Friday, April 15, 2011

The Pinnacle of Coaching

I have mixed thoughts about this article. In it, Jeff Pearlman argues that legendary basketball coach Pat Summitt (note for those unfamiliar: she's a very successful lady coach who coaches women's college basketball) should take over coaching the University of Tennessee's men's team.

He writes:

"Ever since [former Tennessee coach] Bruce Pearl's dishonorable dismissal on Monday, talk in Knoxville has swirled around possible replacements. Colorado's Tad Boyle. Belmont's Rick Byrd. Virginia Commonwealth's Shaka Smart. Marquette's Buzz Williams. The names are an empty-calorie collection of animated men in suits, pacing the sideline, barking out instructions, doing whatever it is coaches are supposed to do. They are, we have learned by now, a dime-a-dozen pack. Easy to find, easy to replace....

The Vols have become something of a joke; a place for unworthy men to land prestigious positions.

This, however, can change.

Pat Summitt has said in the past that she has little interest in coaching the men's game. In 37 seasons leading the Lady Vols, she's gone 1,070-198, winning eight national championships and seven coach of the year awards. She is a legend. An icon. A beloved, respected, one-of-a-kind coach who lacks the irksome cockiness of a Geno Auriemma or the we-need-to-cheat-to-win philosophical outlook of Pearl and so many other college coaches. Players swear by her goodness, assistants swear by her smarts, rivals swear by her relentlessness. In nearly four decades on the job, she has served as the school's greatest spokeswoman.

She is the University of Tennessee. Which is why, just maybe, this could work."

To state the obvious, sex-based average differences in body size, speed, and strength, which are used to justify sex-segregated athletic divisions, are not relevant with respect to coaching. Thus, it should be a given that women possess the competence to coach male athletes.

Yet, while it is common for men to coach women's college teams, especially after Title IX helped raise the status and pay of such jobs, it is still rare for women to coach men's teams. Fun fact: In 1972, 90% of women's teams had female coaches, while now only 42% do. Meanwhile, 2-3% of men's teams are coached by a woman (PDF). The next time some anti-Title IX crusader whines about how wrestling program got decimated due to the uppity female athletes, recite that statistic.

Anyway, on the one hand, I think it could be barrier-breaking for Pat Summit to coach Tennessee's men's team. I think it's a given that she would do it incredibly well. And, the doubling of her salary for doing the same job would be nice for her.

And yet, would it not do female athletes, and women's college basketball, a disservice to take (arguably) the best college basketball coach in the US away from women's basketball in service of an alleged Greater Purposes of (a) coaching men and (b) breaking a barrier?

While Pearlman raises a good point about mediocre "dime-a-dozen" male coaches who regularly get major coaching jobs, why does a lady have to be someone of Pat Summitt's elite caliber to even be considered as a viable candidate to coach a men's team?

I don't write this in opposition to Summitt taking a men's coaching job, I write it to question the unstated assumption that both men's basketball and male coaches are the Platonic ideal of athletic accomplishment in their respective categories.

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