Process of Building a Competitive Program in the SEC a long and challenging task for coaches

Bill Bunting
DM Senior Staff Writer

There's a certain level of excellence and accomplishment that fans and coaches of women's basketball hope to achieve in their lifetime. Names of programs like Tennessee, UConn, Georgia and Louisiana Tech all conjure up images of that level of success.

South Carolina head coach Susan Walvius

All of those teams have dominated women's basketball in recent years. But it took UConn six years before making the first NCAA Tournament appearance, while Tennessee and Georgia have always been on top of the game.

So, what does it take to achieve that level of success in a league as tough as the Southeastern Conference?

It's a question that has no set answer, but most coaches would agree that it is a mixture of elements that hinge upon hard work, commitment to the goals of the program and patience. But along with the challenge of building comes the pressures from both inside and outside sources that can make the experience a personal hell.

"You've got to approach it in a positive manner," said Kentucky head coach Bernadette Mattox. "It will take a lot of hard work and commitment from the coaching staff. Obviously it will take commitment from the administration. You have to know it will take a lot of work. It won't happen over night. You have to be patient with the building."

South Carolina head coach Susan Walvius, in her third year at the helm rebuilding the Lady Gamecock program, echoed Mattox's statements.

"This is the third program I've come in to build," Walvius said. "It's more difficult to build in the SEC and it takes longer as opposed to other conferences. You could take any team in this conference right now, Ole Miss or South Carolina included, and they would be one of the best teams in any other league."

It's a bold statement that many might scoff at, but the proof is in the non-conference record of both teams. Ole Miss finished the season 12-16 but only lost two games outside of the league to Clemson and Northern Arizona. South Carolina lost three games to Clemson, NC State and Arizona.

Walvius began her coaching career at Virginia Commonwealth, her alma mater, before moving on to West Virginia. She took both teams to post season play. It took five years to get a 20-win season at VCU while it only took her two to go to the post season at West Virginia. Then she got the call to move up to the big leagues and the challenge of taking on the top teams in the nation while building from the ground up.

According to Walvius, the challenge of playing the top teams every night is the toughest part about gaining a foothold in the Southeastern Conference. It is also the biggest roadblock. Mainly because the situation places so many emotional and internal strains on the head coach.

"Most teams don't step up and play the nation's best every night," Walvius said. "That's the hardest thing about building a program in this league. Emotionally it's difficult because you develop a good game plan to stop a team like Tennessee or Georgia, but the talent and depth isn't there to sustain the game plan. It eats away at you and keeps you up late at night. You have to step back and look at the big picture and the baby steps, but you hate to lose."

Walvius took the challenge head on, attempting to take a young team in last place to the top of the SEC. And she decided to do it with a depleted roster of young players. In Walvius' second season, she had nine players at her disposal. She went 0-14 in the league.

But things are looking up; she won three games this past season and sees potential for continued improvement.

A Timetable for Success

Walvius said the timetable for seeing success is often much longer than most people expect. Because of that, fans and others observing the program expect to see results prematurely. That's one of the obstacles coaches encounter when building a team.

"In your first year, the clock is ticking but you aren't playing with your players," Walvius said. "In the second year, your players are freshmen and new to the league. The third year you have sophomores and everyone expects to see improvement. That's not realistic in this league, the third year can often be the hardest."

Walvius said it usually takes until the fourth season before a program will really see the effects of a new coaching staff. From there things should begin to take off.

"In four years you start to see improvement," Walvius said. "The fifth and sixth years are when you start to move in the direction you want to go. It's slow to happen, but when it does you break into the top 20 nationally. The sad thing is that' not the top of this league. That's reserved for the top 10 in the nation."

But Walvius said the timetable isn't always accurate and points to Mississippi State and Kentucky as examples. Sharon Fanning may have achieved the most success with a program in the timeframe she set out, but Kentucky's Mattox hasn't been quite so lucky.

