By Doug Herakovich
April 3, 2007
ACC basketball fans long have held their heads high when they discuss the conference's superiority. Now, a smaller group of area fanatics is making the same claims about ACC women's basketball.
For more than three decades, the world of collegiate women's basketball was dominated by the Southeastern Conference. Schools such as Southern California, Texas and Connecticut have surged into the national spotlight at times, but the SEC has ruled the sport.
In 2005-06, the ACC shocked the women's basketball community by sending an unprecedented three teams to the Final Four. This year, when North Carolina followed up another strong regular-season performance by the league with a second straight Final Four trip, the ACC drove home a clear point: The SEC has company on top of the mountain.
Prior to a second-round NCAA Tournament matchup with Duke, Temple coach Dawn Staley noted that the Blue Devils had completed a perfect regular season while "playing in what is, by far, the best conference in the country." Although the ACC stumbled in the NCAA regionals, Staley's pronouncement generally was regarded as fact.
"When you see Florida State and N.C. State in the Sweet 16, and then you had Duke, North Carolina and Maryland at the top of the polls all year, I would definitely say that the ACC was the top conference this year," said ESPN television analyst Debbie Antonelli, who also worked broadcast packages for the ACC, SEC, Big 12 and Big East in 2006-07. "Coaches are notorious for promoting their own conference, and the SEC does that better than anyone. But, if you could pin them down, I think even the SEC coaches would admit that the ACC had the strongest conference this year."
HEELS, TERPS, DEVILS LEADING
The focus of the national attention has been on three ACC programs UNC, Maryland and Duke.
Over the past two years, that trio has been on an incredible run. All three teams reached the 2006 Final Four (marking the first time that one conference sent three teams to that elite destination on the women's side), with Maryland defeating UNC and Duke on the way to its first national title. For an encore, the programs spent most of the 2006-07 campaign ranked in the top six nationally, and the Tar Heels remained alive in the national semifinals on April 1.
The Blue Devils, Tar Heels and Terrapins had a combined record of 107-4 against non-conference foes during that two-year stretch, and it wasn't a case of cream-puff scheduling. The list of victims was a Who's Who of women's hoops, including Tennessee (1-4 against the ACC trio over that period), Connecticut (0-3), Vanderbilt (0-3), Rutgers (1-1), Texas (0-2), Old Dominion (0-2), Penn State (0-2), Purdue (0-2), LSU, Baylor, Auburn, USC and Notre Dame.
While the top three ACC schools have been grabbing most of the headlines, the league also has exhibited impressive depth.
ACC teams have combined to win more than 78 percent of their non-conference contests during the past two seasons. Seven teams made the 2006 NCAA Tournament field, four advanced to the Sweet 16, and two more went to the WNIT. This year, eight of the 12 teams reached the postseason, and four competed in the NCAA's Sweet 16.
SEED PLANTED EIGHT YEARS AGO
The ACC jumped into the national spotlight at the 2006 Final Four, but that event was simply the payoff from a long, difficult fight.
"Collectively, the athletic directors at the campuses, along with (ACC commissioner) John Swofford, made the decision to put women's basketball in a situation comparable to where men's basketball is in the ACC," said Bernadette McGlade, the associate commissioner for the ACC who oversees women's basketball. "They made that decision about eight years ago. It takes time to put things in place, like staffing and the financial commitment. You've seen a lot of that coming together over the last couple of years. There has been a convergence of a number of factors, but it basically revolved around the commitment elevation on the campuses and at the conference office."
The schools' dedication included inflated budgets for the women's programs, which are led by several outstanding coaches.
Veterans Kay Yow of N.C. State and Debbie Ryan of Virginia have logged a total of more than 60 seasons on the ACC sidelines, and they have taken their programs to the Final Four. Sylvia Hatchell guided UNC to the 1994 national title, and she has been to two Final Fours since then. Gail Goestenkors took over a downtrodden Duke situation in 1993 and now leads one of the nation's elite programs. At Maryland, the Terrapins went from 10-18 in 2003 to the 2006 NCAA championship under Brenda Frese.
"It's difficult to pinpoint one thing that has elevated the conference," Antonelli said. "You obviously have administrators who made a commitment to build strong women's basketball programs, and then you have pioneers in the game like Kay Yow, Debbie Ryan and Sylvia Hatchell. Those coaches elevated their own programs, but they also worked hard to promote the game of women's basketball, and I think that had an impact on the conference.
