December 31, 2023
Stock down: Which women’s college basketball coaches are on the hot seat?
This article isn’t Jolly; in fact, it’s quite Grave(s)
There are still three months left in the NCAA women’s basketball season. But with nonconference slates all but wrapped up, some women’s college basketball coaches are already elevating themselves, while others may be staring down a ride on the coaching carousel. After looking at the former last week, I’m now turning to the coaches who need some strong New Year’s resolutions.
I want to be clear that this article isn’t fun. If/when a coach gets fired, it’s not just them losing their job, but many assistants and staffers who don’t have the same kind of financial cushion to brace themselves with. But it’s a natural part of the sport, so it’s worth getting a sense of which programs may be making that move and who’s at risk as we get into conference action:
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Robin Pingeton, Missouri
Pingeton’s issue isn’t that her program is in decline. Her issue is that Eli Drinkwitz coached Mizzou football to a New Year’s Six bowl game, so the athletic director suddenly has a lot more time on her hands now that “new football coach?” is no longer an issue that will take up months of her schedule. And with men’s basketball head coach Dennis Gates in just his second season, there’s little to do but look harder at Pingeton. (This sounds like a joke, but it’s how at least 14 of the soon-to-be-16 SEC schools operate.)
Pingeton’s tenure leading the Tigers is quite simple: she is in her 14th year at the helm, is almost certain to end the year with zero NCAA tournament appearances without Sophie Cunningham, is 42 games under .500 without Cunningham, and even with Cunningham she never made it past the second round. Mizzou has finished an average of 10th in the 14-team SEC over the past four years, a conference in which at least a third of its members consider women’s basketball a relative afterthought. It’s hard to see Pingeton being able to continue like this.
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Kellie Harper, Tennessee
The job Harper has done at Knoxville should in no way be compared to Pingeton. But Tennessee naturally has much higher standards, and with a football program poised to compete perennially for a spot in the expanded playoffs and a men’s basketball team currently ranked sixth in the nation, administrators’ eyes have likely been on Harper’s program for the past calendar year. Which would be fine if not for the boosters.
For those unfamiliar, boosters are people who donate significant money to programs. In return, they get to watch their favorite team afford better coaches and better players, and in some cases (Auburn, Texas A&M) boosters have influence over administrators. The Vols have some of the strongest booster support in all of women’s basketball, according to multiple sources, which presents Harper with a double-edged sword: She’s been able to have talented rosters without being a top recruiter thanks to the boosters paying transfers through NIL, but boosters have very high expectations — especially for a program that’s won eight national championships. Whether it’s fair to expect a Tennessee head coach to be able to sell recruits on the glory of trophies that came when those recruits were two years old is one question; whether the boosters will stop paying for transfers if Harper fails to do so is another question entirely.
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Kyra Elzy, Kentucky
Kentucky is the one SEC school that holds men’s basketball above football, but that esteem doesn’t transfer over to women’s basketball. Elzy’s background as the continuity hire from Matthew Mitchell, the only coach in Wildcats history who achieved sustained success, made her a no-brainer of a hire. Her knowledge of the state, the culture and the program infrastructure should have been second-to-none.
Instead, Kentucky lost its upperclassman talent to the portal and has not come close to replacing it. Elzy’s best commit (Jada Walker) is now Baylor’s starting point guard. Her lone 2023 recruit (Jordy Griggs) has mostly been a healthy scratch and Elzy has only one 2024 commitment, from an in-state player ranked outside the consensus top 100. Of her two Power 5-level gets from the portal, one was a player returning home (Maddie Scherr), and she struck out on all three of her targets this past summer despite two of them going elsewhere to be backups. As a program that figures to never have much booster support, it’s a real question whether Mitchell’s success is replicable in the portal and NIL era. But the standard in Lexington is certainly higher than what Elzy’s tenure has achieved.
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Kelly Graves, Oregon
Fearless leader here at The Next Howard Megdal and I have a running debate over whether two Elite Eight losses and one Final Four loss with a roster led by Sabrina Ionescu — one of the Elite Eight losses and the Final Four loss also including Satou Sabally — is underwhelming. Regardless, since Oregon said goodbye to the best one-two punch since UConn’s fourpeat, the Ducks have gone from severely underperforming in 2020-21 to a 2023-24 that will likely be the second-straight season missing the NCAA tournament entirely. Nine of the 13 players from that 2020-21 team transferred out, most influenced by Graves’ abrasive personality and his coaching not putting them in positions to succeed, according to three sources familiar with their thinking. All but one of them got significantly better after leaving. Of the seven that are still active, each of them would be the best player on the current roster.
Assuming that no current Ducks transfer this summer — a dangerous assumption indeed — Graves will have eight former consensus top-100 recruits on his roster next year. That’s a lot of talent left to work with. But if Graves does end up missing the tournament this season, he might need to make every last bit of that count.
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The seat’s not hot, but it’s warming up
Adia Barnes, Arizona
Barnes went to the national championship game just three years ago, so this is obviously a bit of an overreaction to recent results. But the 2.5 seasons since then have seen Arizona get bounced in the second round twice (once as a No. 4 seed), finish only four games over .500 in Pac-12 play twice, and lose seven of the eight recruits they’d brought in since that natty appearance. The six of those who transferred (Maya Nnaji retired to focus on her pre-med studies) are all showing that Barnes erred severely in not giving them bigger roles, especially considering who she was giving minutes to instead. Barnes has earned more runway than anyone else I’ve mentioned and she still has a couple of impressive underclassmen, but if an abrupt decline was happening, this is what it would look like.