schools can afford it. But the lower and mid-majors? They don’t have the budget for that.” Recognizing that his team’s absence can impact a tournament’s bottom line, he simply avoids those events.

Stringer, too, has seen the beginning of the “slippery slope.” “When we get to the point that we will do whatever we need to do to win,” reflected Stringer, “then we teach our kids to do whatever we do to win. And those little kids become young adults, and those young adults then are in authority positions and continue to perpetuate the same kinds of things. Whether you are Muslim or Catholic you understand ‘Thou shalt not steal,’ ‘Thou shalt not do some fishy things.’ Stringer sees a need for some basic laws, the “’10 Commandments’ of our profession,” she says, “Anyone who steps over it – in any ways shape or form – is to be banned. Until we have a code – not an NCAA code – I’m just talking about a code of ethics. Unless those of us who have been there…provided we can open our mouths and say anything. I can’t be around here stealing and cheating all my life and then step up and say something to one of my younger colleagues who might be doing some things. But I do think that we need to stop before we go a couple more steps. We need to break it down and make sure it’s a great, great profession.”

The issues surrounding race and homosexuality are highly charged and in particular need of strong and courageous leadership. “It’s very difficult,” acknowledged Howard’s Parsons. “It brings in too many points that can be bones of contention when you have serious conversations about sensitive matters. When you think about women in sport, when you think about diversity in sport, when you think about gender equity in itself and how African Americans have been treated in a field that has been heavily dominated by African Americans…. All those sensitive subjects no one really wants to discuss. And no one wants to offend, but many are offended. So how do you have an intelligent conversation without offense, knowing all the time that many feel a certain way concerning all these subjects?”

Supporting the profession can sometimes mean looking outside the coaching world for guidance. Helen Carroll led the University of North Carolina-Asheville to an NAIA national championship and later served for 16 years as an athletic director. On the staff of the National Center for Lesbian Rights since 2001, she is profoundly aware of the challenges in battling homophobia in women’s sports and how it has, or has not, evolved over the years. “I’d say it’s more similar than different,” reflected Carroll. In other words, it’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” It’s the kind of mindset of, well, that has nothing to do with coaching basketball, which is completely false. It has to do with how you lead your life, what’s important to you, your support systems. It still has to do with a fear of not being able to be hired by the male athletic directors. The fear of scandal – meaning that people know you are a lesbian or that you are thought to be a lesbian.”

“I don’t want blame or criticism thrown towards women who are coaches,” Carroll explained, “because I think that we have been conditioned to try and survive the best way we can in a very sexist atmosphere. Secondly, what I’d like to see from the leadership of women’s coaches is to set a very fair and open atmosphere for their athletes using the language around lesbian athletes and around LGBT people in an accepting way. And then I think it’s the responsibility of some of the rest of us [outside the profession] to work with athletic directors and college professors to teach them how and why it’s to their advantage to set an accepting atmosphere for all of their coaches, and trickling down to the athletes.”

Whatever the actions, Carney-DeBord simply knows that her profession has to be united. “We’re all in it together,” she said. “Just like we develop our team unity, we need the unity to be supportive, to be stronger, and not let – whether it’s our faith beliefs or gender stereotyping or sexual orientation — divide us.”

“As much as we’ve grown in the last 10 years,” reflected Coale, “I feel like we are just on the cusp of another explosion. And in order to manage that – and preferably channel all of those good things – we have to be involved. Unless we as coaches get involved with the leadership of our game, someone else is going to, and it’s going to go in a direction that may not be best for it. Coaches have to have a voice.” “We need be diligently concerned about who’s controlling our sport,” added Conradt. “Who makes the crucial decisions for our sport? Who’s the caretaker? Unless we have the right kind of people taking care of our sport and growing our sort and controlling our sport then it can easily go amok.

Needless to say, it’s up to the coaches to decide how their voice manifests itself. Not everyone has the time, personality or inclination to become a board member. Perhaps you’ll chose to be a Conference Captain, serve on the Rules Committee, or vote on the awards. Or can you emulate the Great Lakes Valley Conference and encourage every member to join the WBCA? Here’s a challenge: Division III’s answer email surveys better than Division II’s. Dare you to change that. Invite your institution to bring in the Women’s Sports Foundation “It Takes a Team” to lead school wide diversity trainings. Or sit down with your athletic department and ask if the money is equitably distributed. Could your student-athletes develop a “Healthy Recruiting” manifesto?

However you choose to lead, we would do well to heed the words of Coach Sharp. “I’ve always adamantly fought to bring everybody to the same table and move forward together. The game stays stronger when everybody is on the same page and fighting the same battle. Having some consistency about your message, some camaraderie among your groups. That,” she said, “is the challenge that we all need to take up.”


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