Alexander: Women’s basketball coaches prove UCLA, USC can indeed work together

Archrivals aren’t expected to cooperate, much less collaborate. But these are different times in college sports, and with the historic move to the Big Ten on the horizon, doesn’t it make perfect sense for coaches from UCLA and USC to join forces?

Women’s basketball coaches Cori Close of the Bruins and Lindsay Gottlieb of the Trojans are doing so, and it’s largely but not solely because of the logistical challenges created by joining what will be college sports’ first coast-to-coast conference.

They’re looking out not only for their schools and for basketball in L.A. but for the welfare of the women’s game, period, in attacking this challenge as allies and sharing concerns and ideas for best practices. And it’s not incidental that they’ve also enlisted the L.A. Sparks, and specifically Coach Curt Miller and General Manager Karen Bryant, as partners in their collaboration.

“I think it has to be bigger than any of our institutional or pro hats,” Close said. “It has to be bigger than all of us. We’ve got to be committed to (work for) something greater than ourselves. And we need each other. We need to be connected. I mean, isn’t that what we’re trying to do with our teams? We’re trying to take the talent of our teams and the opportunities of our individual pieces, and we’re trying to link them together to do something bigger than any of the individual players could do on their own.

“… It’s bigger than just growing it on the court. It’s about our culture and what it does for women and self-esteem, and women in sport, and women being treated as investments and a really, really valuable product and not a charity. I think those are really important shifts that need to take place in our culture.”

The first reactions when the move became public involved concerns over travel in a conference otherwise based in the eastern and central time zones. As it turns out, those burdens could be less than expected for women’s (and men’s) basketball with charter flights and possibly fewer trips, if more air miles.

“I don’t know exactly what we’re going to have in terms of the number of conference games,” Gottlieb said. “But let’s say there’s 16, kind of guessing. Or even 18. You still have half of them at home. So if there are 18 conference games we’d have nine home games. If there’s 16 conference games, we’d have eight home games. And then one road game is going to be UCLA, right?

“So people forget. We’re still going to be an L.A.-based school. You get to play all your home games in L.A. And I’d imagine that they (Big Ten conference officials) will think about … OK, if we’ve got to go play eight other road games or seven other road games, you try and combine that into three trips.

“In the Pac-12 we make four trips where we get on the plane, and the fifth is UCLA.”

And, she pointed out, two of those conference trips are altitude games, at Utah and at Colorado. That particular adjustment won’t exist in the Big Ten, but there will be adjustments involving time zones and departure times, as well as which days conference games will be scheduled.

Close noted that the Bruins played a multi-team event in the Bahamas this past November and went back to the East Coast a week later to play at top-ranked South Carolina.

“And I thought to myself, ‘This really is not that bad, you know?’” Close said.

One antidote would be to stay in the western half of the continent as much as possible in nonconference play, ideally with two-year home-and-home series with some of their current conference opponents. That assumes, of course, that other Pac-12 coaches or administrators won’t still be miffed at the L.A. schools for leaving.

“I get it. They’re allowed to be mad that we left,” Close said. “But the reality is, is it more important to be mad that we left or is it more important to do what’s best for the game, your institution and your budgets?”

But consider: Big Ten teams will have to come out here, too, and what happens when a player compares L.A.’s weather in January or February to that at home?

“Our home-court advantage should be as good as anybody’s in the country,” Gottlieb said. “I think they’re all going to be wanting to make that trip, right? Because L.A. in January and February is probably nicer than the cities that they’re coming from.”

Or what about that player in the East or Midwest who realizes she can go to school in Los Angeles and still get a road game or two closer to home? Both schools should benefit on a national recruiting level.

“We’ve been recruiting to the Pac-12 so hard for so long, (a concern was) how this was affecting recruiting,” Close said. “And honestly, it’s actually been a blessing. … At first, when I didn’t have all my facts, I thought it might close doors. But as I’ve gone along and I’ve gotten more and more factual information, it’s actually opened up a lot more doors with recruits across the country.”

Other parts of the travel equation involve study time, sleep, nutrition and mental and physical health. But as Gottlieb put it, “If you’re not thinking about mental health and the nutrition and sleep of your athletes when you’re going to Tucson, Pullman, Boulder, the Bay Area, then you’re not doing your job already. Mental health is something you have to be considering for student-athletes now, no matter what conference you’re in. So I don’t think this adds anything additional. I think we have to be aware of it as it is.”

Gottlieb, who spent two seasons as an assistant coach with the Cleveland Cavaliers before taking the USC job last season and thus received full immersion in the craziness (and, to be honest, luxury) of NBA travel, noted that there are ways to make it efficient and comfortable.

“We’re going to have the best of the best resources to figure out what’s best for the student-athletes,” she said. “We’ll talk to sleep experts and academic people and we’ll figure it out. So I think everything’s on the table just to make it as student-athlete-friendly as possible.”

The funny thing is that when Jon Wilner of the Bay Area News Group broke the story of the schools’ move last June 30, Close – normally well plugged in as a member of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Oversight Committee and president of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association – was among the last to know. That tells you how well the athletic directors, UCLA’s Martin Jarmond and USC’s Mike Bone, kept the move under wraps.

“I was on a staycation and I wasn’t checking my social media or anything, but I started getting all these text messages from these East Coast friends,” Close said. “And then I got a text message from Lindsay, and I’m going, ‘This can’t be right.’ I mean, I’ve heard nothing about this.

“And then literally probably about 10 minutes after I got a text message from Lindsay, I got a text message from our two associate A.D.s (Christina Munger-Rivera and Josh Rebholz) saying, ‘Hey, we want to call you in 10 minutes.’”

A couple of hours into the resulting social media firestorm, Gottlieb said, “we texted each other and said, ‘You ready for this?’

“I respect her,” she said of Close. “I respect her commitment to the women’s game, and she’s someone that always sees the big picture, So I knew, and I know going forward, that she’ll be a really good ally in terms of trying to figure out how to make this work as well as possible for both of our programs.”

In women’s basketball, this should be a case of moving from one powerhouse conference to another. Currently, each conference has seven projected NCAA Tournament entries, and the Pac-12 has six teams in the NET top 25, the Big Ten five. (As of Thursday, UCLA was 24th in the NET metric and USC 28th.)

But, as noted above, it’s not just about the conference. There are larger issues.

“We haven’t arrived completely in women’s basketball, right?” Gottlieb said. “There’s been so much growth, but there’s always ways to push the envelope. … I’ve never been one to shy away from change. It can be scary or it can motivate you. And I think Cori and I both look at it as a way to impact the way the game goes for all of women’s basketball.

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Close cited a 2019 USC-Purdue study showing that women received just 4% of sports coverage in the United States, along with more recent numbers showing increased attendance and viewership and a survey conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers projecting that women’s sports revenue will grow by at least 15% over the next three to five years.

“So much of our history has been, well, we’ll just bring the women along so we don’t get a Title IX exposure or whatever else, or we don’t want to have bad PR,” Close said. “But now … you’re talking about, ‘Hey, we’re tapped out in terms of our sponsorship for men’s basketball and for football, where’s the next revenue stream?’ My argument is it’s women’s basketball.

“We don’t want to take anything away from anybody. We just want to have women be really great contributors to the financial landscape of college athletics. And I think with Lindsay and I working together with this trailblazing move to the Big Ten, we have a great opportunity to contribute to that.”

What’s the old saying? Together everyone achieves more. (Think about the acronym.)

Then again, when they play each other that’s put on hold.

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