Coaches return home for dream jobs
Ah, that annual rite of spring: We all hop aboard to take a ride on the coaching carousel. An overarching theme for this year's postseason women's basketball coaching moves could be "home."
It doesn't apply to everyone, of course, but it does to the two most high-profile hires/jobs: Kevin McGuff at Ohio State and Cynthia Cooper-Dyke at Southern California.
They are in conferences that, combined, have won one NCAA title in the last 20 years (Purdue, 1999). In other words, for quite a while now, the Big Ten and Pac-12 (save Stanford) have needed to "up" their game in the NCAA tournament.
COACHING CAROUSEL HIGHLIGHTS
• Kellie Harper got the boot after four seasons at NC State. Was she really given enough time to rebuild after the program went through the difficult times of Kay Yow's illness and death? Yow's sister, Debbie, the athletic director at NC State, opted for the coaching change and brought in Chattanooga's Wes Moore. But it didn't take long for Harper to land another job: She took over at Missouri State, and made the very popular move of bringing back MSU legend Jackie Stiles as an assistant.
• Let's hope, for Mississippi's sake, the women's basketball hire this year lasts longer than last year's new coach. Matt Insell left Matthew Mitchell's staff at Kentucky to take over at Ole Miss, which had been under interim coach Brett Frank after Adrian Wiggins ran into NCAA violations issues and was fired before ever actually appearing on the sidelines for the Rebels.
• Clemson has been a strong program in the past, but that past is getting more and more distant. The Tigers' last NCAA tournament appearance was in 2002 under Jim Davis. Former Clemson player Itoro Coleman, 25-63 at the helm for the last three seasons, was let go and replaced by another former ACC player, Audra Smith. She previously was 138-138 in nine seasons at Alabama-Birmingham. Now the two most prominent Division I programs in the Palmetto State -- South Carolina and Clemson -- are coached by former Virginia teammates. The Gamecocks' Dawn Staley and Smith played for Debbie Ryan at UVa from 1988-92 and went to the Final Four three times.
• Speaking of former teammates as head coaches, Krista (Kirkland) Gerlich took over at UT-Arlington, while Sheryl Swoopes did the same at Loyola of Chicago. They were senior starters on Texas Tech's 1993 national championship team. But in the coaching ranks, Gerlich is by far the more experienced. She has been coaching ever since she graduated, moving her way through the high school and college ranks over the past 20 years. Swoopes, of course, had a Hall of Fame-worthy pro playing career and is a coach now for the first time.
• Nobody made a bigger move to another school while going a shorter distance to do it than Suzie McConnell-Serio. After six seasons (123-68) at Duquesne, she relocates to a campus about 2½ miles away and takes over at Pittsburgh. The Steel City is the hometown for her and husband, Pete, plus their four kids. With the Panthers moving to the ACC starting next season, it's truly a new era there. Agnus Berenato initially had success at Pittsburgh, going to the Sweet 16 twice. But the Panthers didn't win a Big East game the past two seasons, during which they were 17-43 overall. Berenato had great familiarity with the ACC from her long stay at Georgia Tech, but Pittsburgh simply had to go in a different direction. Luckily, there was a strong candidate right nearby. -- espnW.com's Mechelle Voepel
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To do that, the leagues have had to improve from top to bottom, which requires a lot of good coaches. McGuff appeared to be part of that solution in the Pac-12 for the past two years at Washington. Now, he jumps to the Big Ten.
And Cooper-Dyke, who actually played for the last West Coast team not named Stanford to win the NCAA title -- USC in 1984 -- moves into the Pac-12 after eight mostly successful seasons at smaller-conference schools.
"This is my dream job," is how Cooper-Dyke explained her excitement about taking over at her alma mater in Los Angeles, where she grew up. "I have such an immense level of passion when it comes to growing women's basketball, and I love this program. I grew up as a player and a woman at USC. It opened doors for me."
On this year's carousel, Ohio State was the top job open, in terms of the school's status and the program's potential. Considering those advantages, the Buckeyes should be regularly at least in the mix as a Final Four contender. But that didn't happen under Jim Foster.
Despite tremendous success in the Big Ten -- his teams won the league regular-season title six times and the tournament four times -- Ohio State developed a reputation as an underachiever in the NCAA tournament. In his 11 seasons, the Buckeyes made it to the Big Dance 10 times but never advanced past the Sweet 16.
From a sheer numbers standpoint, Foster's time in Columbus was impressive: 279-82 overall, 136-46 in the Big Ten. Ohio State failed to reach the NCAA tournament only once under Foster: this past season, after an 18-13 record that was also the only time he did not get at least 20 wins with the Buckeyes.
But the fact that Ohio State under Foster -- despite having stars such as Jessica Davenport, Jantel Lavender, Samantha Prahalis and Tayler Hill -- never really made a strong run at the Final Four (let alone an NCAA title) was what ended his tenure.
Many coaches were interested in the Ohio State job, or at least feigned interest to use as leverage for better deals at their schools. The Buckeyes brass actually heard "no, thanks" more than they probably expected to.
In the end, their hire makes sense. McGuff is an Ohio native who was an assistant on an NCAA title team (Notre Dame, 2001), nearly made it to the Women's Final Four with Xavier in 2010, and improved Washington in his brief time with the Huskies.
He had to break the long-term deal he'd signed just three weeks earlier with Washington, but coaching contracts are barely worth the paper they're printed on if something better comes along.
And in this particular case, when McGuff says Ohio State was likely the only job he would have left Washington for, I actually believe him. Being a native of the state and the father of six kids aged 10 and under -- including a newborn -- McGuff and his wife, Letitia, had every possible reason to want to return to Ohio.
