Four male coaches lead their teams to the Final Four

Is UConn ruining women's college basketball? (1:49)

Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic discuss Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy tweeting that the UConn women's basketball team is ruining college basketball, and if he has a point to his argument. (1:49)

It was a question that Oregon State women's basketball coach Scott Rueck felt just a little bit uncomfortable about answering. He didn't want to sound defensive, and he didn't want to say the wrong thing.

His team played in the last NCAA regional final, in Dallas, on Monday night. When the Beavers won, it meant for the first time, all four coaches at the Women's Final Four are men. What did Rueck think of that?

"I see my job is helping women reach their potential, and I've devoted my life to that," said Rueck, who will join UConn's Geno Auriemma, Syracuse's Quentin Hillsman and Washington's Mike Neighbors in Indianapolis.

"I don't see it as an issue. The most significant, impactful people in my life have been female. I think there is a place for guys as mentors in the women's game. We can all learn from anyone."

The topic of men's coaches in women's sports is always generates some passionate opinions -- in part because it's so rare for women to coach men.

Often, the men involved in women's basketball coaching tread pretty lightly around the issue, at least with their public comments. During Wednesday's teleconferences with the Women's Final Four coaches, even the frequently outspoken Auriemma didn't want to get into a big discussion about it.

"These [other] three coaches have done a phenomenal job of getting their teams to the Final Four," Auriemma said. "I think the fact that they happen to be men is irrelevant. If we read anything more into that at this time, it takes the focus off what the players and coaches have done, and how they've earned the right to play in the Final Four.

"This weekend, that's where the focus for me lies. Whatever the greater meaning is, whatever the social commentary is and all that, we can save that for another time in another place."

No future? Not exactly

In the past, though, Auriemma has voiced a belief that men didn't always have ample opportunities to be head coaches in Division I women's basketball. In fact, if you go back more than a decade, you'll see a time when Auriemma was extremely pessimistic about male coaches' future in this sport -- and he wasn't the only one.

In a May 2003 article in the Milwaukee Journal Star, Auriemma was quoted as saying, "It's over for men as head coaches at the big schools. They are going to have to go out and hire a woman, whether she is the best coach or not."

In the same article, Green Bay coach Kevin Borseth said his advice to young male coaches was, "Go find a job in men's basketball. Basically, your chances of advancement in women's basketball are nil."

(Yet in 2005, Borseth got the job at Colorado, then backed out two hours before the news conference that was to announce his hiring, saying the move would be too hard on his family. He later spent five seasons at Michigan before returning to Green Bay in 2012.)

"I think the fact that they happen to be men is irrelevant. If we read anything more into that at this time, it takes the focus off what the players and coaches have done." UConn coach Geno Auriemma

In December 2003, Frank DeFord furthered the narrative in an article for Sports Illustrated, calling Auriemma "the last dinosaur," and saying of his hiring at UConn in 1985: "He got in under the wire. Nowadays a man would have no shot at a high-profile women's college basketball job."

That wasn't a factual statement even then -- for example, men such as Jim Foster (Ohio State) and Gary Blair (Texas A&M) had gotten major college jobs in 2002 and 2003, respectively -- and in retrospect seems even more off-base.

Asked about the topic in Wednesday's teleconference, Auriemma gave a rather convoluted answer suggesting that men were still more likely to get assistant coaching jobs in women's basketball, and that they might or might not have a chance to move up.

"If you look at the majority of the [the Power 5 conferences], the schools with the most money, the most of everything -- that's still not happening," Auriemma said.

Yet in the past four years, men have been hired in the Power 5 at Arkansas, Kansas, Kansas State, Illinois, NC State, Mississippi, Mississippi State, Ohio State, Oregon and Washington.

Add to that this week: Kenny Brooks was hired at Virginia Tech, where athletic director Whit Babcock called the former James Madison coach, "Our No. 1 and only candidate." Also, Jonathan Tsipis is expected to be named Wisconsin's new coach Thursday. He would be the first male to be head coach for the Badgers women's basketball program.

