Without a pioneer spirit, almost any endeavor that involves a breakthrough fails to happen. Whether it be human flight, splitting the atom or 360-degree dunks, someone has to be first.
A frontier yet to be conquered involves a woman coaching a men’s basketball team at the college or NBA level. There have been explorers – Bernadette Mattox, Nancy Lieberman and Becky Hammon – who either stepped off or are still on the trail. The road to the ultimate destination, though, appears long and so far the steps have been relatively small.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who has been on the job for three years and is tasked with taking the league into new territories, made a bold prediction earlier this year when asked if he believes there will be a female head coach in the NBA.
“There definitely will,” he said. “And I think it is on me to sort of ensure that it happens sooner rather than later.”
Hammon (San Antonio Spurs) and Lieberman (Sacramento Kings) are currently assistant coaches. Considering how San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich has immersed and embraced Hammon on his staff, she might be on the fast track to shatter the “glass backboard.”
While there is apparent progress on this topic in the pros, women’s college basketball is stalled. Danielle Donehew, executive director of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association, says that the WBCA is a professional association for female and male basketball coaches, so it’s not advocating either side.
“I’m a big believer that our women’s basketball coaches are compelling candidates to coach basketball, either men or women,” Donehew said. “Student-athletes and professional players want to play for great coaches, whether those coaches are male or female. There are plenty of females who are great basketball coaches who can be successful coaching boys and men. It’s just a matter of time.”
But this passage of time is not the typical tick-tock of a clock or flipping the pages of a calendar.
Bernadette Locke was an assistant coach and top recruiter for the Georgia women’s team in 1990 when she received a message from a Kentucky men’s assistant coach. Surely, she thought, Tubby Smith’s phone call had erroneously been routed to her desk.
But it was no mistake. Smith, then on Kentucky coach Rick Pitino’s staff in Lexington, wanted to talk to Locke because his boss wanted to hire her. Pitino’s process of pulling the Wildcats out of an NCAA sanctions sinkhole included hiring a woman as an assistant coach. Anyone who watches the replay of perhaps the greatest NCAA Tournament game ever played will notice Locke on Kentucky’s bench during its East Regional overtime loss to defending national champion Duke.
Locke, who married Vince Mattox while she was at Kentucky, spent four seasons on Pitino’s staff. Instead of that leading to coaching a men’s college team, Locke-Mattox became the Kentucky women’s coach in 1995 and spent eight seasons on the job. She has also been an assistant coach in the WNBA.
In March 2009, Lieberman became the first woman to coach a men’s professional team when she was hired to coach the Dallas Mavericks’ developmental league team. She is currently an assistant with the Sacramento Kings.
Lieberman working for the Kings is ironic to ESPN analyst Kara Lawson. In 2003, she was a studio analyst on Sacramento telecasts and had an interest in coaching. She asked to attend practices to observe
At first, her request was denied. Then the team allowed her to watch with other members of the media from behind a one-way mirror. Then Lawson was told she couldn’t actually attend practice because having a female near the court with be a “distraction.”
Lawson told SummitHoops.com: “When you deny the opportunity for somebody, and then you sit back and say there are no candidates – when people say to me, when people ask me if I think things will change – people need to say yes to someone who’s interest in learning, who’s interested in growing, who’s interested in being a coach.”
Hammon became the NBA’s first female full-time assistant coach in 2014 when Popovich hired her for his Spurs staff. She was a finalist for the women’s coaching job at Florida last March. Had she been hired, Hammon would have – in LaVar Ball terms – “returned to her lane.”
“I had a selfish reaction that if she took that job, what damage does it do to her chances of eventually becoming an NBA or men’s college head coach,” ESPN basketball analyst Doris Burke said. “Becky has a family. She might have decided the chance to coach a college team and get paid well might have been best.
“But as a member of the distaff side, I was thrilled she stayed with the Spurs.”
Burke is a pioneer in broadcasting, moving from working women’s college games as an analyst to becoming an outstanding member of ESPN’s NBA telecasts. But no matter her knowledge or communications skills, Burke battles age-old biases
When Silver’s comment was made, a Twitter troll commented that women are too short and men’s basketball players are too tall, and that creates a communication gap. And never mind that Red Auerbach was a vertically challenged 5-foot-9.
“There remains a cultural bias. It takes women to get that opportunity and to do a great job and change people’s minds,” Burke said. “But that happens slowly. The opportunities come one at a time but you’re seeing the change.
“Women are battling archaic thinking. Female broadcasters, even in 2017, get totally inappropriate comments about their appearance or their knowledge. On the distaff side, we have a lot to offer and are capable of fulfilling any number of jobs. But most of people in the position of power to hire are men. The men at the top have to think differently.”
Burke points out that women make 79 cents on the dollar compared to men. Yes, folks, it’s 2017, and this issue that first gained attention in the 1970s hasn’t been resolved. Equal pay for equal work probably ranks a bit higher on society’s important “to-do lists” than having a woman become the Jackie Robinson of coaching a men’s team.
