- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Karen Aston recalls piling into a car with some of her college teammates in Arkansas and driving to Ruston, La., to see what greatness in women's basketball looked like in the 1980s. Southern California and Cheryl Miller were playing at Louisiana Tech.
An "epiphany" is how Aston describes it now. Watching Miller -- one of the best athletes to have played the sport, regardless of era -- was one thing. But capturing Aston's attention even more was the atmosphere at Louisiana Tech's Thomas Assembly Center: The way that women's hoops seemed to really matter to the university and the community.
"I was fascinated by Louisiana Tech," said Aston, who earlier this week was introduced as the new head coach at Texas. "Going to see that game it was that 'wow' moment."
Aston was born and raised in Arkansas and went to college there -- first at Ouachita Baptist and then Arkansas Little Rock. When she graduated in 1987, there weren't the same kind of opportunities to get your foot in the door with a college coaching staff that there are now. There weren't jobs like video coordinator or director of basketball operations. Most women's hoops staffs at that time had only two full-time assistant coaches.
You could take a graduate-assistant position and hope to eventually catch on as a full-time assistant, provided you had good contacts. Or you could go coach high school basketball and try to build your contact lists through working college camps in the summer.
Aston did the latter, and through camps got to know former Louisiana Tech coach Sonja Hogg. Aston's success as a prep coach in Arkansas combined with her networking paid off with her first college job in 1994, as an assistant to Hogg, who by then was at Baylor.
Next Aston went to North Texas, then Texas -- where she was part of the Longhorns' return to the Women's Final Four in 2003 -- and then back to Baylor again. After that, she made the step up to be a head coach, taking over at Charlotte for four years. Then she spent this past season running the program at North Texas.
"The journey I've taken goes all the way back to the fact that I coached in high school," Aston said. "I've had a phenomenal stream of coaches that I've worked for. Sonja Hogg was such a pioneer and had such a handle on how to deal with people.
"My first assistant's job [at North Texas] was with Tina Slinker, who played for Wayland Baptist and understood the legacy of women's basketball. Then working with Jody Conradt and Kim Mulkey. It would be difficult for someone to experience all that and not learn a lot from it."
Austin is where Aston long wanted to be
Texas was the biggest job that opened this spring, but there has been a lot of other movement. There are new coaches in place at three SEC schools and two Big Ten programs. One other Big Ten job just opened, as Kevin Borseth left Michigan to return to Green Bay, the mid-major school he'd brought to prominence.
There is still ongoing uncertainty about Tennessee's future with coach Pat Summitt; assistant Mickie DeMoss already has left for the WNBA's Indiana Fever.
When Gail Goestenkors stepped down as Texas' coach on March 19, outsiders speculated about what direction women's athletic director Chris Plonsky would go. Would she try to find another national "superstar" coach the way she had by bringing Goestenkors from Duke? Or would she choose someone less-known nationally but with career-long ties in Texas?
She went the latter route, and now, finally, Aston is at the place where she long wanted to be: in charge of the Longhorns. And in retrospect, the game this past Dec. 17 in Austin between Texas and North Texas is even more fraught with subtext.
The Longhorns had never lost in 11 previous meetings with North Texas, but were in peril for a good chunk of that game after trailing 34-25 at halftime. Even though Texas was 7-2 at that point in the season, with its only losses being to Stanford and Tennessee, the vibe in Burnt Orange Land still wasn't right.
Texas did end up defeating Aston's North Texas squad 71-62, but the Longhorns never came together the way Goestenkors hoped -- a combination of injuries and less-than-great chemistry going against a conference that was very strong at the top, with the last two NCAA champions coming from the Big 12.
We know now that Aston's next visit to the Erwin Center would be when she was named the new head coach.
Like Louisiana Tech, Texas in the 1980s was far ahead of the rest of the nation in developing and promoting its women's basketball program. While Louisiana Tech has struggled, with the shifting landscape of college athletics becoming so dominated by the power conferences, Texas is positioned to always be at the top in that regard.
Texas will never lack for money to buy what it wants. But the Longhorns have found out that sometimes all that cash doesn't bring them as much success as they demand. As good a coach as Goestenkors is, she wasn't the right fit for Texas.
Aston brings with her all the contacts and background in the Lone Star State that Goestenkors had to build from scratch. That doesn't necessarily mean things are going to be easy for Aston, because she faces the same issue of trying to compete for recruits against Baylor and Texas A&M, plus the likes of Oklahoma and every other school that comes to the gigantic, talent-rich state for recruits.
And consider that with Texas A&M leaving for the SEC, TCU moves into the Big 12, which should give the Horned Frogs a recruiting boost.
Aston will get a smaller salary than Goestenkors -- it's reported to be worth near $600,000 annually -- which is understandable since Goestenkors made four Final Four trips and needed to be lured away from Duke. But if Aston is successful in Austin, she need not worry; even more money will come.
A new era in Austin
Will she be successful? She has done everything apprentice-wise to be ready for this chance. Consider her explanation of why she left Texas in 2006 to go spend a year at Baylor working for Mulkey.
By that point, Aston had been Conradt's assistant for eight seasons, and during that time had opportunities to leave and be a head coach elsewhere. Nothing seemed a good fit, but staying at Texas was starting to feel a little stagnant.
"I thought, 'It's time for me to grow,'" Aston said. "Since I hadn't found that right [head-coaching] job, I needed to just see how another program was run. I could have finished Jody's sentences at that point, and I needed to see how someone else did things.
"I went to Baylor and said, 'I'll spend a few years here and try to learn as much as I can.' Part of the process of your coaching career is continuing to grow. And it was a great move for me."
Once Aston got to Charlotte, she had another epiphany of sorts: understanding, even after all her years as a college assistant, just how different it felt to be in charge at the college level.
"It confirmed what Jody used to say all the time: The management part of being a head coach is enormous," Aston said. "Having the realization of really what she went through every day. Managing the entire scheme of everything: your players, your staff, the support staff, academics. There's so much to it, and I have a much better grasp of what it was that Jody tried to explain to me."
Conradt was at Texas from 1976 to 2007, so replacing her personality was challenging for Goestenkors. But Aston doesn't really have to be as concerned with that. There's a reason for the saying that it's to your advantage to replace the replacement for a legend, rather than stepping in right after the legend leaves.
Admittedly, there were plenty of Texas fans ready to see Conradt ride off into the sunset after the Longhorns missed the NCAA tournament in 2006 and '07. But in the last five years, all aspects of Conradt's long tenure seemed to get rosier -- even in the memories of those who were not supporting her near the end.
Texas fans want it all: victories, championships and an accessible head coach who makes them feel like they're a large part of the program. Texas high school players want the exact same thing from the college they choose. There are kids and parents and club-team coaches with gargantuan egos. That can be the case anywhere, of course, but as they say: "In Texas, everything is bigger."
Aston has a lot on her plate, but she sounds as if she couldn't be more ready to tackle it. Texas loses three seniors -- all starters -- and still has to wait to see how this year's injuries heal for next season. Work with recruiting begins in earnest.
How much does Texas' historical reputation in women's basketball still mean? Can it be part of recruiting?
"I'm going to say yes and no," Aston said, which is the correct answer. "Yes, anytime there is tradition -- if you embrace it and inform people of it -- it has to matter. You get on the campus, and you can't help but see the tradition.
"But it's a 'what-have-you-done-for-me-lately' world. It's an instant-moment world. And I don't know that players have a lot of significant interest in what happened yesterday. They're all about today and tomorrow. That said, I think the players that will be interested in Texas will be interested in getting that tradition back."
15dBonnie D. Ford