What Goes Around, Comes Around
Dec. 25, 2006
Something about Big Ten women's basketball keeps its players around for a long time.
At least that appears to be true in regards to current head coaches Beth Combs of Northwestern, Joanne P. McCallie of Michigan State, Lisa Stone of Wisconsin and Sharon Versyp of Purdue.
All four attended Big Ten schools as undergrads and have all returned to the conference as mentors.
Combs was a guard at Illinois from 1987-89, McCallie, a guard at Northwestern from 1984-87, Stone, a guard at Iowa from 1980-84, and Versyp, a guard at Purdue from 1985-88, before each entered the coaching profession and eventually came back to the Big Ten Conference.
"I think it's awesome," Stone said of being back in the Big Ten. "It's the best conference in the country in my mind. I love the league and have great respect for all the coaches."
In addition to Combs, McCallie, Stone and Versyp, the conference has found other ways of promoting from within. Indiana head coach Felisha Legette-Jack was an assistant at MSU from 2000-02, Michigan's Cheryl Burnett received her master's from Illinois and was an assistant with the Illini from 1981-84, and Versyp put in time with Indiana before moving up the state to coach at her alma mater.
So, what is it that makes the Big Ten so attractive?
"There are quality coaches and schools," Stone said. "Our institutions are academically sound and there's great support from administrators. Women's basketball is treated at a high level and there's great competition throughout the Big Ten."
In addition to all the great things the Big Ten offers its players and coaches, for many, it's also about going home.
Stone, for example, grew up just outside of Madison and is now is able to work near her and her husband's families.
"This is where I've always wanted to be," Stone said. "My family and my husband's family are here. This is home. It's where I want to be."
Combs, on the other hand, spent the first eight years of her coaching career in the state of Illinois before moving out to New York to coach at Colgate. Seven years later, the Decatur, Ill., native was back in her home state as the leader of the Northwestern program.
"That's been fantastic," Combs said of being able to stay close to home. "It's really nice to be in the area I grew up and be close to my family and have the opportunity to have my family come and support NU as well."
A native of Mishawaka, Ind., Versyp first returned home to Hoosier territory in 2005 to take the reigns of the IU program before she experienced a second homecoming this season when she was named head coach of her alma mater Boilermakers.
"It's surreal," Versyp said about being back at Purdue. "A lot of people don't have that opportunity. I take so much pride in it, and it's not about myself; it's about all the people that built the program before scholarships and back during my time in the `80s, and seeing it through and trying to be one of the elite teams in the country. It's very, very exciting."
McCallie agrees that that it is hugely because of the early women in Big Ten basketball that the conference has reached the high level that it is at today.
"The tradition of the Big Ten has been well established," McCallie said. "I think there are many people that have come before, and when many people have come before and done well, I think it makes it extremely special."
Combs says she has to look no farther than her own conference to find role models that she has looked up to since before she even became a coach.
"It's a great honor to be part of the Big Ten," Combs said. "Not just with (McCallie, Stone and Versyp), but also with some of the legends of the game that are right here in the conference. The people that I go up against every day are people that I've learned from and admired and tried to emulate. It's a fantastic place to be, in the Big Ten."
In addition to their women's basketball ancestors, it is also these four women who have made significant contributions and witnessed major strides in women's basketball during a time in which the sport was just beginning to take off, especially as the NCAA sponsored its first women's basketball championship 25 years ago. Prior to the NCAA, women's basketball was governed by the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) and its athletes received fewer benefits than those sponsored by the NCAA.
"When you revert back to history, opportunities for women were just starting to increase when I started in school," Stone said. "So, it was different for me than for players four years before me. I really benefited from the fact that we were NCAA."
Not only were female athletes being given more chances to play in the 1980s, but they also were beginning to realize that they could make a career out of sports.
"I rationalized basketball as something I couldn't do after graduation," McCallie said. "There's a lot of talk in college about `I'm going to be a doctor,' or `I'm going to be an attorney,' and some of that talk really jumped into me that basketball could not be a career, so it's funny how I came back to it.
"Now with the WNBA, girls can think about being a director of basketball operations or something. There are so many more career choices in sports. I was told I couldn't do that; that it had to end once you graduated."
Spending her first year after graduation in the business world, McCallie pursued a graduate assistant spot and began her coaching career at Auburn in 1988.
Combs and Stone, on the other hand, decided right away that they wanted to go into coaching, each with a slightly different approach.
"I knew I wanted to coach right away," Combs said. "I actually started coaching in my fifth year at a high school, and I wanted to take my experiences and help relate them to other kids."
Initially, though, Combs intended to go into sports psychology, graduating from Illinois with a psychology degree, which she hopes aids her as a coach.
