MINNEAPOLIS — Like all great point guards, Dawn Staley set it up perfectly.
Asked why there’s not a surge of young coaches climbing the ranks in the women’s game, and what happens when the longtime coaching giants like Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma and Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer finally retire (both are 68), Staley turned the question around.
“I think there are a lot of young, bright coaches out there,” said Staley, who will coach in her second title game Sunday against Auriemma and powerhouse Connecticut. “And here’s where I have to put it back on you all: you’ ve got to find the stories because they are out there. We just tend to go to the ones that have been in our game a long time.”
While there’s a handful of coaches under the age of 50 whose teams were routinely ranked in the top 25 this season, the reality is that women’s basketball is top heavy. For decades, the women’s game has been dominated by senior citizens. Auriemma (11 titles), VanDerveer (three titles), LSU’s Kim Mulkey (59, three titles at Baylor) and Tennessee’s Pat Summitt (64 at the time of her death in 2016, eight titles). Since the first women’s NCAA Tournament in 1982, those four coaches have combined to win 25 of the 39 titles.
As Staley, 51, pointed out, the question is not just where are the young coaches — it’s why aren’t we covering them?
In the men’s game, it’s not uncommon for a young coach who has a good season or an impressive NCAA Tournament run to suddenly catapult into the national spotlight, which often helps him land a plum Power Five job. In the last month, Florida hired Todd Golden, 36, away from San Francisco, and Shaheen Holloway, 45, got the Seton Hall job after leading Saint Peter’s to the Elite Eight.
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But in women’s basketball, that pipeline moves slower.
Part of it, as Staley pointed out, is because women’s coaches — and women’s sports, in general — don’t get the coverage they deserve.
Take Jackson State coach Tomekia Reed.
Reed, 40, and Jackson State took third-seeded LSU to the brink in the first round, leading by 10 with less than five minutes to play before LSU — in front of a raucous home crowd — stormed back to win. In four seasons at Jackson State, Reed has led the Tigers to three consecutive SWAC regular season titles and two straight NCAA Tournament appearances. But none of us are writing about her, and when it comes to filling Power Five jobs, she hasn’t really been in the national conversation.
“I just think we need to make people aware and make the media aware of some of the young coaches out there. That’s why I gave out pieces of the net, so you’ll get to know who these coaches are, and why I chose them,” Staley said, referencing her move this season to send a piece of South Carolina’s 2017 championship net to every Black woman coach in the game — continuing a tradition that started in 2015, when former Purdue coach Carolyn Peck, the first Black woman coach to lead a team to the NCAA women’s title in 1999, gave Staley a piece of her championship net. In a story that’s practically lore in the women’s basketball community, Staley tucked that strand into her wallet and pulled it out in 2017, after South Carolina beat Mississippi State for Staley’s first title.
“The landscape of coaching is changing,” Staley continued. “I think Black coaches are getting more jobs now, more Power Five jobs. They have to do well because we don’t really get recycled in other head coaching positions. I do think we need to bring awareness of long-time assistant coaches who haven’t gotten an opportunity to head women’s basketball programs.”
Each of the Final Four teams, with their veteran associate head coaches, are perfect examples of that: Chris Dailey has been Auriemma’s right-hand woman at UConn for a staggering 37 seasons. Lisa Boyer has been Staley’s top assistant since 2002, when they were at Temple. Stephanie Norman has been at Louisville for the entirety of Jeff Walz’s 15 years. Kate Paye’s been a member of Stanford’s staff with Hall of Famer Tara VanDerveer since 2007.
It’s worth pointing out that part of why these teams have had so much success is because of the stability on their staffs. Still, each of these women is accomplished enough to lead their own program and it’s likely that along the way, they’ve turned down some opportunities.
“I think women’s coaches do see the bigger picture more often,” said Notre Dame’s Niele Ivey, now in her second year leading the Irish after 12 seasons as an assistant. “When you see someone who’s five years into the business and has been at four schools, that’s a red flag. But it is normalized more on the men’s side, I think because that’s just a big business.”
Added Dailey from UConn: “One thing I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older is, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying where you are.” Finding the right fit is crucial, Dailey said, because women’s coaches often aren’t recycled in the profession the way men’s coaches are.
“I would like to have a job where, you do a pretty good job, you get fired, you still get paid — for a long time — and then you get hired again, for more money. Where does that exist?”
Bret Bielema can answer this question: College football.
Ivey, who turned down numerous opportunities to run his own program before leaving for the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies for one season and then returning to Notre Dame, also pointed out that compensation is dramatically different. While women’s coaches are making more money than ever before, it typically pales in comparison to men’s coaches. According to a recent USA TODAY Sports salary survey, men’s coaches make, on average, four times more than women’s coaches.
Another quirk of the women’s game: it’s much more common to see some of the most accomplished, veteran coaches jump from one big-time job to another (think Vic Schaefer going from Mississippi State to Texas, and Mulkey hopping from Baylor to LSU) than hiring a hotshot assistant or young mid-major coach. In the men’s game, once you reach a certain level, you usually don’t leave; that’s due, at least in part, to parity.
Almost every men’s coach believes he can win a title at his current school, and the numbers bear that out. In the last 39 years, while four women’s coaches have won a combined 25 titles, 27 different men’s coaches have won.
“There’s a lot of experienced coaches out there,” Auriemma said. “Maybe we’ve been so good for so long we’ve overshadowed some of the good, young coaches. I think that’s happened a little bit.
“But I do think there are a lot of really good young coaches that just haven’t had the space yet to grow … I think all those upsets that happened this year in the NCAA Tournament, I don’t know for sure, but that was a lot of young coaches coaching those teams that went on the road and beat good teams.”
(He’s right: Courtney Banghart at UNC, who won at Arizona, is just 43. Dawn Plitzuweit, who led South Dakota to a stunner over Baylor, is 49 and was just hired at West Virginia.)
“So they just need a little more time. I think as that gets better and space becomes more available – you know, if I left UConn tomorrow, some 60-year-old isn’t going to get the job. It’s going to be a young coach who is really good.”
You can learn their names when that happens. Or you can get ahead of the curve and start learning who they are now.