Welcome to the (boys’) club, Edniesha Curry. But why is the Maine assistant the only woman on a D-I bench?

By Dana O'Neil

She calls herself a natural introvert, the last person who would purposefully seek attention. Which, given her current circumstances, Edniesha Curry knows is hilarious. When the University of Maine kicks off its college basketball season on Nov. 6, she may not seek attention but it surely will find her. She is an assistant coach for the Black Bears. And she is a she, and even in 2018, two years after a woman earned her party’s nomination for president of the United States, that’s enough to be a story.

High above the I-beamed rafters of palatial arenas and the cinder-blocked slabs of malodorous locker rooms, the glass ceiling holds strong. Despite Pau Gasol’s impassioned essay on The Players Tribune, despite Becky Hammon’s interviews for head-coaching gigs in the NBA and her Macy’s commercial, despite the staying power of the WNBA and the respect finally afforded its players, women coaching men is simply not happening. When Curry takes her seat on the bench for Maine’s opener at Denver, she will be just the third woman to coach in a D-I game, a number all the more absurd when you consider this double standard: In Division I women’s college basketball, 139 of the 351 programs count a man as their head coach. “I don’t know how many times a day I get asked, ‘What’s it like to coach men?’” Curry says. “I don’t know how to answer that. It’s the same game. I mean, does anyone ask men what it’s like to coach women?”

This, too, is the irony of Curry as pioneer. She’s practical, and practical people don’t change the world. Dreamers do. At least that’s what conventional wisdom always has argued. To create change, a person needs to be daring, not dutiful, uninhibited, not introverted. But what if conventional wisdom has it all wrong? Perhaps Curry, grounded and in search of a career rather than on a mission, is the perfect person to lead a revolution. “This is about basketball to me,’’ she says. “And I happen to be a woman on the men’s side. I don’t wake up every day thinking, ‘Today is the day my performance is going to open doors for other women.’ I can’t think that way. I can only put my best foot forward every day. Hopefully, that’s enough to help other women. It should be.’’

Teresa Phillips didn’t see another option. The athletic director at Tennessee State, she’d already suspended coach Nolan Richardson III for bringing a gun into the gym earlier in the season (he later resigned), and his replacement, assistant Hosea Lewis, had been suspended after the Tigers brawled with Eastern Kentucky. Tennessee State had a game against Austin Peay, and the remaining staff, Phillips believed, didn’t have near enough experience to walk into the volatile mess. She was a former women’s head coach with 19 years of experience, so on Feb. 13, 2003, she temporarily appointed herself coach. And then all hell broke loose, with national newspapers calling to talk to Phillips not about the coach dismissed over a gun, or the assistant suspended after his team brawled, or the team’s dismal 2-20 record. No, the story was that Phillips, a woman, was coaching a men’s team. “I wanted to squelch the story and just play the game,’’ Phillips says now. “Instead that just kept it going. I was sick about the whole thing.’’

To this day, Phillips remains the only woman to serve as head coach in a Division I men’s basketball game. Bernadette Mattox (Kentucky), Stephanie Ready (Coppin State) and Jennifer Johnston (Oakland) are the only women to work as assistants. The barriers remain as fixed as they are foolish, the same supposed issues mentioned today as they were 28 years ago when Rick Pitino hired Mattox in Lexington. Women won’t be taken seriously and/or aren’t tough enough to coach men. The men’s game is played above the rim; how could a woman relate to that? Logistics are too complicated — a female coach in the locker room, on the bus, on the road. “We are nearly 50 years out of Title IX and the same patterns are pretty evident,’’ says Nicole La Voi, the co-director of the University of Minnesota’s Tucker Center for Research on Women and Sport. “And what it really comes down to is power.’’

