I really don't think the hiring of Kim Barnes Arico at the University of Michigan solidified for me until I actually watched the press conference yesterday with her in front of a backdrop of maize and blue block M's.
In short, it was hardly even clear that there was a women's basketball program on campus at all when I got there and, to underscore a point made by Detroit Free Press reporter Mick McCabe, until the announcement of this hiring on Friday, you wouldn't have known that anyone with authority at Michigan cared about women's basketball at all.
I attended Michigan for graduate school at the end of the Sue Guevara era, one of the four previous coaches who used that oddly recurring "sleeping giant" phrase. And, for what it's worth, Guevara is Michigan's all-time winningest basketball coach and got the Wolverines into the NCAA tournament in 2001, the season before I arrived there. Regardless of how her career at Michigan ended, 2001 was the first time in program history that the Wolverines made four consecutive postseason appearances, including NCAA tournament appearances in three of those four previous years. They were ranked nationally in both 2001 and '02, the two years I was there.
In other words, it wouldn't be hard to argue that I arrived in Ann Arbor just as the women's basketball program was reaching the pinnacle of its success.
Yet somehow, I hardly recall even hearing about the women's basketball team despite living blocks away from Central Campus nor do I recall being offered a package deal involving women's basketball tickets when I purchased my men's basketball package. And the reality is that it's not as if I was averse to women's college basketball at that point - I attended around 40 women's basketball games in undergrad at a CAA school, which only had a winning season during my freshman year.
I would have gone to a women's basketball game if there was any kind of publicity and I did eventually go to a game that was publicized - a 62-49 loss to Valparaiso in the first round of the 2002 WNIT. I could probably go back and find the details of that game but the reality is that the game was hardly memorable. Unfortunately, I never went back after that display. Just a year later, Guevara's tenure came to a disappointing end after a slew of negative reviews from players that unquestionably taint her legacy as one of the most successful coaches in program history.
Of course, there have also been a few practical challenges to women's basketball at Michigan getting attention, independent of coaching successes or alleged failures. I've mentioned this a few times before on this site, but when I first got to campus, I immediately bought men's basketball season tickets - Tommy Amaker was the new hire at the time, and I was excited to see what he could do with a program that was still recovering from the scandal involving Steve Fisher and the Fab Five. I was too late to get football season tickets, but getting into the Big House was a top priority for me and I went to as many games as I could. Someone also talked me into buying men's ice hockey tickets - I had never even been to a hockey game before but they had just won a championship in 1998, were coming off their first Frozen Four appearance since, and I heard from one person that hockey games were the most fun sporting experience on campus, which is quite a compliment considering the Big House exists.
It's not just that Michigan is a football school that makes it hard for women's basketball to compete; football is damn near religion, but the men's ice hockey team has a record nine Division I championships and has been the class of men's ice hockey for the last two decades and the Fab Five were cultural icons in their time despite their fall from grace. That alone leaves little room for another sport. The fact that all three of those sports overlap with women's basketball would give any athletic director an excuse to simply ignore it.
Only compounding that practical challenge is that the history of women's basketball at Michigan is dismal and its most successful coaches almost end up embodying that - Guevara, the winningest coach in history, left amid controversy that foreshadowed a lawsuit from a player at her current position as coach of the Central Michigan Chippewas. Kevin Borseth, who preceded Barnes Arico and has his own claim as being one of the better coaches in program history, left essentially saying he'd be happier going back to the mid-major he came from, which isn't a particularly ringing endorsement of the program or the institution.
All of that is what makes Brandon's hiring of Barnes Arico and his comment about seeing women's basketball as "a sport that has a huge upside" both encouraging and sort of surreal as an alum; it's not at all a stretch or simply a matter of not getting much national media coverage to say that women's basketball is irrelevant at UM. When Borseth left, after finally getting the team back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since the Guevara era, my first thought was that the institution that obviously had little interest in its women's basketball program would have to accept a downgrade at head coach; what proven women's basketball coach would even bother going to Ann Arbor and what reason was there to believe that Michigan would pay the type of salary to even entice a comparable coach?
Now all of a sudden, the athletic department is aggressively looking to build on whatever momentum was gained from making its first tournament appearance since I first got there in hiring one of the best coaches in the nation and has the top recruit in the state coming in.
The process of building a presence for women's basketball in Ann Arbor will obviously be difficult, but Brandon has signaled with this hiring that the days of not even hearing about the team until the WNIT are over; Barnes Arico has already garnered the program national attention and you don't go out and get a coach like that for the sake of building your WNIT resume. You don't go out and spend the type of money one could assume it would take to get Barnes Arico to leave St. John's after ending UConn's 99-game home winning streak and make the Sweet 16 just to then ignore the program.
As Barnes Arico said in her press conference, they're in position to pose a legitimate challenge for the Big Ten title in the next few years and build a real women's basketball presence in a conference that has been dominated by the likes of Michigan State and Ohio State in recent years. And winning will increase the visibility of the program at an institution that has achieved excellence in almost every other way.
This was a statement hire, a sign that women's basketball matters to someone - anyone - at the University of Michigan for maybe the first time ever, if you believe my experience or McCabe's account of the program's history. It's hard to compare this hire to Brady Hoke's hire as football coach in early 2011 given the virtual invisibility of Michigan women's basketball, but what we can say is that Brandon has an eye for coaching talent and is looking to enhance the national profile of his athletic department.
And that Michigan is willing to throw its considerable resources behind women's basketball can only be a good thing.
For more on Barnes Arico's hire, visit this morning's links.