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Balancing act

Women's programs no longer live in shadow of men's

Posted: Tuesday March 8, 2005 6:16PM; Updated: Tuesday March 8, 2005 6:16PM
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Kristin Haynie
Michigan State's Kristin Haynie takes a shot over Minnesota's Shannon Schonrock during the Big Ten tournament finals. The Spartans won 55-49.

Once upon a time it seemed an article of faith that a great women's basketball program couldn't exist on the same campus as a top-flight men's team. In the 1970s Immaculata, Delta State and Wayland Baptist didn't make noise in the men's NCAA tournament, nor did Syracuse, Memphis or North Carolina dominate the women's AIAW brackets. There were exceptions, of course -- Maryland and UCLA, for example, had great women's programs back in the day -- and even moments of synchronicity: in 1973 Indiana's men's and women's teams made their respective Final Fours, and in 1983 Georgia did the same thing. But successful coexistence was more the exception than the rule. Then North Carolina won the NCAA women's title in 1994, and in 1999, Duke athletic director Joe Alleva and school president Nan Keohane made news when they shuttled between San Jose and St. Petersburg to catch their women's and men's teams in that year's Final Fours. Now double duty has become so commonplace (see Oklahoma 2002 and Texas '03 and Connecticut '04) that both teams have to win the title, as Connecticut did last year, for anyone to make a big deal about it.

This season has reinforced the point: If a school can support a men's power, there's no reason it can't have a good women's team, too. Look who emerged from behind the shadows of men's teams this year: Behind coach Dawn Staley, a WNBA player and Philly legend who had to be begged to interview for the head coach job five years ago, Temple broke into the national rankings for the first time in history. A few weeks later, Gonzaga did the same thing. Driven by 6-foot-2 junior Khara Smith, a suburban Chicago kid, DePaul rose to 11th in the coaches' poll this year.

The arriviste team that has the best chance to make the Final Four -- and, if their male counterparts get their act together, make its athletic director sweat commuting between St. Louis and Indianapolis all Final Four weekend -- is Michigan State, the newly minted Big Ten conference champion. Before coach Joanne P. McCallie arrived in 2000 from Maine, where she compiled seven-straight 20-win seasons, the Spartans had few highlights beyond a tie for the 1997 Big Ten title. But this year, the homegrown Spartans (nine of their 15 players are from Michigan, while another four are from neighboring Ohio) have knocked off defending champion Connecticut, Notre Dame and everybody in the Big Ten -- including three wins over last year's Final Four-darling Minnesota. More important, perhaps, McCallie and her scrappy team have made Spartan women's games into events. In the past five years, attendance has grown from 1,500 to more than 5,000.

That kind of transformation takes an athletic director with vision, a decent budget and a commitment to supplying the resources a coach needs to be successful. It takes a coach who is a good tactician, a great recruiter and an all-world salesperson -- "a great ambassador for women's basketball" in athletic-director parlance. Good players are critical. Great in-state players are best. Marketing is important. So is visibility -- at men's games, at local tournaments, in the AD's office, on campus. "If they aren't paying attention, you have to make them pay attention," says Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale, the former high school coach who took the once-moribund Sooners to the Final Four in 2002.