A league that came into its own

As the Big 12 celebrates a second consecutive national championship in women’s basketball this week with Baylor following Texas A&M last year _ plus Oklahoma State overcoming a huge tragedy to win the WNIT _it’s a good time to reflect on the league before it undergoes another change next season.

Let’s go back to the very beginning. The women’s hoops coaches of the newly formed Big 12 met with the media at a Kansas City-area hotel in October 1996. Some of them had been coaching against one another for many years at that point. Some were just getting to know the others.

“It’s kind of like in the ‘Brady Bunch,’ where the two families merge,” then-Nebraska coach Angela Beck said that day. “Like, ‘Here are your new brothers and sisters; you should love each other, even though you don’t know each other.”

I was new to Kansas City then, but not to the Big Eight, which merged with four Southwest Conference schools to form the Big 12. I grew up in Eastern Missouri following the Big Eight, then went to college at Missouri, where I covered women’s basketball as a student journalist.

After graduation, I worked in Tennessee, Missouri and Virginia before starting with The Kansas City Star and ESPN.com that fall 16 years ago, when women’s basketball was just coming off the big lift of the 1996 Summer Olympics.

One pro league, the ABL, would launch in 1996 but last only two full seasons. Another, the WNBA, began in June 1997 and has provided employment to several Big 12 players.

In 1996, the Big Eight had “died” without ever sending a team to the Women’s Final Four. Two of the Texas teams joining the new league both had NCAA titles: Texas and Texas Tech.

The Big 12 was a new animal, and not a completely welcome one throughout the Midwest. Nebraska, the main power broker in the Big Eight, was wary of an alliance with Texas in particular. And the Huskers were not pleased that the Big 12’s headquarters would be in Dallas, not Kansas City, which was the longtime home of the Big Eight.

The Nebraska-Texas chill never really thawed, and when the Huskers had a chance to switch to the Big Ten for the 2011-12 season, they did.

Of course, the genesis of the Big 12 _ and all the conference shakeups since _was about football. The decision to form the Big 12 wasn’t made to bolster women’s sports or make the league one of the showpieces of the progress of Title IX. Those ended up being fringe benefits, though.

Under the Big 12 banner, five teams have advanced to the Women’s Final Four: Oklahoma in 2002, ‘09 and ‘10, Texas in 2003, Baylor in 2005, ’10 and ‘12, and Texas A&M in 2011. The Lady Bears won the Big 12’s first NCAA hoops title in ’05, with A&M getting the second in ’11 and Baylor the third this year.

The national championships and Final Four appearances are mainly how the Big 12 – or any league – is evaluated nationally. But the fact that the Big 12 has been the attendance champ for the last 11 years _ drawing over 1 million fans each of the past five seasons  _ is another major hallmark of the league.

Having covered the Big 12 since its beginning, what stands out most to me is how every team of the original dozen, save Missouri, had what I call a rubber-meets-the-road period during its time in the Big 12. By that, I mean when the school’s success in women’s basketball gained traction and spread out beyond the traditional, committed fan base and resonated with alums and the surrounding community.

For some schools  _ Iowa State, Baylor, Oklahoma, Texas A&M and Kansas State among them – this period really did “stick” and significantly changed the program.

When the league began, Colorado – which saw a Final Four berth slip away in the waning minutes of a regional final in 1995 – was a stronger program attendance-wise then than it is now, but that carried through for the early years of the Big 12. The Buffs, now in the Pac-12, are still trying to gain that back, and are doing so under a head coach, Linda Lappe, who played for Colorado in the Big 12.

Kansas went a dozen years (2000-2012) between NCAA tournament bids, which no one would have expected when the Big 12 began with the Jayhawks as the first regular-season champ in 1997. But the Jayhawks did capture the hearts of their men’s-hoops crazy campus when they sold-out Allen Fieldhouse for the WNIT final in 2009, and they’ve made an unexpected and possibly program-rejuvenating NCAA Sweet 16 run this season.

Only Mizzou, which is headed to the SEC next season, never really had a breakthrough that truly changed the program’s perception. This despite the fact that the Tigers had a huge NCAA tournament upset – as a No. 10 seed, they beat No. 2 Georgia on the Bulldogs’ home court – to make the 2001 Sweet 16. By the time the 2001-02 season began the following fall, whatever buzz there had been was extinguished. Perhaps the moment when spark turns into flame will come for the Tigers in the SEC.

One of the most gratifying women’s sports history moments I’ve witnessed was the 2002 NCAA regional final in Boise, Idaho, when Oklahoma beat its longtime Big Eight mate Colorado to give the Big 12 its first Women’s Final Four team. Just 12 years earlier, Oklahoma had killed its women’s basketball program for a little over a week, convinced it would be a perpetual underachiever that no one would ever want to watch.

A national outcry from coaches, administrators and fans quickly caused OU to reverse course. But once the program was saved, it still need a true savior. That person took over six years after the resurrection: Oklahoma native Sherri Coale, who went from coaching Norman High School to running the Sooners in 1996. Her enormous success has made that brief banishment of the OU program look even more wrong-headed and medieval in retrospect.

That 2002 OU team included a starter named Caton Hill; she would go on to be an Army flight surgeon who served in the Middle East. Captain Hill is one of the many players who has given Big 12 women’s basketball its personality, the type of competitors whom I call “memory-makers.”

That’s been critically important in the growth of the women’s basketball: To have those individual standouts to whom fans become attached and don’t forget. They provide a benchmark for future players to reach and exceed.

It’s so important a factor in spectator sports to have historical context, to be able to say, “You know who she reminds me of? Remember that player at Iowa State?”

That is how a sport becomes part of its peoples’ lifestyles, when it imbeds in their minds and matters to them through both their team’s thick and thin years.

Players such as Iowa State’s Angie Welle, a 6-foot-4 center who used speed – plus a move to the basket that became known as the “Welle Waltz.” Texas Tech’s Rene Hanebutt and her “bunny-hop” 3-point shot. Phylesha Whaley’s undersized magic inside for Oklahoma.

Nicole Ohlde’s nimble feet around the basket, and her K-State teammates Kendra Wecker pulling up for the sweet jumper and Laurie Koehn hitting different-area-code 3-pointers.

Kansas’ Lynn Pride playing at or sometimes above the rim. Texas’ Jamie Carey spotting up from behind the arc. Baylor’s Sophia Young using moves that almost looked like ballet in the paint. Oklahoma’s Courtney Paris setting a ridiculous standard for double-doubles. Oklahoma State’s tiny but mighty Andrea Riley launching shots from all over the court and becoming the Big 12’s leading scorer to the delight of coach Kurt Budke, who died in a November plane crash along with assistant Miranda Serna.

Texas A&M’s Danielle Adams proving unstoppable in the 2011 national championship game. Nebraska’s Kelsey Griffin leading the Huskers on a long unbeaten ride. Missouri’s Evan Unrau learning to shoot left-handed in season after breaking a finger on her natural shooting (right) hand. Colorado’s Jackie McFarland being the second of three sisters all to play basketball in the Big 12.

Four of the original members of the Big 12 are gone (Nebraska, Colorado) or soon to leave (Texas A&M, Missouri). TCU and West Virginia are set to join the league for 2012-13, a new set of  “brothers and sisters.”

They’ll encounter a Baylor program that brings back all five starters from its NCAA title team, including “memory-makers” such as Brittney Griner and Odyssey Sims.

And they’ll find a conference that all these years later has been very, very good for women’s basketball, even if initially that wasn’t on the minds of the power brokers that created the league.



About mvoepel

Mechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women's college basketball and other college sports for ESPN.com.
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