The old boys’ network hums along at the college level, where change is slower than a syrup pour. More women today are serving as Division I athletic directors (35) and conference commissioners (10), but by and large, the men are the decision-makers. And regardless of gender, unconventional choices aren’t easy sells in the very conventional world of sports. It is far easier to follow the safe route, to call a friend for a recommendation or pluck a coach out of the grassroots game, than risk backlash on a hire. “It takes the willingness of a college president and an athletic director, and a person willing to bear the burden, and that’s a lot of courage,’’ Phillips says. “I’m seeing in today’s world, with the Colin Kapernick situation, we don’t have a lot of folks willing to be courageous. Nobody wants to take the risk.’’

Perhaps that’s why Curry, 39, is so perfect for her role as an unintended crusader. She wasn’t looking to break gender barriers or blaze a trail. For years, she didn’t even know if she wanted to be a coach. A sharpshooting guard in college, Curry started her career at Cal State-Northridge before transferring to Oregon, where she helped the Ducks to a WNIT championship.  She parlayed her experience into a seven-year pro career, skipping around the WNBA as well as overseas.

Becoming a coach was a slow awakening, not a light-bulb moment. She took side jobs to stay busy in the offseason, helping her former college coach run a girls’ travel team, offering private lessons for boys and girls and working with a girls’ program on the West Bank while playing in Jerusalem. Along the way she recognized that coaching was a way to extend her life in basketball, and she was pretty good at it. But breaking into the women’s college ranks is no less tricky than finding a gig on a men’s bench, so Curry pursued her passion in outposts. She coached a women’s pro team in China and developed and ran a program in Vietnam, all the while trying to find an avenue back home.

A chance introduction brought her back to the States, when Ganon Baker, a well-respected trainer, recommended her to Richard Barron, then the women’s coach at Maine. Curry’s worldliness impressed him. “She had coached in places that you have to love the game in order to do it,’’ Barron says. “But she loves it. It’s her life.’’ Curry spent two years working as Barron’s assistant, but when she had a chance to join the NBA’s Assistant Coaches Program, she jumped. “The NBA,’’ she says, “is so much more progressive.’’

Busy helping Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri run the first basketball camp for girls in Nairobi, Lindsay Harding didn’t even realize what was going on back in the United States. Finally, when the session ended, she grabbed her phone and saw dozens and dozens of congratulatory texts. She’d just been named a full-time scout by the Philadelphia 76ers. It registered a blip on the news-making Richter scale. Gender is hardly a non-issue in the pro ranks, but it is decidedly less of one.

An assistant with the Spurs, Hammon has interviewed for NBA head coaching positions. (Steve Dykes/USA Today)

The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, which annually reports on hiring practices in professional and college sports, counts the NBA as an industry leader when it comes to hiring women in management positions, and women are gaining traction, albeit slowly, in basketball positions as well. Hammon of the San Antonio Spurs and Jenny Boucek of the Sacramento Kings are both assistant coaches, while Harding and Adriana Adnonian of the Houston Rockets are full-time scouts. (Ready, a one-time assistant at Coppin State for Fang Mitchell, became the first woman to coach in the pro ranks as an assistant for the Greenville Groove of the NBDL in 2001.) Harding says she went through an extensive round of interviews, with Sixers management asking her to evaluate some of its players, to analyze past playoff performances and to give feedback on potential draft prospects. “Obviously there’s no right or wrong answer, but they wanted to see how I think, what do I see and what I can bring to the table,’’ Harding says. “They wanted someone who was qualified. I just happened to be a woman.’’

Typically the NBA sets the standards that trickle down to the college game (see Golden State and position-less basketball, for example), but the trickle has come in especially slow-moving drips. Curry saw the difference immediately when she joined the Assistant Coaches Program. Introduced in 2004 as a way to help former players funnel into the coaching ranks, the ACP didn’t invite its first women until four years ago. The program offers critical networking opportunities as well as hands-on experience. Curry worked out players at the combine, receiving a list of names each morning. “It was, ‘Hey, I’m Coach Curry. What’s your name?’ and that was that,’’ she says. “We had work to do and you just coach. It’s a business, and if you can coach, that’s all they care about.’’

