Past success lurks in ODU's shadows
This season, espnW will take a journey across America, bringing you an in-depth look at 16 women's college basketball programs -- our Sweet 16. We'll begin the first week of the season and conclude just before the conference tournaments. We'll visit powerhouse schools and those off the beaten path, programs that are emerging and those that were there from the beginning. At the end of these 16 weeks, we hope you'll have a true flavor of Hoops Across America.
NORFOLK, Va. -- Not so long ago, longtime Old Dominion athletic administrator Debbie White stepped into an elevator while on a trip in California.
"I was wearing a shirt with our logo on it, and a man glanced over at it and said, 'Great women's basketball,'" White said. "People still associate us with that."
And for good reason: Old Dominion won two Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women titles (1979, '80) and the 1985 NCAA championship. ODU is the alma mater of playing greats such as Nancy Lieberman, Anne Donovan, Inge Nissen, Medina Dixon, Tracy Claxton, Adrienne Goodson and Ticha Penicheiro.
The adage "Those who don't remember history are doomed to repeat it" applies in reverse to ODU. What if you know your history, chapter and verse, and are afraid you won't repeat it?
To tell the tale of Old Dominion women's basketball is to run again and again into that word: history. ODU was the first university in Virginia to offer women's athletic scholarships and, as such, was a power in basketball before most schools from bigger conferences made much of a commitment to the sport. But like Louisiana Tech, in the past 20 years Old Dominion has found itself fighting to hold on to its tradition despite a vastly changing college athletics world.
ODU had a renaissance of sorts in the mid-'90s by being at the forefront of another trend: recruiting top international players. The 1997 national runner-up team had two starters from Portugal (Penicheiro, Mery Andrade) and another from Mozambique (Clarisse Machanguana).
As recently as 2008, ODU was in the NCAA Sweet 16. But that's the last year the Lady Monarchs made the NCAA field. ODU currently is 5-10. And the ranked team making a buzz from the Colonial Athletic Association is Delaware.
It's a year of change at Old Dominion, and there will be perhaps several years of rebuilding.
ODU's highly successful past isn't the only lingering shadow on the program. There is the departure of former coach Wendy Larry, who resigned in May after 24 seasons following a public dispute with athletic director Wood Selig when he wouldn't extend her contract.
The ODU of today is not like the glory days. Then again, no one expects it to be right now. This is not the time to look for the old Monarchs magic.
"My nickname is 'the grinder,'" said Karen Barefoot, 39, who replaced Larry as head coach. "I will grind until I get the job done."
She will need to grind out a new path for ODU, because the one the Lady Monarchs took as a pioneering program in women's basketball in the 1970s isn't available anymore. Yet, she will need to keep in touch with that history, because it's part of what makes this program stand out.
Old Dominion's arena and practice gym have banners commemorating their championships and player legends. The players see that every day, but how much does it resonate with them?
"The game has changed. It's not the same as back in the day," ODU senior Tia Lewis said. "You want to keep the tradition going. But it's gotten tougher; we've been the target for so long."
Lewis scored a career-high 30 points in a 68-59 win over Georgia State on Jan. 4. After the game, she chided beat writer Chris Carlson of The Virginian-Pilot because he tweeted a prediction that Georgia State would win.
Lewis wasn't joking, either. The prediction clearly irritated her and perhaps even motivated her.
ODU next faces VCU in Richmond on Wednesday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN3).
"I think this generation wants to be challenged," Barefoot said. "As much as I say they kind of have it all and they take it for granted a little bit, they want something more. It's about getting to where they believe no matter how hard it is, they're going to get through it."
New era, new look
It's a different regime at ODU now. Jim Jarrett, the visionary athletic director who in the early 1970s foresaw the benefits of supporting women's basketball, retired in 2010. He was replaced by Selig, who grew up in Norfolk and is overseeing a changed athletic culture at ODU.
In 2009, the school restarted its football program, which had been disbanded after the 1941 season. Monarchs football has gone 27-8 in Bobby Wilder's three seasons, and that recently earned him a 10-year contract extension.
