September 20, 2022
How UCLA’s Cori Close, USC’s Lindsay Gottlieb are preparing for the Big Ten already
'It’s nice to be in a position where everybody wanted us'
On a mid-September morning in 2022, USC head coach Lindsay Gottlieb walks her son to kindergarten, and then, eight months pregnant, heads out for a little more exercise before going to campus. UCLA head coach Cori Close has tried to grab a couple of days off before the grind of the season really kicks in. She’s just got done playing a little pickleball — something of a new obsession — with a friend.
The fall of 2024 seems far off, except that it’s not. It’s already here now in many ways and both coaches know it.
USC and UCLA women’s basketball programs, coached by two of the biggest Pac-12 cheerleaders in the business, are currently scheduled to be headed to the Big Ten less than two years thanks to a seismic conference realignment.
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The ripple effects of the early-summer announcement that the Bruins and the Trojans would be leaving the 107-year-old Pac-12 (USC and UCLA have been in the conference since 1928) for the Big Ten rocked the sports world and destabilized the major college athletics landscape. Those waves are already reaching Close and Gottlieb’s respective shores in Westwood and downtown LA. The Pac-12, which has ascended to be one of the most talented-laden and successful women’s basketball conferences in the country over the past decade, is about to lose two of its stalwart programs and the Southern California market.
“It is a weird time, I’ve been invested in the Pac-12 for so long and I’m so proud of what we’ve built as a group,” Close said. “I’m trying to find a good balance of being good partners (to the Pac-12) and do that well, but at the same time, I understand why people are mad at us.
“I get it. This is really hard on everybody else.”
Gottlieb agreed that the situation has been “wild, but not necessarily in a bad way.”
Neither Gottlieb or Close say they saw the stunning move coming. Both have been making their adjustments through the summer, with recruits, fellow coaches, and advocating for the best possible scenarios for their student-athletes. The rival coaches plan to work together to ensure that a future of extended travel and increased time away from campus doesn’t have a negative impact on their student-athletes.
The Big Ten’s record $7 billion media deal with Fox, CBS and NBA makes for undeniably intriguing possibilities about the kind of things that could be done to bolster their programs.
“We have to have eyes-wide open,” Gottlieb said. “I think Cori and I get a chance to shape what this looks like for women’s basketball, to be a part of shaping the change.”
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How to make Big Ten long-distance work
Close said she and Gottlieb have been very communicative and plan to be “creative, proactive voices” to protect their athletes’ “high-level educational experiences.”
Gottlieb said that among other things, she is advocating for charter flights – direct flights, more room for athletes, space for them to do their academic work and rest.
“I can’t be something where people are watching women’s basketball on TV, and players are having trouble shooting the ball because they are tired, for example” Gottlieb said. “Nobody wants that.”
Gottlieb said she is personally excited about a next phase for herself and her program, which includes eight new players this season — including seven transfers. The transfer class includes Koi Love (Arizona), Taylor Bigby (Oregon) and Destiny Littleton (South Carolina).
“I didn’t foresee the Big Ten move, but I felt like change was probably imminent,” Gottlieb said. “I’m not uncomfortable with NIL or realignment. I just want us to be at a place at the forefront of a position of power. It’s nice to be in a position where everybody wanted us.
“When people say this is not good for women’s sports, I don’t agree. I think the money is going to make a difference for everyone.”
Gottlieb acknowledges that she has “grieved the rivalries” of the Pac-12, but “we get the opportunity to learn 10-14 new opponents. We need to figure out how to win at Purdue or Michigan, and that’s kind of refreshing in its own way.”
As for the top recruits who have stayed home on the West Coast in the last decade to play in the Pac-12 with the promise of Pac-12 Network exposure and the ability of their friends and family to see them play regularly, Gottlieb doesn’t think much changes for them or the prospects of adding them to her roster.
“We have the same number of home games, we will play UCLA, we will schedule West Coast teams in the non-conference,” Gottlieb said. “And they will get the benefit of people seeing them play in Chicago and on the East Coast.”
Close, who brought in the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class this season headlined by No. 2 Kiki Rice, concurs.
“I don’t think it’s bad for anyone,” Close said.
Then there is the not insignificant matter of playing the next two years as lame duck programs in the Pac-12, where both programs expect to compete at the top of the conference before moving on.
Close said she was removed from a Pac-12 advisory committee over the summer, which was a personal disappointment. The conference is already reshaping, excluding representatives from UCLA and USC some meetings about the future of the conference, which may create some awkward moments.
“I just really hope that we continue to put student-athletes first,” Close said. “I am committed to being a good partner over the next two years.”
Both coaches said they hope to schedule their former Pac-12 foes in the non-conference, creating an opportunity to maintain their West Coast ties.
“I think we’re going to have a slew of good games for the non-conference,” Gottlieb said. “I think a lot of things are up in the air, and I’m just happy we know where we are going.”
Written by Michelle Smith
Michelle Smith has covered women's basketball nationally for nearly three decades. Smith has worked for ESPN.com, The Athletic, the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as Pac-12.com and WNBA.com. She was named to the Alameda County Women's Hall of Fame in 2015, is the 2017 recipient of the Jake Wade Media Award from the Collegiate Sports Information Directors Association (CoSIDA) and was named the Mel Greenberg Media Award winner by the WBCA in 2019.