"In coaching, you deal with a lot of psychology," Combs said. "I don't know whether it's helped, but hopefully I can apply some of those principles of sports psychology to what we do here."
With a background in physical education, Stone focused on the teaching aspect of leading a team.
"I pretty much knew right away when I went to school that I wanted to teach," Stone said. "And then, I had the opportunity to be a head coach right out of college - I was never an assistant coach - and knowing that I could be in the athletic field at age 21, first as a coach at Cornell College, the fact that it happened so fast is a blessing.
"You have to know how to teach in order to coach. It's all teaching and relationships and knowing how to motivate young people, and my education background really helps."
In addition to increased opportunities in the sporting world, each coach points to a huge growth in fan support that began in their playing days as something that makes Big Ten women's basketball unique.
"The commitment level and fan support was on the cusp of taking off," Stone said. "The popularity level really grew in my time to the point it is today in that women's basketball is an entertaining spectator sport instead of a sport that was just there."
All four coaches also agree that the Big Ten's superior academics make it one of the elite conferences in the nation and make it appealing to incoming student-athletes.
"I just thought the academics here were second-to-none," Versyp said of her experience at Purdue. "The professors and academic advisors would stop and do anything for any type of student. The relationships you'd build and the extra time they'd put in for each student - you got the true hands-on experience."
McCallie agrees that it is the academic standards, combined with several other factors that make the Big Ten Conference stand out.
"The academics are great and there's great support for women's sports with TV channels and media exposure," McCallie said. "The attendance is a large part of it, too. So many women today, or young girls, want to play in front of crowds. They want their effort and their energy to be recognized."
Even though all four women share the common thread of having participated in Big Ten athletics as players, they see each other not as the athletes they once were, but instead with respect for the coaches that they are today.
"It's kind of funny because we're so old, you don't really think about the playing thing," McCallie said. "I have great respect for all them as coaches.
"They're great coaches in a great conference, and I think it's neat. We might be the only conference with that many and it gives us an insight that others may not have, having gone through and done it."
This insight appears to be something that athletic directors around the conference are beginning to look for and appreciate during the hiring process.
"I think that maybe some of those ADs are looking for people that understand the Big Ten and understand the respect and integrity and the academic side, and that there is talented basketball," Versyp said.
"I think it's smart hiring," McCallie agrees. "I say that tongue-in-cheek, but I think it's natural to gravitate to what you know. Athletic directors are looking for good, solid connections and people that understand the schools. I think it's a good thing."
While they share the bond of the Big Ten with each other, each coach is also able to relate to her athletes on a unique level, having already been there and done that.
"It's a little nostalgic as you go to each venue and see how it has changed," Stone said. "There's great tradition and it's great to see the new venues and take a walk down memory lane a little. For me, it's a long time ago, but it's great to have played to be a part of that history."
But the coaches also recognize the increased opportunities and luxuries that their players have today that they themselves never had as athletes.
"Growing up, we didn't have any girls' teams," Combs said. "I remember playing in the fourth grade on the fifth-grade boys' team. We had one in the sixth grade, but your opportunities were limited.
"We didn't have AAU, and Blue Star camps and that stuff was just starting. We didn't have the opportunities to play year-round. You played your season and played with the guys. I was fortunate enough that my father would take me over to see women's games."
Stone remembers how travel was much less convenient in her college days compared to how it is today.
"We didn't have the luxury of chartered flights like we do today," Stone added. "We took buses and the occasional commercial flight with long layovers. There was definitely that challenge of time management because we didn't have some amenities back then that we have now, but that didn't underrate the great experience."
Having experienced much of what their student-athletes are going through, each coach has a different message they hope their players take away when their college careers are over.
"Developing, nurturing and teaching character - that's the biggest thing," McCallie said. "Sport teaches it so well, and as coaches, we have to shape things so the lessons are learned and it goes beyond the basketball court."
Versyp focuses on giving her student-athletes the necessary skills that they will need to succeed even after they walk off the court.
"My philosophy is teaching life skills through sport," Versyp said. "Everything we do on the court is about life."
Combs and Stone both preach the importance of living each day to its fullest.
"Play every game like it's the biggest game of the year because you don't know what's going to happen," Stone said. "There's only one today, so why not make the best of it."
"As a player, when you're going through it and you're going through the morning workouts and the sprints and all the hard things that are involved in being a student-athlete in the Big Ten, you forget that it ends before you realize it," Combs said. "Enjoy each moment because you're part of a very small group of individuals that have the chance to leave their mark on a university and on women's basketball."
Beth Combs, Joanne P. McCallie, Lisa Stone and Sharon Versyp have all undoubtedly left their marks on Big Ten women's basketball.
Both as pioneer players and as influential coaches.