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Original Issue

No Skirting This Issue

It's time athletic directors considered top women coaches for men's college basketball jobs

Some of the most interesting action during a Final Four weekend takes place at the National Association of Basketball Coaches' headquarters hotel, where it seems nearly every college coach in the country is hanging out in the lobby. Athletic directors like to come in and chat up the coaches, in many cases buttonholing prospective candidates to fill a vacancy. Last weekend in New Orleans, I saw several athletic directors working the lobby of the Sheraton, each searching for someone to lead his men's team, but none of them asked me for advice.

That's too bad, because if they had consulted me, I would have told them about a terrific candidate they haven't even considered, someone who took a stagnant program and built it into a two-time national champion. This coach runs a program that has an excellent graduation rate, has never had a hint of scandal and has a national recruiting base. What's more, this coach teaches the technical aspects of the game as well as anyone. The athletic directors might assume I'm talking about Mike Krzyzewski of Duke, but in fact I'm describing Stanford women's coach Tara VanDerveer.

That's right, I would have suggested a woman as the next head coach at a Division I school with that opening in its men's program. Sure, there would be some professional risk for any athletic director who took that step, and there might be some embarrassment if it didn't work out. But look at what's happening now. This season the men's coaches at California, Utah State and Army were all fired because they made playing basketball seem like going to boot camp. And think about Bobby Cremins of Georgia Tech...I mean South, I mean Georgia Tech, waffling over which job he wanted. What could be more embarrassing than that?

Every school wants a coach who will cast its athletic program in a positive light, look out for its athletes and win games. There are women coaches capable of doing all that, just as there are women who have distinguished themselves as athletic directors and university presidents. If women can teach men chemistry and political science on college campuses, surely they can teach them the matchup zone.

If they thought it through, most athletic directors would agree with me. If they had bothered to ask me in New Orleans, I would have told them of another coach who consistently produces an outstanding defensive team, recruits well in urban areas and serves as an exceptional role model, especially for black players. That description may fit John Chaney of Temple or John Thompson of Georgetown, but I would have been talking about Vivian Stringer of Iowa.

Or maybe I would have told them about a coach whose team regularly contends for the Pac-10 crown and has become a hot ticket in town. Arizona's Lute Olson? Well, yes, but also Washington women's coach Chris Gobrecht.

This isn't to say that any of these top women coaches are longing to move to the men's game. The point is, they should get the same consideration for a men's coaching job as promising male coaches receive. But some women's coaches think this is a bad idea, that having women cross over to the men's game would imply that coaching females is somehow less important than coaching males. Washington athletic director Barbara Hedges has even said that hiring Gobrecht for the vacant Huskie men's job would unfairly damage the women's program.

There's nothing wrong with opening the search for a men's team coach to all qualified coaches, regardless of gender—which is what usually happens when an athletic director is searching for someone to coach the women's team. It used to be that men coached women's teams because women were considered neophytes. But in case you haven't noticed, the women have caught up to the men, if not in their ability to play the game, at least in their ability to teach its principles.

Anyone who argues that young men couldn't accept being coached by a woman is underestimating most college basketball players. Don't we constantly hear players talk reverentially about their mothers and about growing up in households headed by a woman? The idea of a woman in authority wouldn't be a shock to many of them. Also, it's easy to imagine a woman being better than a man at persuading a high school star's parents that she is interested in more than just their son's basketball ability, that she would make sure he goes to class and eats properly and gets in at night. Listening to a woman's recruiting pitch would be like hearing Chaney talk about his 6 a.m. practices at Temple: She would scare off some players, but the ones who came would really want to be there.

And let's not get bogged down in the woman-in-the-locker-room issue. Men who coach women's teams have handled it without difficulty, and women would do the same.

It's not as if the idea of hiring a woman to coach men's basketball is totally foreign. In 1990, Kentucky coach Rick Pitino hired Bernadette Locke-Mattox, a former All-America at Georgia, to be one of his assistants. (She's still the only woman assistant on a major-college men's team.) The same year, Virginia interviewed its women's coach, Debbie Ryan, who went to the Final Four three times in the last four years, before hiring Jeff Jones to coach the men's team. This winter, after coach Lou Campanelli was fired for verbally abusing his players, Cal athletic director Bob Bockrath said one alumnus had urged him to contact VanDerveer.

Bockrath should have gone ahead and done it.