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Gender Battle

Everyone in women’s basketball circles agrees the best candidate for any head coaching vacancy should get the job. The battle lines are drawn — women against men — when the debate turns to whether the best candidates are being hired.

Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma, the most successful male coach in the history of women’s basketball, says his gender is discriminated against in hiring because it is not “politically correct” these days for athletics directors to hire males.

Tennessee’s Pat Summitt, the most successful female coach in the history of women’s basketball, says men cannot accept the kind of discriminatory practices women have dealt with for decades in college athletics.

The issue hits home as South Carolina conducts its search for a women’s coach to replace Susan Walvius, who recently stepped aside after 11 seasons. Its relevancy becomes more apparent in the wake of hirings a week ago of male head coaches at Newberry, Presbyterian and S.C. State (see story page C9).

Eric Hyman, USC’s athletics director, says gender will not be a factor in his hiring. Nearly a decade ago as the athletics director at TCU, Hyman hired a male coach who transformed the program from a perennial loser into a championship club.

“All things being equal, I would want to hire a woman,” Hyman says. “All things being equal, I would want to hire a minority. All things being equal, I would hire a South Carolina graduate. I’ve always been that way.”

Hyman pauses and adds the proverbial “but.” He says he does not want to hire a minority who is less qualified than a woman, or a woman who is less qualified than a man.

“Maybe it’s not the politically correct thing to do, but it’s principles over politics,” he says. “The bottom line is you hire the best person. If not, you’re doing a disservice to the sport.”

That is the crux to the argument. Male coaches do not believe athletics directors are hiring the best candidate. Male coaches believe they first must pay their dues at lower level or mid-major schools, while female assistants continue to land head-coaching jobs at major schools with little or no head-coaching experience.

Tom Collen is the head women’s coach at Arkansas and chairman of the male arm of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association. He has studied the issue for years and has strong opinions on the subject.

“If you spoke to a lot of male coaches around the country, across the divisions, whether it be assistants or head coaches, I think you would hear a lot of them complain about a lack of opportunity to become a head coach at the Division I level, or to secure the better jobs at the Division I level,” Collen says.

If the numbers on women’s basketball coaches show anything, it is that male coaches made great strides in the early years of NCAA competition for women but have not increased their ranks significantly in the past 13 years.

The NCAA did not begin holding championships for women’s athletics until 1982. Before that, women competed in the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, and seldom were men involved. In 1977, according to the NCAA, 20.6 percent of women’s basketball coaches were men.

That number jumped to 34 percent in 1996 and has leveled off since. This past season, 35.4 percent of Division I women’s coaches were men.

Arkansas’ Collen says those numbers tell only part of the story. He says a truer gauge of the lack of progress for men’s coaches in women’s basketball is at the major-college level.

In fact, of the 73 schools that participate in Bowl Championship Series conferences — major schools, if you will — 20 employed male coaches this past season. That is 36.5 percent, but not nearly where it should be, according to Collen or Connecticut’s Auriemma.

“The only jobs the men get are places where it’s hard to win,” Auriemma told the New York Times.

There were 16 job openings at BCS conference schools before the 2007-08 season, and six went to male coaches, which Collen described as a significant jump for the men’s cause.

This offseason there have been far fewer opportunities at BCS conference schools for either gender. USC and Boston College have vacancies, a male was hired at Alabama, and females were hired at Arizona and UCLA.

To male coaches, those hirings illustrate the uphill battle they face in gaining jobs at what are considered major schools. Niya Butts was hired at Arizona with eight years experience as an assistant coach. Nikki Caldwell was hired at UCLA with six years experience as an assistant coach.

Wendell Hudson recently was hired at Alabama. He was the first black athlete at Alabama and since then has served as an assistant coach in men’s and women’s basketball for 26 seasons.

“Certainly I’m more pleased that women are moving into head coaching positions,” says Tennessee’s Summitt. “That shows that they are qualified and obviously respected by the administrators throughout the country.

“A lot of consideration should obviously be given — if abilities are equal — to women because we don’t have the same considerations if we apply for a men’s job. So, our only avenue in the women’s game, as women, is to try and put ourselves into position to be head coaches.”

It appears once men get the opportunity to be a head coach — at any level of Division I women’s basketball — they are seizing upon it.

The State’s study of winning percentages for male and female coaches in women’s basketball shows men generally outperform women. Using won-loss records for coaches at their current school, male coaches among all 316 Division I schools have won 59 percent of their games, compared to 55 percent for women. Breaking it down further, men at BCS schools have won 68 percent of their games, compared to 64 percent for women.

Although the winning percentages are not significantly different for women and men, male coaches would argue they succeed because they are more seasoned and have far greater experience once they get to be head coaches.

Collen is an example of that. He was an assistant coach for 17 seasons at Miami of Ohio, Utah, Purdue and Arkansas before gaining head-coaching jobs for five seasons at Colorado State and four at Louisville. In his first season at Arkansas, the Razorbacks went 17-13.

“That’s what I tell all the young males in this profession that I meet with,” Collen says. “I tell them that I think they should go into it with open eyes. A lot of these jobs are going to be filled with females. If you work hard and you’re good at what you do, then the opportunity will come.”

Collen sees another factor that works against males gaining opportunities to be head coaches. There are many more former female players who want to coach, “so I’m sure there are a lot of coaches who would like to see their players be given opportunities to become coaches.”

Perhaps an area that is most difficult to discern when it comes to selecting a male or female coach is the desires of the players. Andy Carter, the athletics director at Newberry, does not back down from the subject.

“Our female teams are more and more wanting to be coached by male coaches,” Carter says.

Demetress Adams, a member of the USC basketball team, is not so sure. She played for male coaches on AAU teams throughout her high school career in Bishopville and has played the past three seasons under USC’s Walvius.

“Most of the time you see the female as more of the nurturer, the one you can talk to,” Adams says, “whereas the male is more dominant. ... but I don’t have a preference. I just enjoy coaches who are firm (and) that believe in hard work.”

Adams says it matters little whether USC’s next coach is a female or a male, only that the best candidate for the job is selected.