Around this time of year, it's time to start handing out hardware. While players get the lion's share of All-Americas and trophies and honorariums and first-teams, institutions like the WBCA and the Tipoff Club hand out their awards for the women's basketball coach of the year.
Most of the time, handing out these awards is almost thoughtless. Hand out an award to someone who goes deep in the tournament, some future Hall of Famer that someone can see coming a mile away. They usually won't give you the award at all until you've got 200 wins under your belt. "Let's see, who will we give it to this year. Geno? Or is it Tara's turn? What about Good Old Gary?"
Instead, let's look all across college basketball, and not just at the names that get the glitter and glitz, with programs that always make it on television. The coaches that don't have courts named after them, at least not yet. Before the Academy Awards, Variety is inundated with a flush of advertisements for actors and movies reading "For Your Consideration". Here are ten coaches that the imaginary Academy of Coaches should be looking at this year for high honors.
June Daugherty, Washington State
Right now, my colleague Nate Parham must be laughing. "June Daugherty? Really? The team that's 8-19 this year? Have you lost your mind?"
Well, let's make the case. The Cougars probably won't break ten wins this year, but they are 6-9 so far in the conference, standing higher than three other teams including California and Oregon. Furthermore, the Washington State program has a long of ineptitude that's hard for any coach - in the years since Harold Rhodes's departure after they failed to renew his contract, the Cougars have had only two seasons with double-digit wins in the 21st Century. (One of those seasons belongs to Daugherty's, last year's.)
Daugherty is the team's third coach in 11 years. The team hasn't had a winning season since 1996. Her predecessor's record was 27-114 over five years. Daugherty hasn't got the team to a winning season yet in her third year, but at least the team is incompetent now instead of ludicrous. There is finally hope in Pullman, if nothing else.
It's even more amazing considering Daugherty's inauspicious start, when she suffered a cardiac arrest in May of 2007. If the Cougars can break their 31-game losing streak against arch-rival Washington at the end of the year, it would be a bigger milestone for the women's program than any double-digit season in wins.
Tammy George, South Carolina Upstate
When Tammy George started at South Carolina Upstate, the program was a Division II school that hadn't hit .500 in seven years. Her first year, George took the team to a 16-14 record and to the Division II tournament. Unfortunately, the team faltered the next year, which was its final year in Division II. The next year was destined to be a tough one.
The 2007-08 season was 5-24, with a 1-15 record in the Atlantic Sun conference. The next year was 8-12. The next year was a 20-9 record in Division I and an upset of the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles in the WNIT. (Unfortunately, no bid - they lost the regular season title and a spot in the WNIT, because they couldn't win the Atlantic Sun tournament due to the NCAA reclassifying period. The same fate would befall Florida Gulf Coast.) The Spartans won't be eligible for a bid this year, either. George was given the consolation prize of Atlantic Sun coach of the year.
With two more games as of this writing - including Florida Gulf Coast - the Spartans are 16-11, riding a four-game win streak. USC Upstate's success makes them a good addition to the Atlantic Sun.
Sue Guevara, Central Michigan
Guevara had been a coach at the University of Michigan for seven years, and it seems that she just couldn't stay away after she resigned in 2003 - and with a 123-82 record, she was at the time the winningest coach that the Wolverines ever had. (In women's basketball, anyway.) After four years at Auburn as an assistant coach, she took the job as head coach of the Chippewas in the 2007-08 season.
After a horrible 6-23 inaugural season, she led the Chippewas to the biggest turnaround in program history, going 18-14 (Then again, Guevara was the Big Ten Coach of the Year twice - in 1998 and 2000 - so there's no doubting her skill.) So far, the Chippewas are 18-8 this year and are in second place in the Mid-American Conference's West Division - behind Toledo, which is 13-1 in conference play.
Guevara gained a personal triumph last year that might be worth more than any award. A former player brought a lawsuit against the university for losing her scholarship after claiming that Guevara dismissed the player because she wasn't a lesbian, and therefore not Guevara's "type". Judges ended up throwing out the lawsuit. With five freshmen recruits this year including guard Crystal Bradford, the Chippewas might be getting good press for a long time.
Tim La Kose, CSU Bakersfield
CSU Bakersfield is another program like Florida Gulf Coast - a program which made the move into the big time, in this case starting play in Division I in the 2007-08 season. Before that, La Kose was 142-33 in Division II and third among all active coaches in Division II. Over his three complete years as a Division I coach, the Roadrunners started out 12-17, advanced to 19-10 in 2009 and finished 16-13 in 2010. Right now, they're 17-11 and if they can win their next two games they can match their win total of two years ago. As an Independent, they'll need an invite to reach the magic 20-win mark.
Last year, they were invited to the Women's Basketball Invitational, the WNIT's WNIT. It's not as if the Roadrunners haven't done great things. They beat Oregon - at Oregon - and got to within 15 points of Miami (FL) in Florida. (Note that both of those were road games - the Roadrunners are aptly named). Despite being "understaffed and underfunded" as La Kose puts it, CSU has been able to beat good teams. As an independent, they are handicapped in multiple ways but La Kose has made CSU Bakersfield the team that good teams are afraid to play.
Joe McKeown, Northwestern
Even though you might not be impressed with the performance of the Wildcats in the Big Ten - they're currently in eighth place - you have to remember what Northwestern women's basketball was like before Joe McKeown showed up. The first season, Northwestern was a dismal 7-23 but from 2009-10 they were 18-15.
