Stability creates success for mid-major programs

Coaching stability has helped several mid-major women’s

basketball programs make going to the NCAA tournament almost an

annual tradition.

Schools such as Marist and Liberty often keep their staffs

intact and run the same system each year. While they can’t recruit

a Brittney Griner or a Skylar Diggins, they sign players who fit

their systems – and who run them effectively.

Marist is making its eighth straight appearance. Gonzaga and

South Dakota State are making their fifth straight trips to the

tournament. Middle Tennessee’s back for the ninth time in the last

10 years. Liberty’s here for the 15th time in the last 17 seasons,

while Chattanooga earned its ninth bid in the last 13 years.

And these schools are not just happy to there. They occasionally

do some damage as well.

Marist has advanced beyond the first round four of the last six

years. Gonzaga has gone at least as far as the regional semifinals

three straight years. Green Bay, a mid-major program that has made

a couple of recent coaching changes, is making its eighth

tournament appearance in the last 10 years and has advanced beyond

the first round three straight seasons.

”I wonder how does Marist get in there every year, how does

Gonzaga get in there every year, how does Chattanooga get in there

every year,” Green Bay coach Kevin Borseth said. ”They’re

probably wondering how does Green Bay get in there every

year.”

Said Marist coach Brian Giorgis: ”I wish I had an answer. I’d

bottle it and sell it.”

Consistency at the top is part of the answer.

Unlike their counterparts on the men’s side – who often jump to

bigger programs after winning at a mid-major or lower program –

these women’s coaches stay put and perfect their approach.

”If you look at every one of those coaches, you (usually) have

coaches there who are probably all in their 50s,” said Carey

Green, who’s in his 14th season coaching Liberty. ”Experience is

probably a key. I don’t think there’s a lot of fire, spit and

vinegar. That’s how we all start off, with a lot of blind

enthusiasm. The coaches you’re talking about at those programs, we

have enthusiasm, but we’re not blind to the realities of

things.”

That experience is most evident at Montana, where Grizzlies

coach Robin Selvig is in his 35th year and making his 20th NCAA

tournament appearance. Although Montana hasn’t won a tournament

game since 1995, the Grizzlies earn their way into the field more

often than not.

Giorgis is in his 11th season at Marist. This marks Kelly

Graves’ 13th season at Gonzaga. Wes Moore has coached Chattanooga

since 1998. Rick Insell is in his eighth season at Middle

Tennessee.

Graves notes that Gonzaga might not fit this category anymore,

even though they are not a member of one of the six major BCS

conferences. Just as the Gonzaga men’s basketball program has

developed into a national heavyweight with its consistent success,

Graves believes the women’s team has outgrown the mid-major

tag.

”We’re not in love with the label of mid-major because I don’t

think anything we do is really mid-major,” Graves said. ”We’re in

the top 15 in the nation in attendance. Almost every kid I recruit

has been offered by multiple major-conference schools.”

That’s not necessarily the case at the other programs from

outside the major conferences that make the NCAA tournament just

about every year. But because the coaches have stayed put for so

long, they’ve been able to recruit ideal fits for their system.

For example, Liberty leads the nation in rebound margin – the

11th straight season it has ranked among the nation’s top five

teams in this category – with a roster that includes five players

6-foot-2 or taller.

”Attractive winning programs attract good ballplayers,” Green

said. ”We’ve been blessed with some tall ones.”

There are other mid-major teams in the field also have long NCAA

tournament streaks, though they haven’t enjoyed as much success as

Marist or Green Bay. Fresno State is making it sixth straight

tournament appearance. Princeton and Hampton are in the tournament

for the fourth consecutive year. Navy, Prairie View A&M and

Tennessee-Martin are making their third straight trips. None of

those schools has won a tournament game during their respective

streaks.

But not all the strong mid-majors have been able to avoid

coaching searches.

Fresno State had to switch coaches last year. Green Bay made

coaching changes in 2007 and again last year. But the story behind

Green Bay’s moves shows why some coaches don’t mind staying put at

programs outside the major conferences.

Borseth left Green Bay for Michigan in 2007 and was replaced by

Matt Bollant, who took the Illinois job last spring. Borseth built

Michigan into an NCAA contender, but when his old job opened back

up last spring, Borseth left the Big Ten behind.

His reasons may help explain why many coaches at mid-major

powers decide to stay put.

”For me, it was a family decision to go back (to Green Bay) and

live life,” Borseth said. ”Living is about enjoying life, not

work. Not that you don’t have to work at the mid-major level, but I

think life at the BCS level, you’re really busy. You sell your soul

to the company store. Your whole life is about that. That’s your

life. … I’m fortunate enough to go back to Green Bay, to an area

close to home that I really like, to a program I’m familiar with

and to be able to breathe again.”