The Official Website of the Southeastern Conference
The Official Website of the Southeastern Conference

The SEC Blog: Women's Basketball Shows Diversity

160 days ago
By Kevin Scarbinsky
Photo: SEC

The conversation started with Terri Williams-Flournoy. At SEC Tipoff, the Auburn women's basketball coach was asked about the coaching stability in the conference. After all, 13 of the 14 head coaches return this season with Tennessee's Kellie Harper the only newcomer to the ranks.

Heading into her eighth season at Auburn puts Williams-Flournoy among fully half of the league's coaches who have been at their current posts at least that long. Given the quality of the competition, it's a powerful statement about the allure of staying in the Southeastern Conference once you've arrived.

As Williams-Flournoy said, "There's no reason to leave. Where are we going to go where we would get a better opportunity?"

It's an opportunity to mentor the best players. Six of the top 10 players in the espnW's class of 2019 rankings - and 24 of the top 100 - signed with SEC schools. At least one SEC student-athlete has been named a first-team All-American for 10 straight years. During that decade, 55 SEC players were selected in the WNBA Draft, 18 in the first round, six as the No. 1 overall pick.

Coaching in the SEC also provides an opportunity to compete against the best in the business on the opposite sideline. Thirteen of the league's current coaches have led a team to the NCAA Tournament, nine to the Sweet 16, seven to the Elite Eight, five to the Final Four, two (Gary Blair and Dawn Staley) to a national championship.

"Opportunity" is the operative word at the perfect time on the heels of SEC Tipoff 20. It's NCAA Diversity and Inclusion Week, which "is meant to be a week of awareness, education and engagement showing the importance of inclusive environments in college sports," according to the NCAA.

There was no better example of a diverse environment than last week's gathering of SEC women's basketball coaches at Media Days in Birmingham. There were nine women and five men, and Yolett McPhee-McCuin, the only new head coach to enter the league a year ago at Ole Miss, broke down the diversity even further. She noted that SEC women's basketball includes more minority women as head coaches than the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 or Pac-12.

Coach Yo is among that number along with Williams-Flournoy, South Carolina's Staley, Georgia's Joni Taylor and LSU's Nikki Fargas.

"It speaks volumes about how we want to be portrayed and what we stand for and how we want to be the trend-setters in women's basketball," McPhee-McCuin said.

But it's not just diversity for diversity's sake. It's diversity in service to an ideal of finding the best head coach for each school regardless of gender or race. It's breaking through sometimes antiquated barriers in search of a quality individual to run a high-level program.

By any measure, that mission has been accomplished many times over. Consider the two current SEC head coaches who've led their teams to a national championship. What Staley and Texas A&M's Blair share most in common is long, distinguished resumes as two of the most accomplished leaders in intercollegiate athletics.

Staley, who also enjoyed a storied career as a college, professional and international player, is a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Blair, the dean of SEC coaches, is a member of the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame.

The SEC's roster of Final Four coaches also includes this trio of unique personalities: Mississippi State's Vic Schaefer, Alabama's Kristy Curry (who got there with Purdue) and Arkansas's Mike Neighbors (who did it with Washington).

Matthew Mitchell, the winningest coach in Kentucky history heading into his 13th season with the Wildcats, has noticed something when the conference coaches get together twice a year at the spring meeting in Destin and the fall gathering in Birmingham.

"We have a quality group of people in that room," he said. "We have the greatest tradition in women's college basketball from a conference standpoint, and they care about that tradition."

At the heart of that tradition, on a large scale from school to school, is an overall commitment to excellence in this sport. On a more personal level, there's obviously an unwavering belief in diversity and inclusion, which is manifested by the presence of so many quality head coaches of differing backgrounds.

"Anytime I go out to recruit, I talk about my conference," McPhee-McCuin of Ole Miss said. "The conference provides a lot of opportunities, and that's what makes it an easy sell for me."