Women’s Pac-10 Matters
The future of women’s college hoops resides in the West.
by Clay Kallam
The games are late. The teams are weak. The players aren’t that good.
That’s your East Coast perception of West Coast women’s basketball, plain and simple, and even as a lifetime Left Coast resident, I have to admit that some of that East Coast bias is justified. But it doesn’t have to be that way – and in fact, for the good of the game, it shouldn’t be that way. If women’s basketball is ever to break out of its regional pockets and become a truly national sport, that change has to begin on the West Coast, and specifically in the Pac-10.
Sadly, though, that isn’t going to happen any time soon. Though Stanford, Cal and Arizona State are all solid programs, and Stanford sits only behind UConn in the AP rankings, the rest of the league trails forlornly behind. Why? Because, in general, athletic directors and school presidents don’t feel women’s basketball is worth much of an investment.
But as has often been said, demography is destiny, and despite California voters and their unerring ability to chart a course guaranteed to produce economic and political disaster, it still has more people than any other state in the country – and all the states the Pac-10 represents are growing each year.
So, logic would suggest, for women’s basketball to grow, it would make sense to do well in areas where the population is growing, rather than in areas where the population is shrinking, such as the East or parts of the Midwest. To zero in even more, what women’s basketball really needs are good teams in Los Angeles.
Why L.A. and not Portland? Because if UCLA and USC have good women’s basketball teams, one of the two largest media centers in the country suddenly has a reason to care about the game. As it is, bad luck and administrative indifference have sentenced both schools’ women’s basketball teams to the purgatory of mediocrity, where they languish slightly about water polo in media impact.
But both schools recently hired new coaches, which might herald the dawning of a new era – but actually probably doesn’t.
USC began by firing Mark Trakh, a solid coach who had done a great job recruiting, except for the fact that his last two McDonald’s All-Americans now have five ACL operations between them. And in between, former USC quarterback Matt Leinart fathered a baby on his leading scorer, and lesser players were felled by a series of injuries that seemed to come right out of some ancient curse. In short, Trakh wasn’t to blame, though AD Mike Garrett should get some credit for even noticing the team wasn’t doing that well.
Garrett’s choice to replace Trakh was a strange one: Though Michael Cooper had a fine career in the NBA, and coached the Los Angeles Sparks to two WNBA titles, he failed miserably as head coach of the Denver Nuggets, with rumors that he just didn’t put in enough time to really master that demanding job. Presumably it won’t take as much effort to coach in the Pac-10, but Cooper nonetheless has a lot to prove. He’s never coached at the college level, and thus has no recruiting contacts to draw on. In addition, that last WNBA title was in 2002, when the players he’ll be recruiting next summer were 9 years old.
But Garrett has made it clear he doesn’t care much about anything but football, so expect continuing indifference if things don’t go well, at least until Cooper’s contract runs out.
UCLA, on the other hand, may have gotten lucky. The Bruins didn’t pay as much as Stanford, Cal or Arizona State did for their coaches, but Nikki Caldwell looks like she’ll be a success (despite that opening upset at the hands of Illinois State). Still, it would have been nice to see UCLA step up and pay the going rate for proven coaches, many of whom would have come to Southern California had the price been right.
Of course, the Pac-10 can thrive without those two schools, but it will be harder. Oregon was once a very successful program, but faded into insignificance under Bev Smith. Now, with run-and-gun guru Paul Westhead on board, at least the Ducks will be fun. Washington also could be a national contender, but Tia Jackson has run off players, alienated fans and started this year with a loss to Portland State, so don’t expect the Huskies to do much in the near future.
Arizona once was OK, but again, administrative indifference seems the rule, and both Oregon State and Washington State will always fight uphill battles against the other eight schools.
But let’s paint a rosy picture. Cooper and Caldwell get it going in L.A.; Westhead revitalizes Oregon; Niya Butts finds the magic in Tucson; Tia Jackson’s replacement in Seattle lights a fire; and the three existing powers stay at the same level. Now, you’ve got a real league, and now fans have a reason to go to Pac-10 games. Now ESPN will push for some of those games on its national broadcasts, and maybe some will be moved to more East Coast-friendly times. And, perhaps most important of all, now young West Coast stars will no longer feel the need to go to UConn (as Diana Taurasi and 2011 superstar Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis both did), which will further fan the flames of success on the Left Coast.
And then, women’s basketball doesn’t just thrive in Knoxville and Storrs and the Big 12 and other scattered oases, but all up and down the West Coast as well. L.A., the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle and Portland get excited about women’s basketball, and so do TV networks and sponsors, and so do little girls, and so do paying customers.
It’s all there for the taking, as there’s nothing that stands in the way of Pac-10 success – except of course the Pac-10 schools themselves, which need to realize, as other schools have done, that women’s basketball can generate income in ways that the cross country team never will, and that investing in the sport will pay off both on and off the court.
And in the end, the entire sport would benefit – even if it meant East Coast fans would have to start staying up later to see crucial games.