- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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Whether the criticism is fair in the specific case of Auburn's decision to hire Gene Chizik to coach its football team, Charles Barkley's blistering take on the situation shines a useful spotlight (or blowtorch, as the case may be with Barkley) on the legitimate and wide-ranging issue of minority hiring in big-time college football.
But that's not the only coaching inequality marring the sporting landscape.
Athletic playing fields have often been a forward operating station on the march to equal opportunity across society as a whole, from Jackie Robinson to Billie Jean King. The sideline real estate coaches occupy, on the other hand, remains a bastion of backward thinking that lags behind the times.
There are women flying combat missions, running Fortune 500 companies and performing surgeries in hospitals across the country. There is a woman waiting to be confirmed as Secretary of State, months after narrowly missing out on her party's nomination for president.
There are no female head coaches in men's college basketball.
God forbid a woman tells an 18-year-old guy he should have gone over a pick instead of under it.
There are nine men coaching women's basketball teams in the Big East. Among the 73 women's programs competing in the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-10 and SEC, there are 22 male head coaches. And even that split is a step up from a sport like women's soccer (more than half the coaches in those conferences are men) or softball (male coaches abound, and varsity college softball is contested only by women).
That's not to demean the contributions of thousands of male coaches who have helped strengthen women's sports (or as the pot to the kettle, the male writers who cover them). The point here is not to suggest a regressive ethos that segregates the sidelines based on the gender of the competitors.
The point is how can anyone possibly suggest it's fair that a man hoping to coach Division I college basketball has more than 600 potential jobs to chase but a woman has half as many opportunities -- and has to compete against twice as many people for them?
When I asked NCAA president Myles Brand about this at the Women's College World Series in 2007, he essentially dismissed the apparent inequality out of hand.
"I don't think that's the problem," Brand said, "because there are coaching opportunities for women's sports, but there aren't sufficient numbers of women pursuing those jobs and therefore not being hired. I think we have the openings; I think we have the opportunities. You're right that men have more opportunities because they cross over, but there are enough opportunities for women. I would suggest that the women who are in coaching, particularly in the early stages of it, aren't persisting long enough to be able to do it or are dropping out."
Faced with a job market that offers fewer than half as many potential openings as it does for young men interested in coaching, and knowing that the positions that do exist in women's basketball offer lower salaries, on average, than those in men's basketball, it's supposed to be surprising that women might not persist in that career path? And the onus for change is somehow on them?
"I don't know particularly right now that that is of primary concern to all of us," Joni Comstock, the NCAA vice president of championships and senior women's administrator, said at the time in 2007. "I have great concern, because it appears to me that we have fewer and fewer young women that have an interest in starting in coaching, period. And those that are starting in the profession, obviously coaching women they get discouraged and decide not to continue to pursue the career. To me, we're in crisis right now on that alone, just an interest and an ability to stay in the profession. If we could just get a number of women interested in women's sports, then I think worrying about the opportunity to coach men's sports is down the line."
Isn't that the exact opposite of how gains were made following Title IX, when the proverbial playing field was leveled and athletic participation increased in generation after generation of girls?
All of this pushed itself to the forefront of my mind when I ran into Alisa Kresge at Marist's recent game against Boston University. The point guard on the Marist team that advanced to the Sweet 16 two seasons ago, Kresge is now the director of women's basketball operations for the Metro Atlantic Athletic Association. Considering I've never seen a player better at controlling a game on the court from behind the scenes -- she averaged more assists per game than points in her career -- it's reassuring to know she's now in charge of the MAAC-hosted NCAA tournament regional in Trenton, N.J.
Kresge is a basketball junkie, as is probably required of someone with such an intuitive understanding of how all the pieces on the basketball chessboard operate. No doubt she could manage a corporate team as well as she managed a basketball one, but she wants to stay involved with the sport. The opening at the MAAC office provided a perfect opportunity to do that while learning the administrative side of things, but it's a position that might ultimately prove too far removed from the court for a point guard's soul.
"I love basketball and I'm still kind of involved, but not hands-on," Kresge said. "So I would like to eventually try and take that step and coach somewhere. I would really enjoy that, I think."
Marist coach Brian Giorgis has a full bench at the moment (with three female assistant coaches, in addition to a rapidly growing coaching tree of former players spreading throughout the sport). But whether it's in Poughkeepsie or somewhere else, one of the college game's best tacticians of the moment is confident he has already seen a glimpse of the future in his former guard.
"I think she would be a great coach," Giorgis said. "She was a coach on the floor. I mean, you talk about high basketball IQ; I would have put her in the category of genius. She knew the game. She understood everything. I mean, she knew a [scouting report] -- she knew who could and who couldn't. She could get the ball to people at the right time."
The women's game needs people like Kresge, and like the hundreds of recent graduates already on coaching staffs across the country. And neither she nor her peers need aspire to coach men instead of women. It's equally important that girls at the high school and college level have not only more female mentors but also more quality mentors of any gender.
"I think it's extremely important," Giorgis said. "It's not just a matter of having a woman; it's having a quality woman -- a person of integrity, a person with passion, a person with desire."
But until women have the opportunity to coach men's players -- and until it's not accepted as a fact of life that half the college coaching jobs in America aren't open to them -- the game of basketball on both sides of the gender line will suffer.
That's the inevitable toll of inequality.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
13dBonnie D. Ford