Observers sense that Selig, like most new ADs, wanted to put his stamp on everything, women's basketball included. Last season, ODU went 20-11 but missed the NCAA tournament for the third season in a row. This came after ODU had made the Big Dance in 20 of the previous 21 years.
For nearly two decades, one of the surest things in women's basketball was that ODU would win the CAA tournament and the accompanying automatic NCAA tourney bid. New classes of freshmen developed a mentality that "the streak won't end on our watch."
In 2009, it finally did after 17 years, with Drexel defeating James Madison for the tourney title. The past two seasons, JMU has been CAA champion.
This past March, ODU lost in the CAA tournament quarterfinals to Delaware and subsequently fell to Loyola in the WNIT first round. Selig told Larry he would not extend her contract before this season, news she decided to make public.
Perhaps Larry overplayed her hand; perhaps it wouldn't have mattered. It was a showdown at the ODU corral, and this was a battle that the coach with so much history on her side didn't win. In May, facing a lame-duck season without an extension, Larry resigned after 24 seasons and a 559-203 record at ODU.
In came Barefoot, an ODU assistant from 2005 to 2008. She's a native of Newport News, across the water from Norfolk, and played at Menchville High School and Christopher Newport University.
"She had been here in a previous stop, so she knew the university and how to recruit here," Selig said. "She's from the area, and we felt that would be an asset. She'd been very successful and had done it at places with a lot less support and lot less from a facilities standpoint."
Old Dominion is considered a mid-major, but the places where Barefoot had been a head coach before were much smaller. She started her career building the women's hoops program at the Apprentice School, which is operated by Newport News Shipbuilding.
Barefoot's father, grandfather and uncle all had worked at the shipyard, a major employer for the region that dates to the 1800s.
"That program was probably the best job for me to start, because it wasn't easy," Barefoot said. "You've got 18-year-old players who are essentially in the real world, because they have a work week, they go to school and they play basketball. You have to prepare them and help them go through that."
Barefoot won a small-schools championship there, then went to Division II Lenoir Rhyne in Hickory, N.C. After her stay as ODU assistant, she spent three years as head coach at Elon, also in North Carolina. She was 37-59 at Elon, going 20-13 in 2010-11. It was the program's best mark since moving to Division I.
Whether all that has prepared Barefoot -- who hired former Lady Monarchs standout Goodson as one of her assistants -- for success at ODU remains to be seen.
Barefoot aspires to take ODU back to where it once was. She looks at players from Georgetown's Sugar Rodgers to Duke's Elizabeth Williams -- both from the Tidewater area -- and knows the Lady Monarchs must find ways to beat the big guns for more of the top local talent.
"I felt like we are still falling and haven't reached the bottom yet," Selig said. "I'm hopeful we're close to reaching that and then climbing back. We felt like getting Karen on board and improving our recruiting, our academic success and visibility in the community was something we wanted to get started right away.
"We've been up front with Karen in having very modest expectations of the program and of her for the first several years."
No doubt such statements will make Larry seethe, considering she was told that not meeting the program's longtime high expectations was part of why her contract wasn't extended.
Technically, she was announced as staying on at the university in a fundraising/administrative role, and she is drawing the final year of her coaching salary. Realistically, Larry is essentially divorced from her alma mater.
She doesn't go to ODU games nor have any dialogue with Barefoot or Selig. She considered visiting her longtime friend, Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, when ODU played in Knoxville, Tenn., in December.
"But then I said, 'I'm not getting into that drama. I don't need to be there,'" Larry said, adding she'll go another time.
It's been awkward for many, including those alumni loyal to Larry who felt that the disappointments of the past three years didn't merit her departure. Judy Bowman, who's worked at ODU in academic affairs for nearly 30 years and been a fan of the Lady Monarchs even longer than that, acknowledged the bumpy transition.
"It's strange, still," said Bowman, who remains a strong supporter of the program. "Wendy is a local icon, a celebrity in our town."
The biggest celebrity associated with the program remains Lieberman. She interviewed when Larry resigned but said she was not very serious about taking the head-coaching job.
