New Coaches, Pressures Transforming Big 12 Women’s Basketball

KANSAS CITY, Mo.

The dean of Big 12 Conference women’s basketball coaches senses big changes coming into his profession.

“There’s a lot of money involved; there’s a lot of pressure involved,” Iowa State’s Bill Fennelly said Tuesday during Big 12 media day.

“It used to be women’s coaches were immune to that, and we’re not anymore. I think we live in a `what have you done for me lately’ world, and you win, you’re successful, or they’re going to find somebody else who they feel can do it. You see a lot of administrators change, and when (athletic directors) change, the coaches change a lot of times after that.”

This year’s most headline-grabbing coaching change, in the nation as well as the Big 12, occurred when Jody Conradt, a pioneer in the sport who won 900 games, retired at Texas.

When the Longhorns began casting about for a replacement, they didn’t have to go slumming. Taking her place is Gail Goestenkors, who went to four Final Fours and was 396-99 in 15 years at Duke, one of the nation’s most prestigious basketball powers.

For a much-in-demand coach to gravitate to the Big 12 was only the continuation of a trend in recent years, however.

At Texas Tech, replacing Marsha Sharp after 24 seasons, is Kristy Curry. Her Purdue team in 2001 came within one victory of the NCAA title. Now at Colorado is Kathy McConnell-Miller, the all-time winningest coach at Tulsa who stepped in after Ceal Barry’s 22-year run.

“Our conference has become a destination league,” said Bonnie Henrickson, a big success at Virginia Tech before she arrived at Kansas in 2005 to replace Marion Washington, another women’s pioneer whose program had fallen upon lean times.

“You have three coaches that took teams to the Final Four that left their programs to join the Big 12,” said Henrickson. “It speaks volumes about the commitment in our league, the quality of coaches in our league, and the administrators, and certainly the talent we have in our conference. I don’t know that that’s happened anywhere in the country.”

With new coaches are certain to come fresh ideas.

“I think it does change the landscape of our league,” said Oklahoma’s Sherri Coale. “I think we have been very fortunate, those of us who remain, to have worked under the mentorship and competed against such greats as Jody and Ceal and Marsha, and before that, Marion. There will be changes.”

Change is what Goestenkors yearned for.

“I’ve always been one to kind of push the envelope a little bit, push myself. And I never want to be comfortable.” she said.

Her last seven Duke teams won at least 30 games, which is roughly the total combined for the last two years for Texas. Leaving a basketball-happy school such as Duke for a place that has always prided football above all else was, she said, “one of the most difficult decisions of my life.”

“I really had to think do I want to stay at Duke for the rest of my career, which would have been fine, or do I want one more big challenge on this journey? I just thought it would be so exciting to really try something entirely new and see if I could help bring Texas back to the greatness that it once had.”

The biggest challenge for 11 Big 12 teams this year will probably be trying to stop Courtney Paris. Oklahoma’s 6-4 junior has had a double-double in 61 straight games and led the league in both scoring (23.5 points per game) and rebounding (15.9).

Coale said her experience in international competition this summer has made Paris even better, which could make her perhaps the best player in the country.

“I just want to be known as the best Courtney in the country to do my job,” Paris said. “To be the best I can be, to keep improving, to just be whatever my team needs me to be and to keep working hard.”

The Sooners, co-champions last year with Texas A&M, were picked one notch below the Aggies in the preseason coaches’ poll. Texas A&M returns all its starters as well as 91 percent of its scoring.

“We’ve got a lot of kids who are banged up right now for the first time that I can remember in 10 or 15 years,” said Texas A&M coach Gary Blair. “We’ve got to get healthy and we’ve got to stay hungry.”

— Associated Press



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