A rational ratio?

Updated: May 31, 2006, 8:11 PM ET
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

The WNBA's new slogan this year is "Have you seen her?" It's referring to the league's players, of course, not talking about its head coaches. Because in most games in this league, you're not going to see any "hers" leading a team from the sidelines.

Anne Donovan
Storm coach Anne Donovan -- one of just three female head coaches in the 14-team league -- led Seattle to the 2004 WNBA title and Charlotte to the 2001 finals.

The ratio is 11-to-3 in terms of male-to-female head coaches in the WNBA (pending the potential move of Sacramento's John Whisenant to the Kings and, if that happens, seeing who replaces him).

The three women are Seattle's Anne Donovan, Minnesota's Suzie McConnell Serio and New York's Pat Coyle. Donovan is also the U.S. national team coach and the only female coach who has won a WNBA title. She's easily the top success story thus far among women coaches in the WNBA.

McConnell Serio played in the league, and is in her fourth season as head coach of the Lynx. Minnesota is not off to a good start, having lost its first three games, but McConnell Serio's job doesn't seem in jeopardy because the Lynx seem to have the capacity to turn things around.

The Liberty are also winless through three games, and they appear to have all the makings of a seriously awful team. A lot of New York fans are ready to see Coyle sent packing (but they want Senior VP/General Manager Carol Blazejowski to go with her).

I don't think this is going to happen, but …. it's not completely out of the realm of possibility that Donovan could be the only female coach left in the league at the end of this season.

Can you imagine a 13-1 ratio? As I said, I don't predict it will come to that. But it could. And 11-3 is enough cause for a discussion.

First, I've never agreed with the premise that it's necessarily better for women to coach women or that men should be discouraged from coaching women. People should not be put in boxes or pushed down certain paths because of gender. With the belief that people should be allowed to pursue whatever (legal) occupation they choose, I've never had any opposition to men coaching women.

But most of the men who are or have been involved in coaching in the WNBA did not specifically choose women's basketball. They haven't come to the WNBA because it's a women's league. To be realistic, many have come in spite of its being a women's league.

For some, their long-term vision really is about what's best for the continued growth and success of this league. They have been and will continue to be important contributors. For others, their long-term vision might have little to do with the WNBA. Others don't have any long-term vision.

Questioning the 11-3 ratio isn't saying that men shouldn't get head coaching jobs in women's pro basketball or that there is some "correct" quota. I can't stress enough that I absolutely don't think that. Yet something seems out of whack when men have almost four times as many head coaching jobs as women in the only professional women's team sports league in this country.

Van Chancellor, right, and John Whisenant.
Bill Baptist WNBAE via Getty ImagesOf 14 WNBA head coaching jobs, 11 are held by men, including Houston's Van Chancellor (four titles) and Sacramento's John Whisenant, who won the '05 crown.

How did we get here?

A successful women's pro basketball league in the United States is still a new venture, and its growth has been inspiring. But it also has been marked by uncertainty, a general lack of expertise and some hard-to-defend decisions.

The league started by giving coaching opportunities to people who'd been in the women's basketball world for their careers -- but many of them weren't necessarily that successful at the college game or perhaps they once had been but couldn't keep pace in an improving sport. That's part of the reason they were available. And the fact that the league itself was considered a risky venture -- no previous women's pro hoops league in the United States had lasted very long -- meant the WNBA wasn't in a position to be all that choosy.

Those first-wave coaches additionally had to adjust on the fly to the distinct differences in what it takes to be a success in pro coaching as opposed to college coaching. You have to handle pro athletes differently, whether they're men or women. The control-freak persona so many college coaches have isn't going to work in the pro world, where you're dealing with adults.

There is also a business aspect to pro coaching that might seem cold, but is a necessary part of the job. In that same vein, there is less job security in the pro world because it's truly a bottom-line business. College coaching, at least on the women's side, is not. That's mostly good, I think. There's still the sense that promoting education and personal growth is a major part of a college coach's responsibility. Winning isn't everything.

However, certain expectations need to be met in that regard. But women's college basketball does not weed out its win-loss underachievers as quickly or efficiently as the men's side does. There is not the same external or internal pressure on athletic directors to take measures to make their women's programs successful, nor do they all even personally believe that's important (regardless what they say publicly). In some cases, it's just not considered worth the work to get rid of a coach who isn't very successful. That is definitely changing, but it's not the same culture as in men's hoops.

The upshot of all of this is that even today, with the league celebrating its 10th anniversary, most women's college coaches are not likely to take the risk of going to the WNBA. It pays less and has less job security. Plus, many coaches just prefer working with college-aged athletes and in the college environment -- which also happens in men's college basketball.

Unless they were looking for a change in lifestyle -- specifically, getting away from the grind of recruiting -- there wouldn't seem to be much upside for now in going to the WNBA.

Thus, the pool of candidates for WNBA jobs from the strictly women's basketball world is, to be frank, not the A-listers. I don't even know how many B-listers or C-listers would take the risk. By the same token, how seriously have WNBA teams pursued the top college coaches? That takes money, so I'm going to guess it hasn't been too seriously.

But … that aside, luring the top college coaches might not be the answer. It typically hasn't been in the NBA.

