We’re not too far away from the end of the college basketball regular season.
Don’t look now, but March arrives in two weeks. Small-conference tournaments will begin, and power-conference regular seasons will give way to the festival of brackets which fills our lives during the transition to longer evenings and the coming spring.
The following is not a risky statement to make: It’s not too early for various Division I athletic directors to consider their next men’s basketball head coach.
One of these days — or years, or decades — a woman will be given the opportunity. Is it time yet? Only the ADs in question — in this or any year — can answer that question.
What’s worth saying right now: One candidate clearly stands out… and should be able to make such a decision if she wants to.
The first instinct when contemplating the arrival of a woman as a men’s head coach is to think of a program where an established women’s coach already exists. An easy example here is Stanford, where Tara VanDerveer has forged an iconic career in women’s basketball. Johnny Dawkins is laboring along, about to make yet another NIT (and perhaps win it — he’s really good at that). Conceptually, it’s not hard to imagine VanDerveer sliding over to the men’s program — she knows how to recruit at (and from) Stanford, after all — and having her longtime assistants maintain the women’s program.
Yet, it is often the case that what might be conceptually simple is still immensely complicated in reality. VanDerveer is 62, meaning that she’s not just an established coach, but one who has traveled a little farther down the path at her program. Would she want to uproot that at this stage for a venture whose success cannot be assumed to the same extent? If ever a program wanted to move its women’s coach to the men’s side, Stanford is the best example (and/or avenue). However, the odds seem small at best, and very possibly nonexistent.
This raises the other more realistic possibility: What about a candidate with unquestioned credentials… but no similarly strong attachment to a job (for reasons beyond her control) and a few more years to find her footing as a head coach?
Nancy Lieberman has (almost) seen it all and (almost) done it all in basketball. She’s played college and professional hoops. She played in the Olympic Games and other international competitions. She has coached women (WNBA) and men (the NBA’s D-League). She helped develop Martina Navratilova into one of the most dominant athletes of the 1980s and in the history of women’s tennis. She’s been a broadcaster for many years. Recently, she closely followed Becky Hammon of the San Antonio Spurs into the NBA coaching ranks. Lieberman became the NBA’s second (full-time) female assistant coach after Hammon became the first under Gregg Popovich.
“Hmmm,” you might be saying. “Sacramento’s coaching staff isn’t going to be intact beyond this season. Seems that Lieberman will be unemployed fairly soon.”
Yes… which leads us to the epiphany a Division I athletic director will hopefully experience in the coming weeks.
Nancy Lieberman, at 57, still has another chapter to write in her basketball life. Whereas VanDerveer might be too invested in Stanford women’s basketball to consider a shift to the men’s program, and whereas Kim Mulkey — in her early 50s — has too much of a good thing at Baylor (with the men’s program in good hands under Scott Drew) to make the same internal move, Lieberman does not face the same constraints.
The fact that Lieberman has not only spent a season in the NBA as an assistant coach, but has witnessed firsthand the dysfunction in the Sacramento organization, should give her an excellent sense of how to manage players and — just as importantly — expectations.
Yes, Lieberman has to want a Division I men’s coaching job, and yes, the athletic director who makes the move will certainly be ridiculed by some as engineering a publicity-stunt-level maneuver. However, when one considers the breadth and depth of Lieberman’s coaching experience in men’s basketball, the idea of having her lead a D-I program is hardly preposterous. Short of an icon such as Pat Summitt (who obviously won’t coach again due to health concerns) or VanDerveer, few other women are more qualified for this opportunity than Lieberman.
What program would be a good landing spot for her? That’s an important question. Illinois is a job that will open up soon, but that’s a high-level job in college hoops, one freighted with the specific pressure of having to recruit the Chicagoland area. Yes, we did say that Georgia Tech needs to think creatively in terms of addressing the Brian Gregory situation, but similar to Illinois, putting a coach in a major metropolitan area (Atlanta) invites a spotlight whose intensity might not be appropriate for what would be a landmark moment in the history of college basketball.
Let’s entertain the idea that Stanford would want to move on from Johnny Dawkins. Lieberman coaching with VanDerveer in the same athletic department — coaching basketball and being a source of wisdom — could create an environment in which Lieberman could succeed. One could say something similar for Rutgers if the Scarlet Knights say adios to Eddie Jordan. Lieberman could have a coaching office not far away from C. Vivian Stringer, a legend in her own right. Stanford would come with more expectations; Rutgers has zero expectations, so in that sense, Rutgers would be the better landing spot.
Yet, there’s a better idea than all of them.
Lieberman’s D-League coaching experience occurred with the Texas Legends, an affiliate of the Dallas Mavericks. Lieberman’s TV career has flowed in multiple directions, one of them being a run with Fox Sports Oklahoma as an analyst for Oklahoma City Thunder games.
Oklahoma State — a job which may or may not come open — is too prestigious a job for an experimental venture. That’s not what’s being thought of here. The Big 12 job which would suit Lieberman is TCU.
The Horned Frogs are a football power, but they’ve consistently failed to do much of anything in hoops. Some will say — not without reason — that it would be unfair to give Lieberman a job where it’s extremely difficult to win. However, that seems like a more appropriate fit than a program where instant results are expected, which invites withering scrutiny from fans and media.
Here’s a bigger point to make: Bottom-rung programs such as Drexel and Chicago State might also fire their current coaches. Scrutiny at those places would truly be minimal compared to a top-flight job, but those schools scream “minor leagues” to the point that the impact (or the sense of challenge and risk) would be small to the point of irrelevance. TCU is not an easy place to win, but it’s situated in a power conference, which strikes a balance between the low-scrutiny and high-aspiration ends of the spectrum.
A trailblazer in men’s basketball head coaching probably shouldn’t go to Illinois… and probably shouldn’t go to Chicago State. She probably shouldn’t go to Atlanta in a loaded ACC… but she also shouldn’t go to Drexel or one of college basketball’s other often-ignored outposts.
TCU first, Rutgers second, and maybe Missouri third in a football-mad SEC — these are schools which should give more than a little thought to hiring the first woman head coach of a men’s Division I basketball program.