Women's basketball comes long way, still strives

April 05, 1992|By Darryl Richards | Darryl Richards,Dallas Morning News

Even in these politically correct times, women's basketball coaches say their game still is trying to find its place.

Gone are the days when coaches and players had to take a car pool to games, and as Tennessee coach Pat Head Summitt remembers, sleep on gym floors because their school would not pay for hotel rooms.

Schools are giving full athletic scholarships, games often feature a faster pace than the men's and attendance and media exposure, while not on the level of the men's, are improving.

Despite the positives, athletic administrators and basketball coaches say the women's game has a long way to go before it truly dents the marketplace.

As the NCAA prepared for its 11th women's Final Four -- yesterday and today in Los Angeles -- progress can be seen in growing parity and a second consecutive year of live broadcasts of the semifinals and finals.

For the most part, the Final Four participants have been as predictable as a "Rocky" movie. Only six teams have won the NCAA title in its 10-year history, and only 15 teams have reached the Final Four. This year, newcomers Western Kentucky and Southwest Missouri State join traditional powers Stanford and Virginia.

"I think you see teams like Western Kentucky and Southwest Missouri State, and it shows more programs are committed," said Stephen F. Austin coach Gary Blair, whose team was ranked as high as No. 3 this season and lost in the West Regional semifinals. "When I was an assistant at Louisiana Tech, there were about seven or eight programs that could win the national title and 30 that could compete on a national level."

This season, four Texas schools broke into The Associated Press Top 25 and later earned spots in the NCAA tournament.

"Now there are no dominant teams," said Texas coach Jody Conradt, whose teams won the first eight Southwest Conference tournaments but have lost to Texas Tech in the past two. "Early on, if you wanted to go to a program that stressed women's basketball, you picked maybe from 10 schools around the country. Now every region has a program, and the talent is more spread out."

Despite more balanced talent, the women's game is still trying to find acceptance. It cannot offer the above-the-rim play of the men's game. Only one woman, GeorgeAnne Wells of West Virginia, has dunked in a game. Wells, a 6-7 center, did it twice in 1984. That doesn't mean women's basketball is an impossible sell, just a different sell.

Women coaches are quick to point out that their game has a faster pace because its shot clock is 30 seconds, 15 fewer than the men. They also point to a cleaner image than the men's programs.

The women's game rarely runs afoul of the NCAA. Since 1981, when women's basketball became an NCAA-sanctioned sport, only eight programs have been on probation. There have been 62 men's programs on probation during that span.

"It is a great thing to look at because it is almost the purest environment in the way that student-athletes are recruited in women's basketball," George Washington coach Joe McKeown said. "When you get feedback from the players, they feel like they were treated very well. There is very little bad-mouthing."

There are success stories, such as the Lady Longhorns, who averaged 5,740 fans and led the nation for the sixth consecutive season. That average was better than seven of the eight men's SWC teams, trailing only the 13,067 of the Texas men. The Texas Tech women averaged 4,201, more than five SWC men's teams.

There were 20,023 fans at the 1991 title game in Knoxville when Stanford defeated Auburn, and a sellout of 14,500 jammed Cole Field House in February to watch No. 2 Virginia defeat No. 1 Maryland, the host, 75-74.

But those are the exceptions. The Lady Longhorns lost at home in the second round of this season's tournament to UCLA, which won its first-round game at home against Notre Dame in front of 441 fans.

The average attendance for a regular-season women's game during the 1990-91 season was 680. Two years ago, Oklahoma dropped its women's program, citing lack of interest, until protests brought the program back.

Four SWC teams averaged fewer than 680. TCU, which does not charge admission, averaged 197 for 11 home games.

"I think we have been a model," Conradt said of Texas. "We made a commitment to women's athletics before other schools did. It allowed us to step forward earlier and build a fan base. It is a told-you-so thing for people who said people would never be interested in the women's game."

Texas and schools with strong attendance marks say strong promotion is essential. Conradt started by offering Austin civic groups free tickets for one game in hopes that they would be impressed enough to return. Ten home games had title sponsors.

Some women's coaches argue that attendance will not improve significantly until the sport is as vigorously promoted and covered as the men's game. Women's basketball still fights for space in newspapers and programming time on networks.

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