"Those legendary coaches were followed by very strong younger coaches. In the last decade, Gail Goestenkors built that incredible program at Duke, and Sue Semrau has built a strong program at Florida State. Then, Brenda Frese came into the league, and she took Maryland to the national championship.
"Right now, Coach G is the gold standard for women's basketball coaches. She does an amazing job leading that program, and it's not just about basketball. There are a lot of other elements involved in that job, and she has done a great job with all aspects of the position."
KEY FACTORS: TV, TOURNAMENT
On the conference level, the ACC stressed two points that helped grow the men's basketball image during the first years of the league television exposure and the conference tournament. Both of those endeavors have proven to be extremely successful on the women's side, too.
First, the league created one of the nation's finest TV contracts in women's college athletics. In 2006-07, 54 regular-season games involving ACC teams were televised, including 12 that were broadcast nationally by the various ESPN networks.
In addition, the conference made a commitment to develop the women's ACC Tournament into a true event. The atmosphere in Greensboro now includes a "Fan Zone" adjacent to the Coliseum, as well as concerts and a series of promotional giveaways. Attendance at the event continually has grown. In 2007, a record-setting 69,159 fans attended, with sellouts posted for the semifinals and final. The sellouts meant 11,538 fans in the arena, and serious ticket scalpers prowling outside.
"What we've tried to do is to market the tournament like any business," McGlade said. "We're selling a superior athletic event that is a fun thing to attend. They say that imitation is the finest form of flattery, and we've been getting a lot of calls the last couple of years. Other people want to know how we're selling tickets, how we're promoting the tournament, how we're doing this or that, and we're happy to share that information because we think it's good for the game."
McGlade clearly has been good for the game, too. In addition to creating the TV deal and building the tournament, she pulled together a group of rivals.
"The ACC office, and in particular Bernadette McGlade, deserves a lot of credit for the success of the tournament," Antonelli said. "They have done a great job of promoting and developing the event. The ACC Tournament now has a Final Four feel to it. They have the fans, and they have the level of play that's equivalent to the Final Four. The ACC Tournament does a great job of preparing those teams for the NCAA Tournament."
"I think our success really started when the ACC decided to create a position for women's basketball that was eventually filled by Bernadette McGlade," Semrau said. "Bern-adette was able to bring all of the coaches together, and she served as a focal point for us. She brought us together, and we discussed ways that we could improve and how we could strive to be the best conference in the country. Individuals can talk all they want, but you usually need a team captain who can pull you together and help you implement your plan. That's the role Bernadette has filled for us.
"We made a push for attendance at the ACC Tournament, and that was big. We made a change in scheduling, where we charged each program to play a tougher schedule so that we could raise our RPI. The growth of our television exposure was also huge, and that's another area where Bernadette worked diligently. Our television package is as good as anyone's, and that exposure is huge."
WINS PROPEL RECRUITING CYCLE
Recruiting is obviously a critical element for any collegiate program, and the ACC women also have been excelling in that area recently.
According to the All-Star Girls Report, which is widely recognized as the leader in women's basketball prospect rankings, at least five ACC programs have enjoyed top-25 recruiting classes in each of the past three years. The ASGR class rankings for early 2007 signees had Maryland at No. 2, followed by Duke (third) and UNC (seventh). In addition, the Tar Heels already have a trio of top-30 commitments for 2008, and Duke has a verbal from a top-10 junior.
"When you look at the three power programs Duke, North Carolina and Maryland they all had one real break-out year in recruiting, and then they followed it up," ASGR founder Mike White said. "When you look at programs like Florida State, Georgia Tech, N.C. State and some of the others in the ACC, they have put together a series of solid, nationally ranked classes. Every year, the ACC is signing a lot of top-100 players."
Not surprisingly, success on the court for the ACC has led to more success on the recruiting trail.
"When we are recruiting, we always talk about the opportunity to play against the very best competition, night-in and night-out," Semrau said. "That competition prepares our team for the NCAA Tournament, and it could be preparing the players for the competition on the next level, or for any other challenge they may face down the road."
Of course, other factors also have helped the ACC programs attract outstanding young athletes.
"First, the conference has a number of great academic institutions, and that's going to draw kids," White said. "Secondly, the ACC has one of the best TV contracts in the country. Bernie McGlade has done a great job of showcasing their product, and the kids know who is on TV."