Mississippi State struggled to win one conference game in the second year under Fanning's control. The fourth year, she took her team to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in the program's history. In her fifth year, which she just completed, she played for the SEC title in the SEC Tournament.

Mattox took control of the Kentucky program after Fanning left for Mississippi State. She suffered through three losing seasons before earning an NCAA slot last year and notching 20 wins. This season, though, Mattox found that it's tough to stay at the top and success can take longer to become a permanent part of a program as her team went 15-14, despite five returning starters.

Mattox hasn't found the sustained success she's been looking for, but she is no stranger to winning and knowing what it takes to win.

Mattox played for Georgia and became the first All-America player the Lady Bulldogs ever had on the roster. From there, she became an assistant following graduation. She then moved to Kentucky to become an assistant coach, but not for the women's team.

Mattox sat on the sidelines with Billy Donovan, Tubby Smith and Herb Sendek as an assistant under Rick Pitino. She left that position to assume control of the Wildcat's women's program in 1995.

According to Mattox, the key is first becoming a competitive team and then recruiting the players needed to maintain the competitive nature.

"The whole thing is a challenge," Mattox said. "First off is becoming competitive in the toughest basketball league in the country. That alone is a major challenge. The second thing is recruiting to build the program."

Some Thoughts on Recruiting

But Mattox pointed out that there are many obstacles to recruiting that weren't there when she played the game nearly two decades ago. Things have changed, and being a woman recruiting for a woman's game hasn't provided her an edge in the recruiting game.

"You've got to be a great coach," Mattox said. "You need a university that is attractive as far as the basketball tradition. It's not just one thing. Young people are exposed to so much at an early age you have to have something that will provide you that edge to attract them to your university. You have to show them you have something unique that can fill their needs at your university."

When it comes to recruiting, there's no set method for how a coach should begin. Some coaches look to junior college (JUCO) players for a quick shot in the arm while other swear them off entirely.

Walvius played with a nine player roster last season at South Carolina rather than stocking the cupboard with talent that would be gone soon. Mattox, on the other hand, pulled in key JUCO players to provide her team with the extra edge that took Kentucky to a 20 win season and a second round appearance in the NCAA Tournament.

Pressure from Outside Sources

One of the most difficult things a coach can deal with is the pressure placed on them by the fans of a program. Expectations are high and everyone wants success immediately, but coaches are quick to point out it's not something that comes overnight. But it doesn't deter fans who feel they are experts on every aspect of the game.

Arkansas head coach Gary Blair said that can be one of the toughest things to deal with as a coach.

"I have never seen a profession where you have to deal with so many people who are experts in the job they do for a living and they're experts in your job as well," Blair said. "Everyone thinks they know every aspect of the game and they tell you about it.

"You know why more kids are looking to play soccer these days?" Blair said. " It's because their parents don't know a damn thing about it. It's not that way with football, baseball and basketball. If a kid makes a mistake he has everyone telling him what he did wrong and exactly how to fix it. It's the same when you're a coach."

Walvius agreed with Blair, but added that fans can't and don't understand the game like a coach does and that should be remembered by coaches who are building a program.

"Fans can't understand," Walvius said. "They have to be looked at for what they are and that's outsiders. Any coach --whether it be Ron Aldy at Ole Miss, Bernadette Mattox at Kentucky or myself -- can't worry about what outsiders say.

"Look at Kentucky and how long it's taken them to become competitive every year, and they still aren't at the top. That shows how hard it is to make a move in this league."

Building a program isn't an easy thing to begin with. It's even more difficult when trying to compete with teams in the Southeastern Conference who have been on top of their game from the beginning and never relinquished their hold.

It's a challenge that can test a coach and program's fans, but a more challenging prospect might be rebuilding a program that has been at the top of a league and fallen from grace.

-- This is the first in a two part series exploring the challenges of building a women's basketball program in the Southeastern Conference.