It’s not that Michael Cooper is the worst coach in the country – or even in the Pac-12 – but for the good of the game, he’s got to go.
Cooper coaches at USC, in the heart of the largest metropolitan area in the country, and has done a very poor job with the Women of Troy. Of course, he’s done a poor job wherever he’s been, except when he had Lisa Leslie, DeLisha Milton-Jones and a host of stars with the Los Angeles Sparks.
But Cooper’s playing career with the Lakers, his success with the Sparks and his relative fame led to his hire at USC, and though he can cry about injuries, his teams consistently underachieve.
Then again, he’s far from the only mediocre coach in the country, so why pick on him? What does it really matter if USC is a .500 program?
To USC, maybe not much, but to the world of women’s basketball a great deal – and here’s why.
It’s no secret that women’s basketball (at all levels) is a regional sport – that is, there are certain regions, or pockets, where the game matters. The WNBA is a classic example, as in WNBA cities, it’s a relatively big deal; but elsewhere, it’s all but invisible.
Interest in the women’s college game varies wildly from conference to conference and from school to school, and the history of the sport makes it clear that overall growth isn’t going to come from the top down, but rather from the bottom up. In other words, growing the game means steadily adding more pockets of interest in different areas of the country until, hopefully, a tipping point is reached that lifts the sport above other niche sports such as ice hockey or volleyball.
So what two regions are the most important in the country? Clearly, New York City and Los Angeles, and though both have pro teams, neither area has ever shown much interest in the college game. Now, with the demise of the Big East, and conference confusion everywhere on the East Coast, it seems harder than ever to start a women’s basketball fire in NYC, but L.A. is a different story.
First, the Pac-12 is about as stable as a conference can be these days, and it also has a brand-new network to get kids on TV. Second, though Stanford dominates (and Cal is very good this year), it’s possible to rise to the top fairly quickly. And third, the Southern California talent pool is as deep as any in the country.
That last point is key, because in the past, the elite talent hasn’t stuck around. Diana Taurasi is the prime example, but the list is long of SoCal prep stars who have spurned not only USC and UCLA, but the entire Pac-12, to head east. That talent drain has made it difficult for the Pac-12 to gain any traction, either in the rankings or in ticket sales, and it all starts in Los Angeles.
Obviously, if USC and UCLA are both very strong in women’s basketball, media coverage and fan interest will escalate, and it won’t take long for Southern California to become another one of those regions where women’s basketball matters. If USC and UCLA are both weak, which has been true for a quarter of a century, women’s basketball withers on the vine in the largest city in the country.
Right now, UCLA is pushing Cal and Stanford in the Pac-12, and though the Bruins are a couple years away, it won’t take Close too many good recruiting years – especially if she starts keeping the SoCal talent home – to challenge both.
But USC, under the indifferent leadership of Cooper, lags behind, and as long as he’s the head coach, there’s no reason to expect anything different. His track record is clear, and the Women of Troy simply aren’t going to get any better as long as he’s in charge.
Of course, a lot of schools don’t really care how good their women’s basketball program is, and in the past, USC has been one of them. If that pattern continues, Cooper will continue to struggle, but he’ll win enough games to keep his job, but not enough to spark a regional fire for women’s basketball.
But if the USC administration ups the ante just a little, not only can they get some fans into the Galen Center and generate a little revenue, they can also strike a big blow for the Pac-12 and women’s basketball overall. If Cooper is fired, and replaced by someone of the caliber of Close or Lindsay Gottleib or Kevin McGuff, the sky’s the limit for the Women of Troy, because the talent is right there in their backyard.
Which is why Cooper must go – and sooner rather than later.
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