"Change is hard, because it's emotional," said Lieberman, a friend and former ODU teammate of Larry's. "I have tremendous respect for what Wendy did. But we are all going to be replaced one day. We have to get better, or get over it. Coaches get fired left and right in men's sports.
"Wendy's life has been at Old Dominion, and that made it more emotional. But it's a business, and you have to win. You're getting paid a lot of money now, and if we want to operate on the next level in women's basketball, we have to take the good with the bad."
A program of memories
There has been a whole lot of good at ODU. The program's peak years as a national contender came under Marianne Stanley, a trailblazing player at Immaculata before becoming a coach. She was in charge for ODU's three national championships. But among the most landmark games in Stanley's ODU tenure, which lasted from 1977-87, was an exhibition.
White, now ODU's senior associate athletic director, recalls Dec. 14, 1979, when she told herself to pause and soak in her surroundings, just in case she never saw anything quite like it again.
The Soviet women's basketball team -- led by 7-footer Uljana Semjonova -- was the equivalent of that nation's men's hockey team, which the U.S. would later beat in the "Miracle on Ice" in the 1980 Winter Olympics. Winners of the first Olympic women's hoops tournament, in 1976, the Soviets repeated in 1980 at the Moscow Games boycotted by the United States.
But on this night at Scope, an arena in downtown Norfolk, the Russians trailed at halftime against ODU, then the defending college champion.
"I tell people this, and it's no exaggeration: It was so loud, we thought the roof was going to cave in," White said. "It was the thing to do in Norfolk that night. People came who'd never been to a women's game before, high-society folks. What an interesting mix. It was a unique time with things changing in the world, but still very Cold War."
ODU lost 76-66 to the Soviets, and Lieberman recalled, "I remember coming down the court, and I could see all my teammates except one. I said, 'Where the heck is Anne?' And Inge [Nissen] says to me, 'She's behind Semjonova.'"
Indeed, the only player who could make the 6-8 Donovan "disappear" was the 7-foot Soviet, who retired in the mid-1980s having never lost an international game. But Donovan went on to win two Olympic gold medals (1984, '88) and coached the 2008 U.S. squad to Olympic victory. Now coach at Seton Hall, Donovan won a WNBA title leading Seattle in 2004.
How many women's basketball programs have memories and connections like that?
Most Lady Monarchs games, for many years, were played not at Scope but at the ODU Fieldhouse, where it felt as though fans were right on top of the court. The Constant Center is a bigger, more modern facility that's comfortable for spectators. But sometimes things are lost with progress.
"I was reticent about leaving the Fieldhouse," Larry said. "Just because when teams came in there, it had an effect on them. We used that to our advantage."
There are good memories in Constant Center, too, though. In 2008, the Lady Monarchs beat Virginia 88-85 on Jazzmin Walters' 3-pointer with 4.8 seconds left in overtime to advance to the NCAA Sweet 16. That felt like old times.
But waiting in the regional was UConn, which beat ODU 78-63 on March 30, 2008. That's ODU's last NCAA tournament game. Three years really isn't that much of a drought. But it was enough to end Larry's ODU career.
Selig points to the NCAA tournament success last season of mid-majors such as Gonzaga (Elite Eight) and Green Bay (Sweet 16) and says ODU should be able to do the same thing.
The irony, of course, is that Old Dominion long ago did all of that -- and far more. So will the Lady Monarchs in a new era be able to redefine fan expectations but have enough national success to build a bridge to the program's past?
Lieberman, the eternal optimist, says Barefoot just needs time. A bundle of live-wire energy on even her slowest days, Barefoot believes her blue-collar background prepared her for the long haul.
"I'm from here, and I love it here," Barefoot said. "For me, it was a natural instinct to say, 'I can do this.' I feel like Old Dominion is still an easy sell. There's so much talent in Virginia, and I think we still have a strong connection to international players.
"Recruiting is everything, our No. 1 priority. There's steps we have to take, but I really believe this is the perfect job."
It's hers now. And history, as always, will be the judge.