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