What Lindsay Gottlieb hire means for women coaches, the NBA and Cal

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Jun 14, 2019

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      Mechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.

The door to women coaching in men’s basketball has been slowly cracking open the past few years, thanks to the NBA. Wednesday’s news that Cal Bears coach Lindsay Gottlieb is joining the Cleveland Cavaliers as an assistant moved the needle even more.

It’s one thing for those who have played or coached in the WNBA — such as Becky Hammon, Jenny Boucek, Kristi Toliver, Sue Bird and Swin Cash — to get opportunities on the professional men’s side; it can be easier for them to build those connections. But it’s something different for a women’s college coach to get this call, and this hire has a far-reaching impact.

What it means for the NBA

Gottlieb — who will sign a four-year contract with the Cavs and is the first women’s collegiate head coach recruited to an NBA staff — gave credit to commissioner Adam Silver, echoing the sentiments of other women who have found coaching and front-office employment in the NBA. Silver has been vocal about wanting to see more women hired for various NBA jobs, including coaching, administration and officiating.

Still, an organization isn’t going to make a hire just to please the commissioner. The Cavs’ brass saw in Gottlieb someone with an expansive knowledge of basketball, a lot of desire to help players reach their potential and a buoyant personality. She clicked with them, and vice versa.

Realistically, the NBA and men’s college basketball have not, until recently, even considered women part of the talent pool for coaches (or front-office personnel on the pro side), save some rare exceptions. This is different from women’s college hoops and the WNBA, which both have always looked to a talent pool of women and men.

Silver’s push to expand hiring practices isn’t just posturing; he understands that it makes sense in any profession to widen the talent pool. It’s unlikely we’ll see many women make the move Gottlieb is making between the college game and the NBA, but it’s a start.

“It was an incredibly forward-thinking way of saying, ‘For us to be as good as we can be, we need different thought processes,’ and they value what I’m going to bring to the table,” said Gottlieb, 41. “Part of who I am is about having an ability to connect to people and be open to letting people be who they are even as we’re trying to achieve a mission together. I think some of those characteristics are what made me attractive to the Cavs organization.

“We’ve talked about the ability to connect with young players. The guys in the NBA, many of them need to feel connections in order to learn what they need to learn. You build that trust with them.”

What it means for women coaches

Gottlieb — who led Cal to the 2013 Final Four, seven NCAA tournament appearances and a 179-89 record in eight seasons — is a lifelong follower of the NBA. Although she might not specifically have said publicly that she would want to work for the NBA someday, it was in the back of her mind.

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That’s a key going forward for women who seek job opportunities in men’s basketball. They have to be able to envision themselves in such a job, which is tough to do if you never see anyone like you in it. In Gottlieb’s case, she didn’t have a specific role model for this growing up, but the dream was still there.

“There’s been conversations in the NBA about how to get women involved,” Gottlieb said. “I’ve had some high-level, philosophical discussions with a number of people.

“I’ve always loved the NBA. And I’ve had few people I’m close with in the NBA who said, ‘You could do this.'”

And when the chance came, she didn’t want to pass it up. Still, she did her due diligence, making sure she was really what Cavs head coach John Beilein wanted.

“It was incredibly hard to make the decision to leave the place that I love and that is part of me,” Gottlieb said. “But ultimately, I felt like this opportunity was something for me, and, hopefully, for women going forward, that would be transformative.

“Even the sad emotions about leaving, I think, are ultimately going to be positive. It was a process of saying, ‘How willing are you to get out of your comfort zone to do something that may have a lasting impact?’ Big picture, we’d be missing a piece of it if it wasn’t about my ability to maybe impact a million girls, not just the ones in my program. I hope girls seeing me in this role will empower them.”

That doesn’t mean that a career in women’s basketball is “less than” or not empowering. But it would be good to reach a point where women have the same coaching options men have.

What it means for Cal and the Pac-12

Mid-June is an odd time of year to be looking to replace a women’s basketball coach. Jobs usually open and are filled in March and April. Cal is losing not just Gottlieb, but standout post player Kristine Anigwe, who’s in her rookie season with the Connecticut Sun.

Whoever replaces Gottlieb enters a very different Pac-12 than she did as a Cal assistant in 2005 and also when she returned to be the Bears’ head coach in 2011. Stanford was still the lone standard-bearer of the league then, with current top coaches either just getting started (such as Oregon State’s Scott Rueck, who took over in 2010) or not in the league yet (such as Oregon’s Kelly Graves, who went to Eugene in 2014).

Since Gottlieb took over Cal in 2011, Washington (then under Mike Neighbors), Oregon State and Oregon all have reached the Final Four, along with Stanford. The elevation of the Pac-12 makes the Cal job both more appealing and more daunting.

“I am so proud of what Pac-12 women’s basketball is now,” Gottlieb said. “When I got here as an assistant, it was a different league. It’s more than just there are good players being in the league. It’s a movement of coaches working together, of universities making a commitment. The Pac-12 is now a draw for the top coaches in the country.”