Sunday, May 29, 2011

Stay or go? Hard call for legendary coaches

Should I stay or should I go?

When is it time? Time to let go of the biggest part of your life. No Debbie Ryan at Virginia anymore. No Wendy Larry at Old Dominion anymore. It hardly seems fathomable to imagine the sidelines without them coaching their respective teams.

You'd have liked to have seen Ryan and Larry play it out a different way -- leave on their own terms. Utah's Elaine Elliott did just that, announcing her retirement at the end of last season after a one-year sabbatical to think about it. She coached the Utes for 31 years and was head coach for 27 of those. At some point, she wondered if she'd be coaching until she was 100 -- wondering, will I ever think it's time?

Bjorn Borg retired at age 26; Chris Evert retired at No. 4 in the world, one match after routing upstart Monica Seles at the U.S. Open. Steffi Graf won a French Open and put down the racket for good a month later. Early-round losses were something those three greats couldn't stomach. But it's easy to wonder what if. Is it better to retire when you're still competitive, squeezing one last ounce out of your talent or wait until you've slipped just enough to let your rivals catch up?

ODU has gone three years without advancing to the NCAA Tournament. Virginia last advanced to the Sweet 16 in 2000. We'd like to think Wendy and Debbie haven't lost their fast ball, but we can't deny that both programs have struggled. The Lady Monarchs are losing recruits to other CAA schools. Virginia had an All-American in Monica Wright and was still unable to make a dent in the national tournament.

Women's basketball had a giddiness in its evolving stages stemming from the upward trends in coaching salaries and overall resources. But with that comes the bottom line and the bottom line is winning. Period. Larry added to ODU's rich tradition for 17 straight years. Ryan took over Virgina in its infancy and created a national contender. In many ways, both women couldn't keep up with the benchmark they established.

They are icons at their schools whose list of accomplishments suddenly seems like ancient history. Elliott noted that a longtime coach is never expected to rebuild; expectations never dip. When Virginia was in the Final Four, Miami and Florida State and Duke and Georgia Tech weren't considered threats. ODU dominated so long that the bigger news became the Lady Monarchs losing, not winning.

In her blog Extracurriculars, Wendy Parker recently wrote about "The Devil at the Bottom of the Wishing Well." Says Parker:

Marketing, promoting, boosting attendance and concerted efforts to make women’s hoops a little more commercially viable are lacking, and have been for years. The aggressive young coaches who are getting the plum jobs — and the money and the pressure to win — are in prime position to improve the product, and to broaden its appeal off the court as well. It’s the only environment they’ve known. 

Yet the downside of this — the loss of loyal, dedicated coaches like Larry who have struggled to keep up — also needs to be acknowledged. The women’s game is changing — on balance, I think for the better — but some of its finest ambassadors are feeling just than a little more than displaced.

For better or worse, sentiment has no place in sports. Chris Weller "resigned" after 499 victories and 27 years at Maryland. Theresa Grentz amassed 671 victories at Illinois before "resigning" in 2007. That same year Jody Conradt retired at Texas. Maybe it was time for all three Hall-of-Famers to move on.


Should I stay or should I go? It's a hard call, but one we suspect other coaching legends will be forced to think about a climate where winning has become everything.

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