NCAA Women's Basketball Coaching: Why Developing Expertise At Mid-Majors Is Best For The Game

Scott Halleran

Brian McCormick, author of Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development who writes at Brian McCormick Basketball (developyourbballiq.com), is an experienced coach and development expert whose basketball insights about everything from youth development to point guard play are valuable for any thoughtful basketball fan. He wrote and submitted the following guest post prior to UCLA's hire of Cori Close today.

At the Final Four, some people wondered whether the fact that the previous four Pac-10 hires have been males - after the recent hiring of Kevin McGuff at the University of Washington - is indicative of a problem. However, rather than looking to blame the athletic directors for a gender bias, I feel that we need to examine the mentality of coaches in the women's game.

Before the recent trend of hiring males, Pac-10 programs hired women assistants from top BCS programs: UCLA hired Nikki Caldwell from Tennessee; Washington hired Tia Jackson from Duke; Oregon State hired LaVonda Wagner from Duke; and Arizona hired Niya Butts from Kentucky (and Washington State hired June Daugherty after she was fired at Washington). I do not know any of these coaches personally, nor is the following meant as disrespect to any of them. However, I believe their hiring is more problematic than hiring males.

Look at the experience level of the four male coaches: Michael Cooper and Paul Westhead won WNBA Championships; Scott Rueck won a D3 National Championship at George Fox; and McGuff led a non-BCS program to a top 5 ranking and seconds away from the Final Four last season.

On my blog, I wrote an article titled "10,000 hours and Coaching Expertise." The premise is that many have adopted K. Anders Ericsson's 10,000-hour rule and applied it to skill development in sports. Many view coaching as a learned profession, and therefore a skill, as opposed to an innate talent, so it stands to reason that the 10,000-hour rule would apply to the development of coaching expertise. The question is how best to accumulate the requisite deliberate practice to become an expert coach.

Much like a basketball skill like shooting, I argue that one develops his or her coaching skills through deliberate practice - that is, he or she must coach. I am unaware how the programs at Tennessee, Duke and Kentucky work. However, in my experience, head coaches generally do the majority of the coaching during practices and games. They set the expectations, communicate with the players, offer feedback, instruct, devise game plans, make adjustments, oversee a staff, motivate players, teach and more.

Assistant coaches gain some experience running drills, implementing game plans, scouting, running off-season workouts, etc. - and some head coaches do a better job of nurturing future head coaches than others - and they learn by watching their head coach as he or she works. Therefore, there is value in being an assistant coach in terms of learning the art and science of coaching. However, just as one develops his shooting more through deliberate practice than watching expert shooters, a coach develops his or her coaching skills more through deliberate practice than watching an expert coach.

When Washington, UCLA and Cal opened, many of the top names of coaches with head coaching experience were male. In addition to McGuff, other successful mid-major head coaches included Gonzaga's Kelly Graves, South Dakota State's Aaron Johnston, Fresno State's Adrian Wiggins, Bowling Green's Curt Miller, Green Bay's Matt Bollant and others (although coaches like San Diego State's Beth Burns and Toledo's Tricia Cullop certainly fit). Why?

McGuff was a Notre Dame assistant coach who recently concluded his ninth season at Xavier University. As a juxtaposition, Penn State Head Coach Coquese Washington moved directly from Notre Dame to Penn State, a traditionally strong BCS program. Many of the top mid-major coaches are males because the top potential female head coaches skip this step - they move directly from BCS assistant to BCS head coach. This is not necessarily wrong; however, I suggest that it does a disservice to the coach, the programs and the game. By skipping this step, these assistants also give their male counterparts an advantage, as they take over good mid-major programs, accumulate hours of deliberate practice and excel, proving themselves as head coaches and creating stiffer competition for female assistants applying for the BCS head-coaching positions.

I watched the Final Four and saw the special on Niele Ivey. I also have watched UConn and Shea Ralph. I imagine Ivey and Ralph will be great head coaches. If I was an AD, I would not hesitate to hire either one based on my small television evaluations. I imagine that if they stay at their respective programs for a couple more seasons, they will walk into BCS jobs. Based on appearances, I would expect them to do well. However, is it what's best for them? Is it what's best for the BCS program? Is it what's best for women's basketball?