With the ACP experience, Curry figured her coaching career would follow a professional path, as an assistant or perhaps with a G-League team.

And then Barron called again.

Here’s the kick: Curry isn’t even the most interesting story on the Maine coaching staff. When she last resided in Orono, Barron was the women’s coach. He’s now in charge of the men’s team. In between he suffered a mysterious medical ailment that left him bedridden with excruciating migraines, hearing loss and some amnesia. So debilitating was his condition that Barron had to turn over the keys of the women’s team to assistant Amy Vachon in January 2017.

Diagnosed with a skull fracture above his inner ear, he underwent surgery in Los Angeles in July ’17, the symptoms disappearing as mysteriously as they appeared. Barron was ready to return to work by December, but he didn’t want to upset the rhythm of the women’s team, agreeing to serve instead as a special assistant to the athletic director. Though itching to coach, he was content in his new spot until men’s coach Bob Walsh announced he was stepping down following a 6-26 season. Athletic director Karlton Creech, who has since moved on to Denver, saw a simple solution: name Barron the men’s coach.

Bannon didn’t hesitate to reach out to Curry because he knew what she would bring to the program. (Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

The unconventional hire then went flat-out rogue when he called Curry and enticed her to return to campus … this time to coach the men. But like the woman he calls “Eddie,” Barron is a pragmatist. He knew from their previous experience how valuable an assistant Curry was, and recognized that, as he embarked on his own career detour (he hadn’t coached the men’s game since 1995), having someone who understood him, his concepts and his style was critical. “I’m less of a crusader than a person who said this makes sense for me,’’ Barron says. “It wasn’t meant to be a statement. I wasn’t trying to get attention for our program. I didn’t think twice about Eddie because it was the right thing to do. She was the right person for the job.’’

Neither Barron nor Curry was so naive, however, to think this was a normal hire. Barron told his assistant he would follow her lead on the story, allowing her to make it as big or as small a deal as she preferred. Curry wrestled with it at first, reluctant to thrust herself into the spotlight and accept that she was different. She didn’t see herself that way. Her players didn’t treat her any differently. As Gasol wrote in his letter, they saw a person who could make them better and immediately dismissed her gender. Even while out recruiting, aside from a few second glances from fellow coaches, Curry was accepted warmly, her bona fides helping turn the brotherhood into a co-ed fraternity.

She wished it could stay that simple, that she could put her head down and just be “Coach Eddie,’’ judged by her work on the court, not her gender. She also knew that was impossible. “Other people want my time, and it took me a while to balance that, to understand I really can’t say no anymore,’’ she says. “I have an obligation to myself and to other women who want to be in this position, to encourage them to fill out the application and to show people we can do this.’’

Mattox eventually left her position on the Kentucky bench to become an assistant athletic director at the school and later women’s head coach. Johnston moved on from Oakland to a more lucrative position on the women’s team at Toledo and now is a high school administrator. After her run with the NBDL, Ready pursued a career in broadcasting and is an NBA analyst for Fox Sports.

This is where Curry’s pragmatism runs full force into the glass ceiling. She wants to coach men’s basketball. She wants a career in men’s basketball. She appreciates how difficult that will be and understands how her predecessors grew frustrated when the next rung on the coaching ladder was never made attainable or when money got tight. And she can easily see how the comfort and ease of sliding back to the familiar, to the women’s game, was so appealing.

But that’s not what she wants. She doesn’t care about easy. She wants to coach men’s basketball, and she doesn’t intend to quit. “My friends tell me all the time, ‘I would not want to be you on any day,’” Curry says with a chuckle. “But I want to stick this out. I want to be the woman who keeps going. I believe that’s what my journey is meant to be.’’

https://theathletic.com/618352/2018/10/29/welcome-to-the-boys-club-edniesha-curry-but-why-is-the-maine-assistant-the-only-woman-on-a-d-i-bench/

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