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Too many directions get program lost

LIKE DAVE ODOM before her, Susan Walvius acted in the best interest of the South Carolina athletics department when she stepped aside Monday as women’s basketball coach.

Her program was on life support, and by resigning she spared athletics director Eric Hyman from having to pull the plug. Now, perhaps more than ever, the opportunity exists for USC to build a national power in women’s basketball.

Before looking forward, it is worth looking back on Walvius’ 11-year run at USC. Give her credit for running a top-notch program. Aside from the recent unfortunate incident involving two players, Walvius’ players had few off-court problems and they graduated.

On the court, she slowly built a program that peaked with a run to the NCAA tournament quarterfinals in 2002. The following season USC advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament.

But instead of sustaining success, the program stopped growing. Walvius could not build on that two-year period, one in which USC won 58 games and lost 15. During her past five seasons, the program seemed to gradually slide. With that slide, what little fan interest there was in the program, waned further.

There existed a solid core of about 500-750 fans who closely followed and supported the program. Beyond that, even promotions that allowed reduced or free admission fell flat. At one game several seasons ago, a cheerleader tossed a T-shirt into the stands following a USC 3-pointer, only to see the shirt sit untouched for the remainder of the half.

It appeared as if Walvius could never establish a direction for the program. She found success by relying on foreign talent, only to realize that as SEC play became faster and faster, the taller and slower foreign women could not keep pace.

Walvius then recognized the value of signing instate players. More recently, she began to bring in mid-level out-of-state talent. It was as if she were throwing darts in hopes that one method of recruiting would finally hit dead center and produce winning teams.

There also was the constant carousel of assistant coaches. One theory had it that she surrounded herself with strong in-game coaches during the outstanding seasons and never could find adequate replacements when those assistants departed.

In the end, the best way to evaluate a program is how well it competes within its conference. Walvius first four clubs were 12-44 in the SEC. Her two best teams went 19-9. Her last five teams were 20-50 in the conference.

This past season represented a golden opportunity for USC to re-emerge as a competitive team in the SEC. Tennessee and LSU were among the nation’s best teams, and both proved that by advancing to the Final Four, with Tennessee winning the national title. Beyond that, there was parity, and USC was considered as talented as any of those teams.

Yet USC followed a 4-10 record in league play with a flameout in the first round of the SEC tournament to Florida. That tournament loss was particularly startling in that USC fielded a more talented team against a first-year coach who clearly had her team better prepared.

If Hyman had not determined Walvius’ fate prior to that game, he certainly had afterward. Hyman, like most who have kept a passing interest in the program, realized that the time for Walvius to produce winning teams and create excitement around the program had long since passed.

Now Hyman says he will conduct a national search for Walvius’ successor. He will go about the search in much the same manner he did in finding Darrin Horn to replace Odom.

Hyman’s first order of business is to talk to current players, former players, supporters in the community and USC administrators.

If there is a consensus for USC to find a young and energetic coach, that is who Hyman will go after. If everyone concerned believes USC needs a veteran, proven winner, he will go in that direction.

Athletics directors usually hire to the weaknesses of the previous coach. If so in USC’s case, the new coach should teach an exciting brand of basketball and be strong in the fundamentals of the game.

Women’s college basketball is where the men’s game was about 20 years ago. There are maybe a dozen elite programs in the country. With more television exposure for women’s basketball, that number is likely to grow exponentially in the next decade or so.

USC has a core community support, plays in one of the nation’s top leagues and more than adequate facilities. The only piece missing for USC to move into that elite crowd is the right coach for the job.

Hyman has been in this position before. The TCU women’s basketball program had losing records in 16 of the 17 seasons before Hyman hired Jeff Mittie in 1999. Since then, Mittie’s teams have nine consecutive winning seasons that included seven NCAA appearances.

At one point, the women’s team was outdrawing the men’s team. That will never happen at USC, but there is every reason to believe the women’s program can some day soon join the nation’s elite.

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