From Notre Dame's and UConn's perspective, retaining a talented assistant coach is in their best interests and the best interests of the players at the respective schools. From a business standpoint, moving from BCS assistant to well-paid BCS head coach with a five-year guaranteed contract is a smart financial decision, at least in the short-term.

However, what about a low or mid-major program in the Midwest or East looking to fill its vacancy with the most promising head coach? Stony Brook University, Fordham University and several other similar programs had vacancies this spring, but I presume that Ralph did not pursue them. Is it in the best interest of those programs, and others like them, not to be able to consider (hire) a coach with Ralph's name and acumen? I imagine a point guard at a Midwest mid-major like Evansville (currently vacant) would love the opportunity to have Ivey as her head coach, just as Skylar Diggins thrives with her on staff.

Is it in the best interest of other aspiring coaches and the game that schools like UConn, Tennessee, Stanford and others infrequently lose assistants meaning fewer opportunities for coaches to assist and learn from an expert coach like Geno Auriemma, Pat Summit or Tara VanDerveer before getting their opportunity as a head coach?

Rather than continue as an assistant coach and eventually jump straight into the deep end at a BCS program and sink or swim, why not take a mid-major job? Get the deliberate practice required to reach a level of mastery at a lower-profile program and jump to a BCS program after accumulating hours and hours of deliberate practice, like McGuff or Texas A&M's Gary Blair, Northwestern's Joe McKeown, or Michigan's Kevin Borseth.

The mid-major program wins because it gets a top-level female head coach. The coach wins because she practices her coaching before reaching the big-time program. Finally, the game wins because it now opens a spot for someone like McGraw or Auriemma to nurture another coach and prepare another young (female) coach to move on to a mid-major or low-major job creating a bigger pool of potential (female) head coaches.

This plan only backfires if the coach lacks the skills, personality and work ethic to be a great coach, so her career stalls at the mid-major program. However, that saves the BCS programs from making big-money mistakes on hot coaching prospects with little deliberate practice. The mid-majors provide the deliberate practice environment for the coaches and serve as a proving ground for BCS programs. The BCS programs mine the lower-tiered programs for coaching talent, rather than hiring assistants with no coaching experience and hoping that watching an expert is sufficient preparation. Mid-major players receive potentially better coaching and a better experience, while more potential coaches gain experience under expert head coaches.

Obviously, a coach can transition successfully from BCS assistant to BCS head coach, as Caldwell, Washington, Louisville's Jeff Walz and others have demonstrated. Also, a coach can have success at a low or mid-major program and not succeed at the BCS level. There is not one perfect way to hire or promote a coach.

However, what is best for the game? What is best for the coaches?

Right now, there is no incentive for assistants like Ivey or Ralph to leave programs like Notre Dame or UConn for programs like Evansville or Stony Brook because a Big 10 or Big East program likely will reach out sooner rather than later and offer a much bigger payday. Until the top programs hire predominantly coaches with head coaching experience, assistants will wait for the better jobs, and that does not help the mid-majors, the coaches or the game. For those reasons, the Pac-10's recent trend of hiring experienced male coaches as opposed to inexperienced female assistants sends a positive message in my eyes.

Rather than suggesting that there's a gender bias, the message is that a Pac-10 program is not the place to get your deliberate practice. Instead, they intend to hire coaches who have reached a level of coaching expertise. Rather than discouraging aspiring female coaches, I hope it sends the message that those in enviable positions, like Ivey and Ralph (and dozens of other top assistants like Stanford's Kate Paye, Cal's Charmin Smith, Wake Forest's Natasha Adair, Penn State's Kia Damon, Kentucky's Kyra Elzy, etc.) should seek the deliberate practice on a smaller stage where they can learn from their mistakes beyond the glare that shines on the major programs and gain the experience to transition seamlessly to a bigger program and excel when given the opportunity.

For more on McCormick's thoughts on the coaching profession, I highly recommend his recent piece on Coaching at Summer Basketball Camps. You can follow him on Twitter at @BrianMcCormick.

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