Ho hum, you say. Well, that 18-15 finish was their best year since 1996-97. (Furthermore, that 7-23 season is McKeown's only losing season as a NCAA women's basketball coach). It looks like the Wildcats could match last year's win total if they win at Penn State in their final game of the season, or get out of the first round of the Big Ten tournament. McKeown might have the longest coaching career out of anyone on the list, having over 500 victories and appearing in the tournament 17 times - 15 of those times with George Washington, where he took that school to the Elite Eight.
At his previous two schools, he took both of those programs into the NCAA tournament. It's possible that the Wildcats could make a surge into the NCAA tournament as a low seed with some Big Ten tournament success. But even if not, they'll go to the WNIT and two post-season years at Northwestern is almost unheard of in women's basketball.
Melissa McFerrin, Memphis
The Memphis Tigers might have fallen to the Appalachian State Mountaineers in the 2010 Women's Basketball Invitational, but before McFerrin arrived in Memphis the Tigers were a 10-20 team. So what's in been like in Memphis since 2008, the year that McFerrin arrived?
2008-09 A rebuilding year.
2009-10 A 20-14 season and the finals of the WBI.
2010-11 A ten-game win streak in the middle of the season. As of this writing the Tigers were 18-9 and in fourth place in Conference USA.
This rebuild of a program is old hat to McFerrin. She did the same thing for American in the Patriot League, bringing the 2008 squad to a regular season championship and the WNIT after just four years there. She's been a coach both at multiple levels, including time as an assistant coach for the New York Liberty and time as the Washington Mystic's general manager from 2000-02, a time during which the Mystics made their first playoff appearance. Before that, she served 13 years as a college assistant, including as a recruiter for Ohio State when they made their only NCAA championship game appearance.
Oh by the way, McFerrin is signed as Memphis's head coach until 2015. So expect even bigger and better things in the future.
Katie Meier, Miami (FL)
What an amazing year it's been for the Miami Hurricanes. They are now 25-3 and have won 20 games at home this year. They have an outside chance of a regular season championship if Duke falters on its last game of the season and if the Hurricanes beat Georgia Tech on the road (Miami is only 5-3 away from home).
Being in the ACC is always a boost to recruiting, but it hasn't been easy at Miami. After a 2005-06 inaugural season of 17-13 for Meier where the 'Canes went into the second round of the WNIT, Miami floundered with a 33-57 record and a 6-36 conference record over three seasons. But in 2009-10, Miami doubled its conference standing with a 4-10 finish and won 20 games by making it to the WNIT Finals before they fell to California on the road. That season allowed her to extend her contract to 2015, a wise decision from athletic director Kirby Hocutt.
This year, Meier has taken the Hurricanes to a national ranking, their highest in almost two decades when the 1993 Hurricanes finished 30-2. For the prominence of this season alone - a national ranking, and increased media coverage - Meier deserves serious consideration.
Karl Smesko, Florida Gulf Coast
Two years ago, Smesko was the Atlantic Sun coach of the year and last year, they went to the WNIT for the third straight time. But Florida Gulf Coast - which made it to the Division II Championship Game in 2007 - shouldn't be surprising anyone. In 2008, their first year as a Division I school, they qualified for the WNIT and they've already won an Atlantic Sun regular season championship - but they couldn't compete because their transition to Division I wasn't complete.
They came as close as they've ever come to being ranked in the AP Top 25 and have beaten Indiana, Seton Hall and Virginia Tech. Early this year, Smesko was named to a list of top mid-major coaches along with Kevin McGuff of Xavier and Rick Insell of Middle Tennessee State. At the end of the 2010 season Smesko's record as a coach was 204-41 across Division I and Division II. (They were 72-21 in Division I at the end of 2010). But if Smesko is overlooked, he probably doesn't mind - and oh by the way, guess who's a first-year assistant coach at FGCU? Mel Thomas. Remember her?
Darcie Vincent, Appalachian State
Vincent's resume looks like that of a lot of coaches on this list.
Tenure at a successful Division II school? Check. She coached at Slippery Rock for four years and won the Division II National Title at California (PA).
Starting slow and picking up speed? The team was 9-22 in 2009, then 23-12 in 2010. Even though they were passed up in the NCAA and WNIT, they visited the Women's Basketball Invitational, where they beat Memphis to take home the inaugural title. Before she showed up in Boone, North Carolina the Mountaineers had had a grand total of one winning season out of the previous 11 years.
The Mountaineers won't be settling for a WBI spot this season - they are leading the Southern Conference and are in line for either an NCAA spot or a WNIT berth. Oh, by the way, Vincent's contract expires at the end of the 2010-11 season. If some athletic directors out there are smart, they'll be making calls.
Joi Williams, Central Florida
Williams came to Disneyworld - Orlando, Florida - in the 2007-08 season after four years at Murray State, where she took the Racers to a WNIT berth and their first 20-win season in almost two decades. After the obligatory rebuilding year - which was the Knights first 10-win season in three years - the surprising Central Florida squad swept the Conference USA tournament and fought to within three points of #3 season North Carolina in the first round. Williams received the Coach of the Year award in the CUSA.
As for 2009-10, it was an 11-16 setback after fighting through a 2-point overtime win against Marshall and a 63-62 loss to Tulane in the second round of the CUSA tournament. The Knights are back on track and as of this writing they have won six straight and have an outside shot at 20 wins this year. Williams's contract is secure until 2013, and expect the Knights to remain contenders for at least that long.