Climbing back to the top

There is no greater honor than being named coach of the Olympic team.

And in 1996, Tara VanDerveer and her three assistant coaches lived up to the privilege, guiding perhaps the greatest women's basketball team ever assembled to gold.

But with the rewards came consequences. While VanDerveer, Ceal Barry, Nancy Darsch and Marian Washington helped the United States reclaim the gold medal, their college programs -- Stanford, Colorado, Ohio State and Kansas, respectively -- were slowly starting to decline.

Stanford's fall has been well-chronicled, especially over the past two seasons as the Cardinal has begun its climb back among the elite powers in the game. But the Buffaloes, Jayhawks and Buckeyes -- who also had to suffer through recruiting setbacks and prolonged slumps -- are reestablishing themselves, as well.

The decline wasn't immediate. In fact, Stanford reached the Final Four in both 1996 -- led by co-coaches Amy Tucker and Marianne Stanley in VanDerveer's absence -- and 1997. And before Tennessee ruled the mid- to late-1990s, Stanford was the team to beat, winning NCAA titles in 1990 and '92 and making five Final Four appearances from 1990-97.

But then things began to fall apart. In the 1998 NCAA Tournament, the Cardinal became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a 16 seed, falling to Harvard. The players VanDerveer had recruited prior to her Olympic hiatus began to graduate. Stanford fell out of the top 25.

None of the programs have been nearly as dominating as they had been before Atlanta '96.

In 1993, Darsch led Ohio State to the NCAA title game, but the Buckeyes weren't invited to the Big Dance in 1997 or '98. Colorado received a No. 1 seed in the '95 NCAA Tournament before losing in the Elite Eight, but then failed to reach the Tournament for three straight years from 1998-2000.

The 1996 Olympic coaching staff was under immense pressure. In 1992, the U.S. women settled for the bronze in Seoul. But in '96, with the Games being held on American soil and the "Women's Dream Team" on the court, no one wanted to accept less than a gold medal.

So USA Basketball selected some of the game's greatest, most successful, high-profile coaches for the task. Getting there wasn't easy, and the road to gold took an incredible commitment of time and energy from VanDerveer and her Olympic staff. In 10 months of pre-Olympic training, the team played 52 games, traveled more than 100,000 miles and played in seven countries.

After a 10-month absence from their programs, it's no wonder they struggled. That's 10 months away from current team members, and away from recruiting, which really hurt. If you miss an opportunity, there's another school waiting. These coaches weren't able to stay 100 percent focused on their programs, and they definitely lost recruits they wanted and probably would have signed any other year.

Recruiting is everything in this game. No matter how good of a coach you are, you still need the best players on the court, and the best players to want to come play for you. Once the ball is tipped, they're the ones who are going to win or lose games.

When it comes down to it, 10 months is just too long of a time to put your program in someone else's hands, no matter how competent your assistant might be.

But while it's tough to keep your team at the top, it's an even tougher task to return there, especially if you don't have the talent you're used to having. Still, these four programs appear to be on their way.

VanDerveer and Washington, the dean of coaching in the Big 12, each recently notched their 500th wins, VanDerveer last season and the longtime Jayhawks coach in 1999. VanDerveer, who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame next year, also led Stanford to a share of last season's Pac-10 title, and a top-10 ranking in some preseason polls. And two years ago, Stanford inked one of the top recruiting classes.

Barry took Colorado back to the NCAA Tournament last season for the first time in four years, and now, the Buffs rank right below Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Iowa State in the mighty Big 12.

Darsch eventually left Ohio State for head coaching positions in the WNBA, but fifth-year coach Beth Burns has the Buckeyes back on track, too. Last season, Burns, a defensive genius, guided Ohio State to its best record since 1993. The Buckeyes, who got off to a 10-0 start, their best in 28 years, capped the season with the WNIT title. It's not the postseason prowess everybody aims for, but it's still progress.

And that's just what you'd expect from Burns. She is, after all, a former assistant coach under both VanDerveer and Barry.

Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage.