Rebel with a cause
For Sacramento State women's basketball head coach Jamie Craighead, the sight of her mentor in the stands was surreal.
During a game last season at Portland State, Craighead looked up during timeouts to see the familiar face of her former coach at Oregon. Jody Runge sat in the bleachers with Craighead's mom, peeking between shoulders, keenly observing as her one-time pupil delivered in-game messages to the Hornets.
"I'm doing something she inspired me to do," says Craighead, who was playing at Oregon when Runge resigned in 2001. "I'm doing it, and she's not, which seems very strange to me."
Even more strange: Runge, Pac-10 Coach of the Year in 1994 and 1999, has remained a spectator for the past 11 years. In fact, the woman who propelled a middle-of-the-road Oregon program into a national contender now runs a bed and breakfast in Portland. Former players, like Craighead, are in disbelief that Runge still hasn't landed another coaching job.
Runge's career first took a detour in the winter of 2001, a tumultuous time for the Ducks. She was sparring with the administration over a budget issue, the team lost star guard Shaquala Williams to a torn ACL, and Oregon's streak of seven NCAA tournament appearances was in jeopardy. Runge was, by her own admission, frustrated and fatigued. As the season wore on, her communication with players became strained.
Newspaper accounts from March 2001 say Runge's players called a meeting with Oregon athletic director Bill Moos to air grievances. But Runge says players have since told her that Moos initiated the meeting, an account confirmed by one of those players. Either way, Craighead says she thought she was speaking to Moos in order to "improve communication" between coach and players. Williams says she believes the administration used the players as pawns to push its own agenda and force Runge out. (Moos, now the AD at Washington State, declined comment for this story, as did other key administrators who were at Oregon during Runge's tenure.)
Craighead and Williams say they were oblivious to the behind-the-scenes equality battles their coach was fighting. Runge was constantly in the administration's ear, demanding simple things such as the same Nike gear as the men's team, and big things such as commensurate pay for herself and her staff within the Pac-10 conference. But Runge's players didn't see this backstage drama. They saw only a coach who seemed tired, agitated and stressed. That season, the Oregon players felt they could do little right on the court, despite finishing the regular season with a record of 17-11 and clawing their way to an eighth straight NCAA tourney appearance.
Craighead says she wishes Runge had confided in the team about her struggles and allowed her players to share some of the burden. "She was trying to protect the team," Craighead says, "and I understand that."
Runge's players say time and distance and maturity have given them perspective about what happened that winter. Many of them are now on the record in support of their former coach, who they believe is long overdue in receiving a second chance to run a basketball program. Each time Runge applies for a coaching opening, which she's done more than 20 times since 2001, she includes about a dozen letters of recommendation from her former players, which she shared with espnW.
Williams played one season in the WNBA and is now assisting Craighead at Sacramento State. "Maybe people don't know the whole story," she says about Runge. "She's a strong woman, and she didn't take a backseat to anyone. She felt like her girls should be given the same opportunity as anyone else on campus. That didn't always sit well with the male-dominated administration."
Runge has received only one returned phone call in more than a decade of applying. Despite those letters of support from the players who, by other accounts, forced her resignation, and despite a shining résumé (career record of 160-72, two Pac-10 titles, average attendance of 5,872 fans per game), Runge remains on the outside looking in.
"She has a strong personality," Craighead says. "And it got around that she was going to fight. She was going to push Title IX to the letter of the law."
And if they could, Craighead and Williams would go into battle with Runge all over again.