If you look at the NBA now, there is a prototype head coach. Not every coach fits that prototype, but the majority of them do. That's a former NBA player who got into coaching -- sometimes in college but more often as an NBA assistant -- then moved on to the head coaching ranks.

And most of them have moved around among the NBA franchises, too. There are exceptions. Jerry Sloan has coached 18 seasons at Utah. Gregg Popovich has been affiliated most of his career with San Antonio, including as head coach the past 10 years. But the other longtime current NBA head coaches have done that job with at least two franchises.

The NBA -- along with most pro leagues -- has figured out that making someone a pro head coach with little or no previous pro coaching experience typically doesn't work. There are always complaints about "retreads" in the NBA, but there's a far greater comfort level with giving a former NBA head coach another chance than with bringing in a total newbie to the pro game.

Former NBA standout Bill Laimbeer, who can be credited with saving Detroit's WNBA franchise, said that he thinks the future "prototype" for a WNBA coach eventually will be much the same as for an NBA coach.

"Once the women cycle through as pro players, some of the better players -- or even some of the fringe players who are smart -- you'll see them [as WNBA head coaches]," said Laimbeer, the Shock's coach. "It's just going to take some time; the WNBA is much, much different from college basketball.

"That was the hardest part -- to get over the college mentality. The owners want experienced professional coaches or those experienced with the pro game."

And so most of those people, right now, are men. There are other factors, though. Pro franchises try to copy each other's success, and the WNBA titles won by Michael Cooper in Los Angeles and Laimbeer in Detroit were further incentive for other franchises to give NBA guys an opportunity -- even if they had no previous experience coaching women or even, such as was the case with Charlotte's Muggsy Bogues, no experience in organized coaching whatsoever.

Further, most of the NBA guys are financially established, so coaching in the WNBA is not a big risk. For some, frankly, it has been a total lark. And their results proved that. For others, it has been more like, "Well, maybe this really will work … but it's not a huge deal if it doesn't."

Some WNBA hires have been just plain, old cronyism: We know this guy, it's easy, bring him on. Sometimes, that's even successful, such as with the Maloof family and Whisenant, who led the Monarchs to the WNBA title last year. Other times, it has been a quick-sink disaster, as with the L.A. Sparks and Henry Bibby.

There's also the perceived legitimacy factor -- the idea that the mainstream media and those who aren't fans of women's hoops might be willing to allot some attention to the league because NBA guys whose names they know are involved.

Finally, there is the adage that you get what you pay for.

As the money for coaches becomes better in the WNBA, the coaching candidate pool will improve in correlation. That will not necessarily mean more women. In fact, if things work out as they do in most other occupations, the higher the salaries are for a job, the harder it usually is for women to get hired.

There are women in other positions of power in the WNBA, of course. Sheila Johnson owns the Washington Mystics. There are women as general managers, such as Trudi Lacey (who resigned last season as Charlotte's head coach and was replaced by Bogues), Kelly Krauskopf (Indiana), Penny Toler (L.A.), Linda Hargrove (Washington) and Blazejowski. Margaret Stender is the president and CEO in Chicago, and Karen Bryant the chief operating officer in Seattle.

There are 14 women in the assistant ranks in the WNBA. Some of these are former WNBA head coaches, such as Marynell Meadors, Lin Dunn and Marianne Stanley. Others are hoping their current roles lead to that next step up.

If, as Laimbeer predicts, former pro players get into the pro coaching ranks, then the ratio should get to the point where it won't be as skewed as it is now. Thus far, the only ex-WNBA players who also have become a head coach in the league are McConnell Serio, Nancy Lieberman and Cynthia Cooper. Cooper quit hours before a game in her second season with Phoenix, citing family concerns.

So, where will the "ratio" be five years from now? Or 10? Or 20? I'm optimistic about the long-term viability of the league. But I don't have even a firm guess about who will be coaching in it.

Do female players need women coaches as role models? On one hand, I hate the suggestion that men can't be role models for women, and vice versa -- because that's so wrongheaded and obviously not true. But young people do respond in a very strong way to role models they see as essentially "like" them.

In my utopian vision of the world, there would be enough men coaching women's sports and women coaching men's sports that athletes of both sexes very likely would play for both men and women at some point in their careers.

That shouldn't be such a far-out concept, for crying out loud. I'd guess most Americans in the working world from now on will have both male and female bosses in their careers.

Yet boys and men's athletics is virtually devoid of female coaches at every single level. Many have the opinion that -- because of this scarcity -- women coaches deserve to be given priority in hiring in women's sports.

I'm troubled by the "two wrongs don't make a right" element of that. Plus, it's fair to ask how many women coaches seriously pursue opportunities in men's sports. If you aren't pursuing something, can you complain about not getting it? What women have made that a career goal and followed a path that would lead to that chance?

I'd guess that number is next to none. But … it's pretty hard to accurately guess how many qualified women simply would be too discouraged by the odds to even give it a try. What would give an aspiring young female coach any hope to think she could break into coaching men?

I don't see any hope for imminent change in that aspect of the coaching world. Which is part of why the WNBA's current ratio is an issue worth at least thinking about.

The "Have You Seen Her?" ads have these accompanying words: "She plays, she inspires, she dreams, she leads. She is a leader."

But you have to wonder: Is "she," someday, a pro head coach?

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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