The women also feed off their men's programs. The ACC is known as basketball country, and that simple fact draws recruits of both genders to the league.
Italee Lucas, a rising senior prep point guard from Las Vegas, committed to UNC during her sophomore year of high school, without even setting foot in Chapel Hill. When Lucas was asked what led her to pick the Tar Heels, the first thing she mentioned was the legacy of Michael Jordan.
Of course, the ACC coaches have done a tremendous job of maximizing their advantages on the recruiting trail.
"As long as they don't start losing the coaches they have in place," White said, "the ACC should stay on top."
The ACC clearly is positioned to maintain its lofty status. ASGR's early rankings for the 2007-08 season have Maryland at No. 2, Duke at No. 4, UNC at No. 10, Georgia Tech at
No. 19, and Florida State at No. 21. At the very least, the league will be seen as the equivalent of the SEC in the game's hierarchy.
FUTURE HOLDS MANY QUESTIONS
All is well at the moment, but the ACC will be facing a serious challenge in the coming months.
In 2004, the Virginia Tech program suffered a setback when Kansas swept in and grabbed highly regarded Hokies coach Bonnie Henrickson with an offer that reportedly reached $500,000 per year. Thanks to a series of high-profile openings in the coaching ranks, this could be the most tumultuous offseason ever for the game of women's basketball, and the turmoil could hit home.
Goestenkors, the 2007 WBCA national coach of the year, was the No. 1 candidate for the opening at Texas at the end of March. Rumors of a $1 million per year offer for Goestenkors were floating around the women's hoops community even before legendary UT coach Jody Conradt announced her retirement.
Shortly after the Blue Devils were eliminated from the NCAA Tournament, Texas officials asked for and were granted permission to speak with Goestenkors, who then visited Austin in late March. The Dallas Morning News wrote that tax records put Goestenkors' 2005 income at around $530,000. Within the first few days in April, Texas announced Goestenkors as the new head coach.
Meanwhile, Frese is among a number of elite coaches who have been linked to the opening at Florida. Semrau, a native of Seattle, is apparently on the radar at Washington, where the Huskies are seeking a new leader. Finally, ACC pioneers Yow and Ryan could retire in the near future.
The ACC athletic directors may need to re-affirm their commitment to women's basketball this spring, and McGlade is confident that they will answer the call.
"This is just part of the continued evolution of the game. Everybody went to funding the full limit of scholarships, and then they went to full staffs. Now they are looking at the salaries for coaches," McGlade said. "This is athletics, and we keep score, and we want to be No. 1. It's the nature of the business. We have a history of having the best coaches in the ACC, and I think they deserve everything they get.
"These types of rumors aren't new. We've always had premiere coaches in the conference, and it's the nature of the business that those coaches' names are circulated when there are openings. I think the leaders at the schools in the conference have made a huge commitment to women's basketball, and I think they will continue to do that, so those rumors don't concern me at all."
Doug Herakovich is the former editor and publisher of The Women's Basketball Journal, which stopped publication in 2002, and an occasional contributor to the ACC Sports Journal. He has worked in college athletics, as an author, a member of the media or in the media-relations field, since 1985.
LOOKING AT THE LADIES
Just in case you haven't been paying attention, here is a quick primer on the state of women's basketball in the ACC:
The Elite: Duke, Maryland, North Carolina
These teams now are defined by 30-win seasons, Final Fours and NCAA titles. Gail Goestenkors (headed to Texas), Brenda Frese and Sylvia Hatchell have built three of America's strongest programs, and the two remaining coaches should bring the ACC even more recognition for the foreseeable future unless someone lures them away.
The Old Guard: N.C. State, Virginia
Kay Yow and Debbie Ryan were key figures in the growth of ACC women's basketball. Yow has been in Raleigh for 32 years, while Ryan took over in Charlottesville in 1977. Both have reached the Final Four, and both still are producing quality teams, but the day is approaching when these programs will have to find new leadership.
On The Cusp: Boston College, Florida State, Georgia Tech
These three programs are respected across the nation, and they are hoping to make the leap to the next level. The Eagles, Seminoles and Yellow Jackets are seeking the breakthrough recruiting class or perhaps a magical March run that will propel their programs toward elite status.
The bottom four schools in the league are playing catch-up with relatively new coaches. Clemson appears to have the best foundation under second-year mentor Cristy McKinney, but all four are facing a very difficult challenge.
Doug Herakovich, ACCSports.com
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