Monday, March 31, 1997
Only one challenge left for Summitt

The Cincinnati Enquirer

First, there were sellouts. Then, there were scalpers. Then, the NCAA Women's Basketball championship game was played in prime time.

Pro leagues have been launched. Expectations have been raised. Riverfront Coliseum will never play host to another Women's Final Four because the building simply isn't big enough. Demand for tickets is so great now that the NCAA will henceforth distribute tickets through a lottery system instead of an 800 number.

Breakthroughs are happening on a variety of fronts but some barriers remain. The men's basketball job at the University of Tennessee is open, and the school's enormously successful women's coach is not seen as a serious candidate - even by herself.

''I'm not interested,'' Pat Summitt said. ''I really like the women's game ... I've never had any desire to coach on any other level.''

This is unfortunate, for Summitt's success fairly screams for a bigger stage. She won her fifth NCAA championship Sunday night, a plateau only John Wooden has attained in the whole history of college basketball. The women's game still shows less parity than the men's, but Summitt could not have dominated it without some skills that are not gender-specific.

Clearly she has as strong a claim to coach a big-time men's team as did Gerry Faust or Tony Yates. What she lacks is an athletic director with enough imagination to see opportunity rather than obstacles.

Think about it: How many times do you suppose Tennessee would be on television if Pat Summitt were coaching its men's team? How many top recruits might that sort of national exposure attract? How many tickets would be sold? How much merchandise would be moved?

Sure, there's a down side. There's always a down side. But when you look at it objectively, the main problem that leaps to mind is the likelihood that America's basketball fans would be subjected to endless renditions of ''Rocky Top.''

That's a small price to pay for progress. Especially with ear plugs.

''I think women coaching in the men's programs is still a ways away,'' said Tennessee sophomore Kellie Jolly. ''I think men see us as a step down from their game . and it is a different game. It's hard (for a women's coach) to get the experience.''

Still, most of the same principles apply. Despite efforts to make it more mystifying, basketball at any level is about getting good shooters open, and preventing the good shooters on the other side from getting the ball where they're comfortable. It's about conditioning and confidence, sacrifice and sweat. None of these things are contingent on certain chromosomes.

Except for leaping ability and its impact on strategy, much of basketball transcends the gender gap. When one team starts to pull away, Dick Vitale is going to start screaming for the other side to call a timeout no matter who is in charge.

If Pat Summitt prefers to stay put, to chase Dean Smith's victory record where the competition is not so keen, that's certainly her prerogative. But one of these days - and maybe before the millennium - some athletic director with an open mind and a blank check is going to consider a woman's coach - Summitt or Old Dominion's Wendy Larry or Stanford's Tara VanDerveer - and see a solution instead of a script for Whoopi Goldberg.

Perhaps if enough of the hot male coaches reject Ohio State, Athletic Director Andy Geiger will be forced to consider less obvious alternatives. We rather doubt it - Ohio State is about as adventurous as the menu at McDonald's - but how hard would it be to improve on Randy Ayers?

Pat Summitt could probably do it in her sleep.