A few months before the Los Angeles Sparks and New York Liberty played the first WNBA game in 1997, the NCAA Final Four featured a quartet of teams far more familiar to women’s basketball fans: Notre Dame, Old Dominion, Stanford and eventual champion Tennessee.
Or put in an equally familiar way: Muffet McGraw, Wendy Larry, Tara VanDerveer and Pat Summitt.
Four esteemed coaches who piled up national championships, Olympic gold medals and several thousand wins between them. Four women who, when they were barely out of college themselves in their early-to-mid 20s, started their coaching careers with little institutional support and even less financial reward. And four women who persevered.
Kara Lawson is part of their legacy. She learned from the late Summitt at Tennessee. So did former Lady Vols star Nikki McCray-Penson. Niele Ivey experienced the same under McGraw’s watch at Notre Dame, first as a player and later as an assistant coach.
And now those three — with McCray-Penson’s three seasons in charge at Old Dominion representing the full extent of their collective women’s college basketball head-coaching experience — are three of the biggest hires of the offseason. They hold some of the most coveted coaching real estate in women’s basketball: McCray-Penson at Mississippi State, Ivey at Notre Dame and now Lawson at Duke after she was named the Blue Devils’ coach Saturday.
But as much as they are connected to the game’s past as protégés of legends, they are even more indicative of where we are going. Someone with no prior head-coaching experience beyond USA Basketball’s 3-on-3 teams, Lawson represents the boldest experiment. It’s time for the next generation of innovators and leaders who, nearly 25 years after the birth of the WNBA, have been busy playing professional basketball and exploring the doors it opens.
Look at it this way. When Summitt played in the 1976 Olympics, she famously had to get back in shape because, already two years into her Tennessee tenure at 24 years old, she was well conditioned for a coach — but not an Olympian. When Lawson played in the 2008 Olympics, she was in her sixth professional season and already had a WNBA championship to her name.
It is a different world.
Lawson didn’t play her final game in Knoxville and then look for a coaching job as her only way to stay in the sport. Neither did McCray-Penson nor Ivey. They played in the WNBA (and in McCray-Penson’s case, the ABL). Lawson worked as an analyst on NBA games, among others. She and Ivey both worked on NBA coaching staffs. And they worked for some of the best minds in the game — whether it was McGraw, Dawn Staley or Brad Stevens.
This generation of coaches experienced everything basketball as a profession has to offer. No, the doors weren’t open nearly wide enough in some realms. Not yet. And that’s why it was still a big deal when Lawson called NBA games on television or Ivey coached Ja Morant. But those doors are opening, creating new pathways to travel and learn.
Work alongside Staley to win a college title? Great. Pick Gregg Popovich’s brain in a production meeting? Educational. Just like playing for Summitt.
McCray-Penson remembers playing against Lawson when Team USA came through Knoxville during a tour around the 2000 Olympics. Long before Sabrina Ionescu beat another Team USA, McCray-Penson recalled Lawson hitting the winning shot to beat the Olympians.
That stubborn competitiveness is a decent start for creating a coach. It worked for Summitt. In Lawson’s case, it has been honed by two decades’ worth of experiences in the game that involved everything except being a head coach at the college or WNBA level.
“She has a great mind,” McCray-Penson said Friday. “She’s done her part to educate herself on the game. … Being able to be coached by the greatest coach in the country, in my opinion, in Pat Summitt, she’s ready. She’s prepared herself. She’s been around the game. She hasn’t been removed from the game to where she doesn’t know the ins and outs of it.”
This is about something more than Duke. Because, with apologies, Duke is a fixer-upper at the moment in women’s college basketball. At least in comparison to some of the other marquee jobs open this summer. Cameron Indoor Stadium is the scruffiest house on a very good block, to be sure, but the women’s basketball program is still in need of some work. For a long time, the Blue Devils just couldn’t quite reach the summit, whether it was the Alana Beard or Lindsey Harding teams under Gail Goestenkors coming up short in the Final Four or the Jasmine Thomas and Elizabeth Williams teams under Joanne P. McCallie losing four consecutive regional finals.
Mississippi State has top-10 talent returning this season. Notre Dame is coming off the roughest season anyone can remember in South Bend, but it has a slew of top recruits on the way.
Duke? It’s still a top-20 job. Maybe even closer to the top 10. But it’s going to take some time to take back what Louisville and Notre Dame seized in the ACC. It’s going to take some new ideas.
Anyone who talks to Lawson for even a few minutes knows she’s not short on basketball ideas.
The WNBA and NBA pipeline is flowing freely at the moment in college basketball. Some of the hires will work. Some won’t. It has been that way in all sports for all time.
Texas A&M‘s Kelly Bond-White is of essentially the same generation as Lawson and the others hired this summer (not to mention 2018, when Minnesota hired Lindsay Whalen with no prior coaching experience and Virginia hired Tina Thompson after a short stint as a Texas assistant). Bond-White went into coaching almost as soon as she finished playing at Illinois. She isn’t a worse head-coaching candidate for it.
Missouri State’s Amaka Agugua-Hamilton, Drake’s Jennie Baranczyk and Boston University’s Marisa Moseley are young mid-major head coaches. None played in the WNBA. All will be tremendous hires for bigger programs, should any of them wish to leave current good gigs.
It’s not that Lawson’s is a better route. But it is another route.
With McGraw’s retirement, only six active coaches have won national championships. Brenda Frese and Dawn Staley are the youngest of the group by a good bit at 50 years old. This is a transitional era. And the more routes there are for women — and especially women of color, like all three high-profile hires this summer — the sooner we all get to where we want to go.
“We’ve competed at a high level, and most of these kids we come in contact with, they want to be like us,” McCray-Penson said. “They want to get to where we’ve gone. We have to tell them how hard it is to get there.”
Anywhere they want to go, Lawson has been there. Including now running a college flagship.