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The key is knowing who's king

For women's basketball to thrive, playing up the success of the football program can pay dividends - sometimes.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH
Published November 28, 2005


After 31 years, 887 wins and six national championships, Pat Summitt no longer has to sell her women's basketball program. But back in the day, she peddled the Tennessee Vols like a traveling salesman pushing vacuums.

After years of laboring and toiling in the shadows of the football program, Summitt realized something. In the SEC, where football is king, one of the best ways to build another program is by embracing football's success, not competing against it. After all, it's better to play a supporting role than not be in the movie at all.

"Coach (Phillip) Fulmer meets with our top recruits, and I meet with his top recruits," Summitt said. "But there was a time where me meeting with them would have had no influence. ...

"We want all our recruits to tune in and watch them on national TV. It's exposure. And it's such an event. We bring in our top recruits, usually not to watch women's basketball, but to watch football. Let's face it. There's more to college life than just playing your sport or going to class."

It's a message LSU athletic director Skip Bertman preaches to his coaches. He uses the analogy of a soft drink company: There's one drink that is the top seller, which in the SEC is generally football. The other products may not receive the same marketing, may not get as much publicity and hype. But if the top-selling drink is doing well, the entire company is successful.

"I tell them everybody can benefit if we work together," Bertman said. "You can't make football the enemy because of its success."

But at programs such as Florida, Auburn and South Carolina, football success hasn't automatically translated into sellout crowds at women's games. Auburn has won 22 football games the past two seasons, but second-year women's coach Nell Fortner is working as hard to sell the program as she is at recruiting and coaching.

"Tremendous football program, fierce loyalty among fans, but we've yet to get them to have that fierce loyalty to women's basketball, and that's the challenge," Fortner said. "But I really believe in a community the size of Auburn, which is not big, you have to get out in that community and become a part of it. And in women's basketball that's even more important, because we do tend to cater more to families and older fans.

"You've got to get out there and meet people, you've got to go to events, you've got to touch a lot of people's lives. And then they want to come back and be a part of your program as you build relationships. That's what I'm trying to do."

Summitt understands that notion. There was a time when she spoke at various functions three or four times daily. She would call and ask to attend. She made a concerted effort to get her student-athletes out in the community, anything to sell the program.

"I wanted everybody in Knoxville to feel like they know me, they know our players, they know our assistants," she said.

It worked. Early in her career, the Vols averaged 4,000 fans. Today they average 16,000.

Changing the mind-set is what Carol Ross faced when she arrived at Mississippi. She took over at her alma mater two years ago, and it was reminiscent of when she took the job at Florida in 1990.

"It was very similar in that it (Ole Miss) was last in the league," Ross said. "I started with the mental. You've got to think like a winner and raise expectations."

At Florida and many other schools, aggressive marketing strategies are being implemented to draw fans. Shortly after Mickie DeMoss took over at Kentucky last season, billboards went up around town with her face prominently displayed.

"I thought it made a huge statement, just getting the visibility out there that the fans could see me and put a face on the new coach," she said. "We did a few commercials, and they got to see a little bit of my personality as well. So I think just the fact that the fans could identify with me made a huge difference."

But what the coaches all agree is that success on the court will translate into fans in the stands, with or without a successful football team. LSU has been to the women's Final Four the past two seasons and draws thousands on a regular basis. Same for the Vols, who have made 24 NCAA Tournament appearances.

"Sue Gunter (the late LSU coach) worked so hard for so many years to get the program where it is, and now we just have to carry it on," second-year coach Pokey Chatman said. "Without question, winning is the key. When you win, people want to come and see you play, support the team. When you have success, it breeds success and gets people excited."

Nobody knows that better than Summitt.

"Ultimately, it's the product," she said. "You've got to have a great product. Part of our style of play exists now from entertainment; there's the entertainment dollar. How are you going to spend your money? So within our style of play, we want to play uptempo, aggressive basketball. Basketball that is fun to watch. People have to enjoy what they're watching, plain and simple."