Crunching the numbers

In a January article, ESPN Stats & Information's MC Barrett broke down data for FiveThirtyEight about gender and coaching in women's college sports.

Barrett pointed out that in 2014-15, just five of the 17 women's Division I team championships were won by teams with female head coaches. And also that the number of female Division I head coaches in women's sports that year was 38.9 percent.

Basketball specifically, though, had a higher percentage of female head coaches last season -- 58.6 -- than collegiate women's sports in general. But even that number was down from 66 percent five years earlier.

"One of my greatest joys at Oregon State is filling up our arena with sports fans. Men who have said, 'Scott, I never watched the women's game until this team, and now I can't stop watching them.'" Oregon State coach Scott Rueck

The Women's Final Four has never had even three male coaches before this year. It has had female head coaches for every team four times: in 1982 (the inaugural year of the NCAA tournament), 1997, 2005 and 2006.

By contrast, consider how different Division I women's volleyball is, for instance. Having all male head coaches at those final fours is the norm. In fact, only two women -- Mary Wise (Florida) and Cathy George (formerly of UT Arlington) -- have even been head coaches in the volleyball final four. No female coach has won the NCAA volleyball title.

The small number of men's collegiate volleyball programs -- and the smaller salaries on that side -- means that most male volleyball coaches don't consider the men's game for their careers.

But most male women's basketball coaches actually aren't lured over to the men's game, despite its financial and prestige rewards.

Auriemma briefly coached high school boys, as did Rueck and Hillsman, who also spent a little time as an assistant for college men. But overall, Auriemma, Hillsman, Rueck and Neighbors have made their careers in women's basketball and have done so for a long time.

Climbing new heights

One also could make the point that they all took over at programs that traditionally had little success until they made it happen. UConn made its first NCAA tournament appearance in 1989, Auriemma's fourth season there.

When Hillsman came to Syracuse in 2005, the program had been to the NCAA tournament just three times and not won a game. He has taken the Orange five times, and is just the second African-American man to be a head coach in the Women's Final Four. Cheyney's Winthrop McGriff was the first in 1984.

"I've definitely learned so much from every level, from every coach that I've worked under," Hillsman said. "You look back at it, and you hear how many things that you can't do and it's not possible [at Syracuse].

"I just think if you continue to stay the course, try to build a program and get the right people, and get to the right situation, that can happen. I'm just very happy that we're seeing the fruits of our labor here at Syracuse."

As for Neighbors, he went as an assistant with head coach Kevin McGuff to Washington from Xavier in 2011. Then Neighbors took over as the Huskies' head coach when McGuff went to Ohio State in 2013. Washington's NCAA tournament appearance last year was the Huskies' first since 2007.

And there couldn't have been a bigger salvage job to do than what Rueck stepped into at Oregon State in 2010, when he had to scramble just to get five scholarship players his first season. He'd won a Division III national championship at George Fox, a school in Oregon, but he had to start from the sub-basement level with Oregon State.

"I love what I get to do," Rueck said. "And I also love opening other men's eyes to what women can do. One of my greatest joys at Oregon State is filling up our arena with sports fans. Men who have said, 'Scott, I never watched the women's game until this team, and now I can't stop watching them.'"

Now Auriemma, Hillsman, Neighbors and Rueck all come together in what is, certainly, a most unlikely Women's Final Four. UConn is the only No. 1 seed left, with Oregon State a No. 2, Syracuse a No. 4 and Washington a No. 7.

"If you do your job and you keep your head down and really care about the kids ... you can make it," Neighbors said. "You don't have to have a résumé or a pedigree that sets you up. You can get it done with hard work."

And Auriemma adds, "It's not like athletic directors around the country are sitting there at their desk and saying, 'I'm going to go out and get the best man I can find to coach women's basketball.' That's not what happened, and that's not what should happen.

"What should happen is every athletic director should go, 'I have the chance to have a really good program if I put some time and effort into it, and I'm going to go out and find a good coach.'"