The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, April 8, 2020
“A search committee of one” — Conversation with Derek Fisher, Michael Fischer of the Sparks — Must-click women's basketball links
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“A search committee of one”
Let’s start here: the final outcome for the University of Texas, hiring Vic Schaefer as the new women’s basketball coach, is a strong one for the program.
Vic is a fantastic coach, who took over a Mississippi State program with no tradition whatsoever in women’s basketball and made it into a national power. Vic is good to his staff, he looks after his players, he’s bringing his family to Austin and he’ll do great.
But the how of this process is just terrible, from before it started to after it ended. And it’s worth exploring that.
First, how the opening came about is problematic. Karen Aston took over at Texas and within a year, had the Longhorns winning a game in the NCAA Tournament. Four Sweet 16s and an Elite Eight followed. She’d have returned to the Tournament again in 2020. That she was fired with that resume is surprising. Even the criticism leveled against Aston — that her teams underachieved relative to the great recruiting classes she had — don’t stand up to basic scrutiny. She’s the one who brought in those classes!
Once the Schaefer hire came within 48 hours of her ousting, it was easy to see it as a successful woman pushed aside. To be clear, Texas insists its process did not begin until after Chris Del Conte decided to move on.
But let’s look at how it all came about, by Texas’ own description. Del Conte described Vic as a name he had “in my drawer” and wanted to work with him. Understandable, of course: see paragraph one.
We also know, however, how this kind of process cuts out those folks who aren’t already named and in the drawers of the people with hiring power, disproportionately giving an inside track on the jobs chosen by white men to other white men.
A robust hiring process, depending on what the person doing so valued, might well have ended with Vic Schaefer getting the job. It also might have led to another candidate, a woman, surprising and wowing the search committee. Even if Schaefer got the nod, having women, and people of color, get in the room for interviews would prepare them for other coaching interviews down the line, make them known. Maybe some of their names end up in a drawer, too, to be opened for future job opportunities.
To see it at Texas, where three women — Jody Conradt, Gail Goestenkors and Aston occupied the job for 44 years — upset more than a few in the coaching profession, and understandably so.
As one prominent figure in women’s basketball put it to me, she always viewed Texas as a place where “women were going to get their shot”. Several other figures in women’s basketball said much the same thing to me about it.
Del Conte mentioned that one of the people he bounced Schaefer’s name off of was Conradt on that first day of the two-day search for a new Texas coach. So I asked him if, given her success at the program, and the history of women in the job, her endorsement helped him be more comfortable with hiring a man.
“First and foremost, the most important things are [to get] the very best person to coach our program,” Del Conte responded. “The goal is to win a national championship at the University of Texas and take our program to that that place. So at the end of the day, you’re going to go get the very best person to do that. In my mind, it was always Vic Schaefer, I already had that circled.”
I’ll be honest, dear reader: it didn’t sound like Chris Del Conte needed to get comfortable with hiring a man without considering any women. I followed up by asking him if the unanimity of those he spoke to, including Conradt, helped him get to that decision. But it was very important to Del Conte to stress how singular he was in this process.
“I was a search committee of one,” he replied.
And this is the issue. Again, a full and robust hiring process might well have produced an outcome with Schaefer in that job.
“No doubt Vic will be successful,” that prominent figure told The IX. “How you do it matters.”
This week in women’s basketball
There’s A LOT of WNBA Draft moves and strategies floating around. I tried to hit on most of them here. MORE TO COME.
Matt Ellentuck argues, correctly, that Breanna Stewart is the greatest college basketball player of all time.
Tim Britton has an oral history of that first UConn championship team.
Wonderful Lindsay Gibbs deep dive on the history of the AIAW.
Christine Hopkins breaks down Sabrina Ionescu’s great season.
Graham Hays captures Kelly Graves’ postseason process.
Dawn Staley writes about her post-postseaaon journey at South Carolina.
Get to know Caroline Ducharme, UConn’s latest commit.
Sophie Beneventine, Boston University by way of Basking Ridge, NJ, discusses her game with Ethan Fuller.
Eniya Russell sounds like an awfully good fit at South Carolina.
Another Australian heads to Dartmouth.
I really love this Lindsay Gibbs idea to give women’s sports a head start when this is all over.
Good Britni de la Cretaz piece on the impossible situation Kelly Loeffler has given the Atlanta Dream and the WNBA.
Learn more about Katrina McClain from Bria Felicien.
Katie Barnes teamed with Anna Wilson for this as-told-to story.
Thuc Nhi Nguyen weighs in on the L.A. Sparks’ offseason.
Sarah Spain spoke with new Hall of Famer Tamika Catchings.
Myah Taylor caught up with Imani McGee-Stafford.
Love this from Jenn Hatfield on Vic and Blair Schaefer.
Sekou Smith talked with Sheryl Swoopes.
Tweet(s) of the week
Five at The IX: Derek Fisher and Michael Fischer, Los Angeles Sparks
Some highlights of a long media call the coach and interim GM of the Sparks did.