"I was very happy at Washington; it's a great school and [Seattle] is a great city," McGuff said. "But as somebody who grew up in Ohio and spent so many years of my professional life there, I've always looked at Ohio State as, for me, the best job in the country.
"You can't always choose when that right opportunity comes for you and your family."
As mentioned, Purdue has the Big Ten's only NCAA women's hoops title, and that was 14 years ago. Six of the league's teams have combined to make eight appearances in the Women's Final Four, the most recent being Michigan State in 2005.
Only two coaches who were in the league in '05 are still there: Iowa's Lisa Bluder and Minnesota's Pam Borton. (Nebraska's Connie Yori has been with the Huskers since 2002, but they were still in the Big 12 in 2005.)
So the past eight years have brought coaching turnover in the Big Ten, but no return trip to sport's biggest spotlight. Will it be McGuff or someone else who next gets the league there? McGuff knows full well why the school parted ways with Foster. It wasn't because he didn't win enough games. It was the NCAA tournament performance.
"There's no doubt there are high expectations, and I think that comes with the opportunity," McGuff said. "I've always wanted to be at a place where, realistically, it can be a program that can compete at the top of women's college basketball."
Consider that McGuff, at a so-called mid-major such as Xavier, got closer to the Final Four (falling by two points at the 2010 regional final to Stanford in a heartbreaker) than Ohio State did in Foster's time. So McGuff knows that it's very realistic to not just think but expect the Buckeyes will be national contenders.
In 2014-15, Maryland and Rutgers will join the Big Ten. Both schools have been to the Final Four more recently than the Big Ten has, with the Terps winning the national championship in 2006, and the Scarlet Knights making the NCAA final in 2007.
"This is going to be, I think, the premier conference in women's basketball," McGuff said.
That has actually never been the case for the Big Ten, at least not in regard to NCAA tournament success. So we'll see if that evolves in the next decade. At least it would appear with coaching hires, the Big Ten has been headed in the right direction the past few years.
Meanwhile, the Pac-12 got a boost from Cal's run to the Final Four this season, finally giving the league a presence there again other than mighty Stanford. Cooper-Dyke, who spent the last season at Texas Southern, definitely was encouraged by what the Bears did.
"I was extremely proud to see it," she said. "I'm excited about the strength of the Pac-12 and its growth."
We've heard that before from many coaches, but few who can put it into perspective the same way that she can.
Cooper-Dyke, who turned 50 earlier this month, was born in Chicago but moved to Los Angeles as an infant. For all practical purposes, "Coop" is a native Angeleno, and so coming back to live in the city and work on the USC campus has been an existential experience for her.
"It's strange on one level," Cooper-Dyke said. "There are so many things that have changed, but there is an old familiarity."
She laughed in recounting how when she was walking through a mall recently, someone from her Locke High School days recognized her and said hi. It seemed like a time warp. Cooper finished her USC career in 1986, and then began her odyssey of overseas play, most of it in Italy. She was 34 when the WNBA began in 1997 and was one of its earliest stars as part of four championship teams with Houston.
In 2001-02, she was head coach of Phoenix, but abruptly departed the Mercury after 10 games in '02. She appeared in a few more games for the Comets in 2003 as a 40-year-old, but that finally ended her playing career.
Considering her odd departure from the Mercury a decade ago, Cooper-Dyke didn't project back then as a future potential savior at her alma mater. Instead, she seemed at the time to be more like the old stereotype of great player who wasn't comfortable making the transition to coaching.
But that turned around when she got into the college game. Yes, she had some issues with NCAA violations during her time at Prairie View. She says she learned a lot from that, enough so that she passed through USC's vetting in that regard.
I've always looked at Ohio State as, for me, the best job in the country. [The Big Ten] is going to be, I think, the premier conference in women's basketball.” -- Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff
Cooper-Dyke was at Prairie View for five seasons, at UNC Wilmington for two, and at Texas Southern for one. So one of the first questions she faced when interviewing at USC was, "If you get this job, how long will you stay?"
"I said, 'Forever,'" Cooper-Dyke said. "This is where I grew up. I absolutely want to be here. This is back home. I'm where I am supposed to be."
As the song goes, though, "Forever is a long, long time." But like Ohio State hiring McGuff, USC and Cooper-Dyke is a pairing that makes sense.
The Trojans haven't been to the NCAA tournament since 2006. In four seasons under Michael Cooper, they went 72-57, which included making the 2011 WNIT title game. When Cooper resigned in March after an 11-20 mark this season, it confirmed that despite his success coaching in the WNBA, he never seemed like a great fit for the college game.
Cooper-Dyke, by contrast, says that she prefers working in college athletics to the pro game.
"I think I've learned to be patient, and that growth doesn't happen overnight," she said. "When I was 18, I wasn't the Cynthia Cooper that people saw in the WNBA. I developed into that player.
"Now I'm really proud to be a part of the growth of young players. I've learned I truly love teaching them. And sometimes, it's really just turning the key to the engine and starting that motor, getting kids fired up about basketball."
Virtually all new coaches at least initially bring some sparks, if for no other reason than being new. But there are reasons to believe that McGuff and Cooper-Dyke, through their different paths, have found their way to their "destination" jobs. What will that destiny end up looking like?
That has already begun in earnest as they've learned about their new teams and hit the recruiting grind with vigor. Cooper-Dyke wants a USC program that challenges for a title in the Pac-12 and at some point becomes a national contender.
But at Ohio State, the Buckeyes already have done a great deal in recent years in their conference. Under McGuff, it has to be about more than that.
"In the short term, I want to find out what my players want to accomplish," McGuff said. "In the long run, I certainly want this to be looked at as a program that's one of the best in the country."
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