While colleges and universities, those meccas for higher learning and human advancement, might be expected to be a thought leader when it comes to breaking down sexual stereotypes, it appears the opposite is true. Not only is there not even a faint whiff of a woman getting the chance to coach a men’s team, the percentage of female coaches in women’s college basketball has remained stagnant.
“It’s always a topic of conversation,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley told the Athens Banner-Herald. “Obviously, men are coming over to our game a lot more. It’s a gift and it’s a curse in that our game is so beautiful enough to attract men wanting to coach, and the curse is they’re pushing women’s opportunities out. I just hope that when making the decision that … whoever you hire is not based on gender, it’s made on how you think you can move your program.”
When Title IX was enacted in 1972, 90 percent of the female sports teams at the college level were coached by females. That number has dropped to 40 percent.
In 1977, nearly 80 percent of women’s basketball teams were coached by females. Based on figures available through the NCAA’s race and gender database, 56 percent of Division I women’s teams in 2015-16 were coached by females. In 2007-08, that figure was 63 percent.
“Any decline in the number of female coaches concerns us,” Donehew said. “It’s important that our student-athletes playing our sport have strong female role models to look up to.”
Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, the most obvious example of a man coaching the sports’ most successful women’s program, believes a decline in women’s coaches at the college level reflects the fact that women have increasingly palatable career choices.
“It’s a function of how much we’ve done to elevate women in our society – not nearly enough. But they have other choices, other than be a phys-ed teacher and a coach,” he said at the Final Four in Dallas. “Then they look at the profession itself. They go, ‘Do I really need to put up with that crap? I can get a job at Travelers, making X, live a normal life.’
“You want me to sit in a gym with 400 other coaches and watch 17-year-old spoiled brats play and I have to take five of them to come play for me? Not everybody wants to do that. Why? They have options that they didn’t have 25, 30 years ago.”
For women who do want to “put up with that crap,” the challenges and hurdles are plentiful and far outnumber the opportunities – which have been exceedingly rare when trying to break through to crossing over to coaching men.
Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer believes that the decline in the number of college women’s coaches is because they don’t get second chances.
“Women aren’t recycled in the way that men are,” she said at the Final Four. “I was very close to Johnny Dawkins, who was let go at Stanford. Great guy. Great guy. I went in the day he was let go. I kind of embarrassed myself. I started crying in his office. He’s consoling me, he said, ‘Hey, Tara, I didn’t get it done.’
“I told my friend about it. My friend said, ‘Don’t worry, he’ll get a job in a week.’”
Dawkins was fired by Stanford March 14, 2016. He was out of work less time than Anthony Scaramucci spent as White House Director of Communications. On March 22, 2016 Dawkins was named coach at UCF.
“That does not happen with women coaches,” VanDerveer said.
The veteran Stanford coach also believes that college administrators need to make the extra effort to hire women.
“You have to recruit women, and you have to really support them in a different way,” she said. “Women have different roles in their families with children, things like that. If athletic directors want more women in women’s basketball, maybe they have to look in the mirror and say, ‘All right, how can we make this happen?’ If you want women in your jobs, you have to look to hire them.”
Burke points out that women’s sports are “in a different place historically.”
This year is the 45th anniversary of Title IX – and it took decades before that federal mandate for equality gained real-world traction. The NCAA didn’t take control of women’s collegiate sports until the 1981-82 season. And 15 years later, with the birth of the WNBA, there was a viable women’s pro league.
“In 1997, the WNBA was college basketball 2.0,” Burke said. “Women had zero idea how to prep for a professional game, how to handle a professional schedule – three games in five nights. It was a process. And it wasn’t until some men – Richie Adubato and Mike Thibault, former NBA coaches – came to the WNBA that women had someone to show them how it’s done at the pro level.”
Even college football and the NFL have shown an interest in giving women opportunities.
Rivals and Southeastern Conference powers Alabama and Auburn have both hired females to be directors of their recruiting operations. Leah Knight was hired by the Crimson Tide for a position she had previously held at Colorado State. Mollie Moore was hired at Auburn after serving as Georgia’s recruiting program coordinator since 2015.
The New York Jets recently hired Collette Smith as an intern. She spent the summer working with the secondary and learning from defensive backs coach Dennard Wilson. Jets coach Todd Bowles said he hired the 44-year-old Smith not because she was woman but because of her knowledge and passion for the game. He told Newsday, “She’s a helluva football coach.”
Not surprisingly, there is no talk about a woman becoming a coach at the major-college or NFL level. But the inch-by-inch progress from a handful of women in other sports helps advance the idea that women are capable of coaching men’s basketball teams.
“Opportunity. Opportunity. Basketball is basketball. It doesn’t have a gender,” Staley said. “It has a mind. It has an approach. It has a willingness. Given the opportunity, women can excel in this game. As you can see. Becky Hammon is doing a great job. You need more people like Coach Popovich to give them opportunities to learn, to grow, and to embrace it.
“I don't think there should be a gender. I think there should be opportunity for all women. I’m one that thinks basketball is a place of utopia and fairness. I want to be looked at as a coach and not necessarily as a female coach. Once you’re given that opportunity, you see great things come out of it.”