On the offseason acquisitions
MICHAEL FISCHER: I was here when we had Kristi on the team. Kristi is truly a Spark. She was in LA and won that first championship here in 2016, so I’ve known Kristi forever, I know everything about her as a person, what she brings to the table, and I’m really excited that we were able to add a bunch of high quality, All-star type of players. Kristi was playing like a first team All-WNBA player until she had her injury. Kristi is one of the top elite players in the league. For us to add a player like Kristi to the team, I could not be more excited about that. I’m also very excited about all the other players on the team, having Seimone on the team, I can’t tell you how excited I am. Seimone is so amazing both on the court, and off the court. She can do so much when she’s out there playing for us, she’s going to be the best teammate, she’ll be great on the bench and in the locker room. Seimone brings so much to the Sparks that I can’t tell you how much I’m excited about her. Coach and I worked very carefully through the whole Free Agency period to find the right players and the right fit. We also wanted to make sure we had balanced positions. So honestly there were a lot of great players out there that got signed by a bunch of teams, but we want to do what is best for the team. And it felt like we were about to get all our needs from the 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 position. We were also able to sign Ruffin-Pratt back, I am very excited. Ruffin- Pratt has always been a selfless player. She is always about the team, she defends well, she takes on any challenge that the coach or team puts on her. She will do whatever is best for the team. So I was really glad to get all these players signed. TRP on a multi-year deal, Kristi on a three year deal, and then also making a trade and getting a great guard in Britney Sykes who is athletic and can defend. We got better as a whole team, and also adding Marie Gulich, another post player. She was the PAC-12 Defensive Player Of The Year, and she brings so much to the table. She’s a rebounder, she’s physical, she does a lot of the dirty work. I could not be more excited about all our new players on the team. About Seimone, who played in Minnesota, played against us four times in the regular season and in the playoffs, so I could not be more excited about all our players on this team. They will all fit in very well.
On the missing pieces
DEREK FISHER: I don’t think there was a physical missing piece. I think the missing piece was just time. Time to build the level of trust, connectivity, and chemistry that you need in order to win at the highest level. When we look at the team we ran into in Connecticut, and look at the team that eventually won the championship in Washington, there was time there. There was history there, in terms of coach/player relationships, system, the style of play, there was a level of health that successful teams experienced that we didn’t. In terms of injuries, Riquana’s suspension, and we lost a lot of time having the opportunity to be together, practice together, travel together, learn each other and things that we need to do, and that was exposed when we got into the semifinals against the Sun. They were the better team, they advanced, and they won. So I don’t think it was just a physical thing in terms of needing to add physical talent, but it’s the right players, which we are going to continue to emphasize. Kristi in the locker room, Seimone in the locker room, having TRP back, Chelsea being a year more experienced and having some of the Team USA experience that she’s gained in terms of disruption of the schedule. So we definitely wanted to add talent to get better from a physical perspective, but we also feel like we are a little disrupted. The sooner we can start spending time together and getting to know one another, that’s what we’re gonna need to make the biggest jumps.
On replacing Alana Beard
DEREK FISHER: For sure, AB will be missed. Although she didn’t get to physically spend as much time on the court as we would’ve liked, she was fully committed to trying to help the team in every way that she could; in the locker room, traveling, conversations that you have to have to push one another to be great, and we’re going to miss that. With her not being able to operate at her highest levels on the court, it impacted our ability to defend last season, and she was there part time. Now we’re going to have to build some defensive connectivity and trust without her being around at all. We’ll need some players individually to make that commitment to being great on that end, and resigning TRP was very important in that regard. Michael deserves a lot of credit for keeping our lines of communication open with TRP and her agent to make sure she knew and understood how much of a part of it she was for us, while we were having the conversations with Kristi and making sure we re-signed Chelsea, which were our top priorities for us. So it’s going to be a defense by committee this year, and I think that’s what great defense really is. It’s really difficult in a one on one situation to stop the best players in the league. So we’re going to need everybody to buy in on that end at every position, and that’s how we’re going to have to try and replace what Alana Beard, for so many years, individually just covered her brilliance, her intelligence, and just her passion for playing the game. She made up for a lot of deficiencies in those areas, and we’ll miss that, but we’ll have to find ways to do it together, and that’s what I hope we can do.
On his relationship with Candace Parker
DEREK FISHER: Specifically related to Candace, we’ve been in communication when we need to be. We’ve been in communication in different times for different reasons, and I think we’ve all gotten to a place where we’re thinking more forwards than backwards. As I’ve said before, we all needed to be better last year in order to accomplish our goals, and that’s kind of where we left it. Now, I think our perspective for many reasons has been altered. I think starting with the loss of Kobe and Gianna and the passengers on the helicopter on that date, and thinking about Kobe’s life and legacy, and how little the things are that we get caught up in that made us feel uncomfortable at times. We can’t hold onto those things. We have to keep moving, and I think that’s what Candace and I have been able to do. Michael and I have communicated very often with a few of our players about the connection on our team, and the decisions in terms of how we want to put our team together and who we could possibly go get, Candace was a part of those conversations at times. So I think we’re in a good place, and at the end of the day, it’s a result-oriented business. You can get along and not win, and still like each other, but not always be aligned in every situation. Candace is one of the best to ever do it, and any success we hope to have going forward, she’s going to be a part of it. I don’t think there’s any question about that at all, and I personally think she’s going to have a great season, be healthy this year, and we’re all going to be motivated to be better than we were a year ago.
On Brittney Sykes’ role
DEREK FISHER: “I think we’ve been honest with all the players we spoke to, that we want to see what’s best for the team. Last year TRP had a career year, before she had some shoulder inflammation. We think that she’ll be back and even more consistent making open threes. I think Brittney will have the opportunity at the wing position to not only earn minutes but potentially a starting spot. We’re also going to be open-minded from what we see from Seimone. We obviously feel like Chelsea, Kristi, Nneka, and Candace are our four pillars to start with and we’ll see. We’re excited about any direction we can go to cause our opponents problems preparing for us.”