Getting the story straight

12/21/2003 - Connecticut Huskies

Texas A&M coach Gary Blair was sitting in the bleachers of a gym in the Bahamas, watching George Washington and Penn State play women's hoops. Heck, he'd watch the GW and Penn State mascots play, he's such a big fan of the sport.

So I asked Blair about the recent Sports Illustrated article by Frank DeFord on Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma and star Diana Taurasi.

The story includes this statement about Auriemma being hired at UConn in 1985: "He got in under the wire. Nowadays a man would have no shot at a high-profile women's college basketball job. The sport is too visible for such an athletically incorrect move. Geno is the last dinosaur.''

Blair chuckled a bit at this.

"Now tell me,'' he said, "didn't I just get hired this spring? Didn't Jim Foster get the Ohio State job a year ago?''

Yes, indeed. And about this "last dinosaur'' thing ... SI is saying that there aren't any other male coaches of note? What?

"I take that as a slap in the face,'' Blair said. "You know, I feel I can still coach a little basketball. What about Andy Landers? Jim Davis? Mark French? Joe McKeown? Bill Fennelly? Joe Ciampi?''

They run the programs at Georgia, Clemson, UCSB, George Washington, Iowa State and Auburn, respectively, and have been pretty darn successful.

Then Blair added, "And look what 'Cinderella' did at Villanova last year.''

Of course, that's Harry Perretta, whom SI references as "another dinosaur.''

Which begs the obvious question ... how can a story say there's a "last dinosaur'' when it acknowledges there is, at the very least, "another dinosaur?''

Blair wondered why the media does stuff like this. Well, hyperbole is an old trick for writers. Everyone uses it to some degree. Sometimes it's quite funny, sometimes it's cliché. And sometimes it's so overdone, it mars a story because it needlessly ignores the truth.

There's a lot that's interesting in this profile of Auriemma and Taurasi, which is really more on him than her. But the story has serious distortions, the kind that are symbolic of how history and facts too often are either dismissed or unknown/unresearched when it comes to coverage of women's sports.

All writers make mistakes; none of us are immune. But this SI hyperbole is not the same as a typo or a gaffe made in a hurry or even a misunderstanding. It's a deliberate writing/editing choice that states, "We'll say whatever we want, because we think no one really follows this sport enough to call us on it.''

Further, the SI story follows a too-common pattern in women's sports coverage: The isolating of success, turning it into some freakish phenomenon that's to be categorized like strange weather, unprecedented and unduplicated.

That's why the story needs a rebuttal. Sure, many Connecticut fans will see this column as raining on the Huskies' parade and miss the point entirely.

Which is this: Auriemma's coaching success, Taurasi's great ability and the UConn's fan support can stand alone without the hyperbole that either ignores or dismisses facts about women's basketball.

Distortions 1a and 1b
We'll start with the notion that it's impossible for men to get good jobs coaching women's college basketball; and that Auriemma is the only "dinosaur'' left.

The SI story spends a few paragraphs saying how lowly the UConn job was in 1985 and that Auriemma himself thought maybe it would be just a stepping-stone to a "really classy'' program. Two paragraphs later comes the statement that Auriemma got under the wire because nowadays a man has no shot at a high-profile job in the sport.

OK, let's get this straight: It WAS NOT a high-profile job when Auriemma took it. It is now, thanks to him.

So how would you reasonably define today's "high-profile job'' in women's hoops? Isn't it about the same?

If "high-profile'' was only a program that has already had a lot of success ... good grief, how many of those jobs have even come open in the last 15 years or longer?

At this stage in women's basketball, any job at a school willing to really commit resources and enthusiasm to its program could be called high profile or at least have that potential.

Men DO have those jobs; some have had them for a long time. Others are newer. Among the more prominent who were pretty recently elevated or changed jobs are Blair at Texas A&M, Foster at Ohio State and Kurt Budke at Louisiana Tech.

Tom Collen got the Vanderbilt position, but lost it after a résumé gaffe that turned out to be much ado about nothing. He sat out a year and got hired at Louisville. Another man, Chris Denker, got Collen's former job at Colorado State.

And along with those Blair mentioned earlier, here's a few he didn't get around to: New Mexico's Don Flanagan, Georgetown's Pat Knapp, Wisconsin-Green Bay's Kevin Borseth, Alabama's Rick Moody, BYU's Jeff Judkins, TCU's Jeff Mittie, Syracuse's Keith Cieplicki, Western Michigan's Ron Stewart, Hawaii's Vince Goo, Pepperdine's Mark Trakh,
Liberty's Carey Green, Portland's Jim Sollars, LaSalle's John Miller, San Diego State's Jim Tomey, West Virginia's Mike Carey, Houston's Joe Curl, Duquesne's Dan Durkin, St. Bonaventure's Jim Crowley, DePaul's Doug Bruno, Indiana State's Jim Wiedie, Southern Mississippi's Rick Reeves, Gonzaga's Kelly Graves, Dayton's Jim Jabir, Fordham's Jim Lewis ...

