Basketball's double standard

Arkansas' decision to hire Jimmy Dykes despite his never having coached women's basketball raised a lot of eyebrows. Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY Sports

As a general rule, women don't pursue jobs coaching men.

There have been a few exceptions over the years (see: Nancy Lieberman and Bernadette Locke Mattox), but it's such a rarity that when it happens in a major sport, it becomes big news. Such was the case last week when Helena Costa was hired as head coach of Clermont Foot, a professional men's soccer club in France's Ligue 2. The 36-year-old native of Portugal becomes the first woman to lead a team in one of the top two divisions in any of Europe's five major leagues.

Of course, men frequently pursue jobs coaching women. In fact, 56.6 percent of the head-coaching positions in NCAA Division I women's sports are held by men. And this spring, three of the most prominent vacancies in women's college basketball were filled by men.

The top job at Louisiana Tech went to 23-year-old Tyler Summitt, who spent the past two years as an assistant coach for the Marquette women -- and more famously is the son of Tennessee legend Pat Summitt. Oregon hired Kelly Graves, who previously led Gonzaga. And Arkansas appointed Jimmy Dykes, a longtime ESPN analyst whose last coaching job was as an assistant for the men's basketball program at Oklahoma State during the 1990-91 season.

Dykes landed the gig at his alma mater despite never having coached women's basketball, a move that raised a lot of eyebrows.

"Arkansas' decision to hire someone who has not coached basketball in 23 years is disappointing to the multitude of more-than-qualified coaches who are members of our association," said Beth Bass, then-CEO of the Women's Basketball Coaches Association, in a statement posted on the WBCA's website in March. "That being said ... if the Arkansas administration believes Jimmy Dykes, because of his celebrity, his ties to the university, and to the Fayetteville community, is the best person to reinvigorate support for and fan interest in Razorback women's basketball, then we will not second guess from afar. I welcome Jimmy to the women's basketball community."

There are many strong, successful male mentors who have spent the bulk of their careers in the women's game. But the hiring of Dykes highlights a persistent double standard in basketball, because the men's game remains closed off to women and because female coaches -- even those with strong résumés -- feel less empowered to pursue jobs the same way men do.

No one had to encourage Dykes, who lives in northwest Arkansas, to pursue the opening with the Razorbacks. He approached athletic director Jeff Long in the hallway between games at the SEC men's basketball tournament and told the AD he would like to be considered for the job in the wake of Tom Collen's firing.

Less than two weeks later, Dykes signed a four-year guaranteed contract that pays him about $450,000 annually.

Long was so keen on Dykes that he filed a "variance request form" with the university's Office of Equal Opportunity and Compliance during the hiring process. Most positions at Arkansas must be advertised for a minimum of 14 days before the school can offer a job, but the rule was waived so Long could move quickly to bring in Dykes.

Now try to imagine the reverse scenario: a female announcer approaching the athletic director of a big-time school and letting him know about her interest in the men's basketball job. As more than a few observers wondered on Twitter, would Providence hire ESPN analyst Doris Burke, a former player for the Friars, to run its men's basketball program?

Long admitted it's unlikely he would have considered a woman with Dykes' résumé to coach the Arkansas men. "Probably not," he said in an interview with espnW. "Because of the way things are viewed in our society."

More to the point, few ADs -- if any -- would consider a woman with Dykes' résumé to coach on the women's side, either.

The Dykes hire was described by many, including Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, as "outside the box," but in fact it fits a familiar pattern within the women's game. There are numerous examples in the NCAA and WNBA ranks of top jobs that went to men who had no previous experience coaching women (see: Paul Westhead, Michael Cooper, Dave Cowens, Tree Rollins) or no experience coaching anyone at the college or pro level (see: Bill Laimbeer, Dee Brown, Muggsy Bogues).

The belief seems to exist that when a team needs a jolt, especially from a media standpoint, a man with a big name is the one who can provide the boost. Rarely do these "outside-the-box" hires involve a woman signing on the dotted line.

Men who want to get into coaching can look at women's basketball and see opportunity everywhere. But it's an entirely different story for women pondering the men's game. When Natalie Nakase, currently an assistant video coordinator for the Los Angeles Clippers, first tried to get her foot in the NBA door, she was actively discouraged by men who advised her she would be better off on the women's side -- never mind that she was the first woman to coach in Japan's top-tier men's league.

And even within the women's game, a female coach must have impressive credentials to land a top job. Long said he interviewed, in person, three women and three men (including Dykes) for the Arkansas opening. But he said the skills of the women who interviewed seemed too specialized. "I thought about this after this search," Long said. "I think some female assistant coaches need to fight to be more than just the recruiter, more than just the offensive coach, more than just the defensive coach. They have to be that whole package. I think that's important to the development of any coach, but particularly important to female coaches in women's basketball."

Long praised Dykes' skills as a communicator. And Dykes himself sounded confident that his work as a TV analyst had helped prepare him for his new job. "You're coaching games on TV with a lot of pressure on you, as well," Dykes said. "I had to call timeouts -- just not on the floor. I had to call timeouts when I see things. All of the decisions that a coach has to make, I had to make, as well, as an analyst."

That self-assurance underscores another key factor at play: the confidence gap between men and women. Dykes feels his work as an analyst is comparable to actual coaching experience, a belief probably few women would share. According to an internal report released by Hewlett-Packard several years ago, women at the technology company applied for open jobs only if they believed they met 100 percent of the criteria listed. Men applied if they thought they could meet 60 percent of the requirements.

For Division I athletic directors -- 89.4 percent of whom are men -- it would seem the message is clear: If you believe female leadership is important, then you must actively foster it and take a more creative approach to targeting candidates.

Long said he values strong female leadership. "We look for and try to find qualified, competent folks -- women -- to fill roles, just as we do with other minorities, such as race," he said. "And I think we did pinpoint good female candidates for this job."

But it was the guy with the big name who got the job.

After joining Arkansas, Dykes retained one female assistant (Tari Cummings), then hired one woman (Christy Smith) and one man (Chris Johnson) to round out his staff. He also kept Amber Shirey as his director of basketball operations.

"I've surrounded myself with strong female assistants because I want that strong, female influence on the players' lives, as well as the strong influence I'm going to put on them," Dykes said. "I think there is a blend there. But you know what? I think it's important for female athletes to see a strong male figure in their lives. I think that's true on the men's and women's side. I think on the men's side, obviously, they're coached by men, but I also know the wives of coaches have a very unique purpose in the development of the student-athlete."

That might be true on occasion. But being the wife (or husband) of a coach is not the same thing as being a coach. And if male leadership is viewed as important for female athletes, then why isn't a higher value placed on female leadership in men's sports?

Maybe it's time we stopped blaming women for not pursuing jobs that no one is encouraging them to take.