We could go on, but you get the drift. Those are not all "great'' jobs, but they're all filled by so-called "dinosaurs.''

Look, if you want to make the point that it's sometimes harder for men to get Division I women's basketball head coaching positions when there is pressure on athletic directors to hire women, fine. Make that point. You can do it without completely skewing reality.

There's no question that bad hirings have been made. And then you have a case like Blair's. Arkansas got caught in a foolish fervor that it needed to have a female basketball coach and made him feel unwanted -- despite his success and deep roots in the community. However, Texas A&M's athletic administration was wise enough to lure Blair, who already
has made the Aggies a better team.

Certainly, men who are head coaches in mid-major leagues or assistants in major conferences might feel as if they are swimming against the tide when it comes to making their next professional move up on the head-coaching ladder. But it's ludicrous, an absolute falsehood, to say that it never happens for them.

Sometimes they have to apply twice for a job, like Fennelly did at Iowa State. Sometimes they painstakingly climb every step, the way Budke did, before finally getting a chance that somebody else got without as much work.

But that happens in every profession for many reasons, not just gender.

Further, it's also important to at least wonder if some athletic departments hire less-experienced women simply to save on salary, in the belief that they might have fewer options in the coaching profession and thus no negotiating power.

Most reasonable people would say they'd like to see the best person get hired for any job. But when Auriemma or Foster, who loudly beat the drum of discrimination against males, say "best person,'' it's fair to question whether their view is any more valid than the anti-male extreme. Do they ever ask if it's the "best person'' when a man gets hired?

Distortion 2
"Coaches had never seen anyone like Diana Taurasi. She never doubted herself.''

There's nothing negative to say about Taurasi. She's the best player in college now and on the short list of "best of all time.'' She has advanced the game the way really great players do.

But there have been great, confident players before her. She did not originate the persona. Cheryl Miller could do
anything on court and was happy to let you know about it. She radiated confidence. So did Lynette Woodard, Nancy Lieberman, Teresa Edwards ... you could add many others to that list.

The thing is, the vast majority of women's basketball's past has been unseen by even big fans of the game. Unless you were there in person, you missed it. There's so little video. Testimony to past stars is largely anecdotal, and there's not even that many anecdotes.

But it did happen. And it doesn't advance Taurasi's well-deserved "legend'' by ignoring or dismissing all that preceded her. If anything, it's a far greater compliment to say that she stands out so much in a sport that does have a history of talent and interesting personalities.

Plus, some of the "history'' is quite recent and was well-chronicled. Just a few years ago, it was Tennessee's
Chamique Holdsclaw whom some in the media said was like nothing ever seen before. Holdsclaw finished her career with 3,025 points and 1,295 rebounds on a team that was not only in the powerful SEC but also played the toughest nonconference schedule in the country. And her teams won the national championship three times.

Distortion 3
"All these fans of women's basketball. Wide-eyed girls with cameras. Adoring older women. And: men. ... You're not going to get this anywhere else in America.''

Oh, sure ... if you don't consider -- just to name some examples -- Lubbock, Texas, or Knoxville, Tenn., or Springfield, Mo., or Albuquerque, N.M., or Ames, Iowa, or West Lafayette, Ind., or Ruston, La., or Manhattan, Kan., as part of America. If you skip the fact that the Big 12, Big Ten and SEC have been 1-2-3 in conference attendance the
past four seasons.

People care passionately and in great numbers at UConn. The fan base has compelled the region's media to cover the team in a much more professional and thorough way. With the revenue from ticket demand and a public-television deal, UConn has created a model everyone wants to emulate.

But, again, why the extreme hyperbole that ignores the rest of the women's basketball world?

There are Texas Tech fans who never miss a single practice. There are third-generation Tennessee and Louisiana Tech fans. And who showed more postseason enthusiasm last season than New Mexico followers?

You do not have to throw any of that out the window in order to properly elevate UConn. In fact, to do so actually does the opposite. What's the joy in "reigning'' over something that supposedly no one else in America cares about?

Bottom line: It's good to see Taurasi on the cover of a national sports magazine. It's good to see lengthy stories about women's basketball. But it's not too much to expect -- to demand, in fact -- that those stories be told without sweeping hyperbole that omits facts.

Mechelle Voepel is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. She can be reached at mvoepel@kcstar.com.