SCOTT: Will real SEC COY please step up

With apologies to John Brady, Mark Gottfried, Bruce Pearl, Billy Donovan and the other coaches who might quality for SEC Coach Of The Year, the best candidate for the award actually coaches at Kentucky.

And she's not Tubby Smith.

 

In her third season at Kentucky Mickie DeMoss has transformed a moribund program into a winner both on and off the court, taking the Wildcats to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1999 and improving attendance to more than 5,100 fans per game.

 

"What Mickie has done there may have been a lot faster than other people anticipated, but I'm not surprised," said Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, DeMoss' friend, mentor and boss at Tennessee for 18 years. "Mickie's strength is her great people skills and her ability to use those skills in recruiting and building great team chemistry and getting players to work together."

 

DeMoss was long regarded as a head coach in the making but took her time making the jump for two basic reasons: she loved her job as Summitt's top assistant and, if she was going to be a head coach, it had to be the right situation.

 

After turning several offers over the years DeMoss finally found the right fit when Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart offered her everything but the moon in 2003.

 

First, Barnhart offered her the resources and financial support she would need to build a successful program. Then, to make certain she understood just how serious he was, Barnhart gave up his own office so DeMoss' office space would equal Smith's surroundings.

 

"That was a really huge statement," DeMoss said. "It's a mirror image of what the men have on their side. The administration moved out, and the coaches moved in. It's not the office -- it's the message that sent."

 

Her first team went only 11-17, but Kentucky's commitment to marketing and creating a pleasurable fan experience pushed attendance above 5,000 per game. This season her team finally broke through, upsetting Tennessee in front of 13,689 at Rupp Arena for the Wildcat's first-ever win over a No. 1 team.

 

With a 69-59 victory over Chattanooga in the first round of the Women's NCAA Tournament on Saturday, the Wildcats improved to 22-8, a pretty impressive record for a team that didn't place any players on the first- and second-team All-SEC squads.

 

DeMoss and her staff have improved Kentucky's talent and depth with better recruiting, but the Wildcats turnaround has been built on a team-first approach. Nine Kentucky players average at least seven minutes per game and eight are playing more than 16 minutes a game, while seven Wildcats are averaging six points or more a game. No Kentucky player averages more than 12 points per game and seven players have led the team in scoring at least once this season.

 

"We're winning because of chemistry," DeMoss told the Lexington Herald-Leader. "This is not the most talented team -- not by any stretch -- that I've been a part of, but it's very rich in character. The chemistry, the unselfishness has really been pretty phenomenal."

 

That attention to character and chemistry is no accident. It's been a choice that starts at the top.

 

"As a head coach, you have to keep a pulse on your team, you have to make everybody feel important, make everybody feel valuable, regardless of what role they play," DeMoss said.

 

DeMoss did her part to build that chemistry through time, effort and attention. She's always been a strong coach in terms of recruiting, strategy, pre-game preparation and in-game tactics, but she did her best coaching job this season because she worked to get inside the heads and hearts of her players.

 

"In women's basketball, the relationships are really important," DeMoss said.

DeMoss did it through activities such as a book club that studied books such as James Collins' "From Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don't."

 

She did it by presenting motivational awards such as the "Mojo Award" statue presented to Kentucky player after particularly strong game performances. She also consulted top motivational experts such as writer and speaker John Maxwell so she could learn more about reaching and teaching players.

 

Most important, she's also spent more time with her players, getting to know them as individuals.

 

DeMoss said Maxwell told her, "A leader always makes the extra effort. A leader always takes the first step. They're not going to come up to you and say, 'Coach, I want a relationship.'"

 

Her players also caught on and did their part to build better relationships, both on and off the court.

 

"A lot of people don't realize how we feel on the court is a direct reflection of how we feel off the court, too," junior guard Jenny Pfeiffer told the Lexington Herald-Leader.

 

"Everybody gets along with everybody on the team and that really helps on the court. I don't even know how to pinpoint it to one word. There's just a cohesion like there hasn't been before."

 

That sense of togetherness is evident on the court, especially during the most difficult times.

 

"They've hung together despite some bumps along the way," DeMoss said. "The character of this team is really special. They're willing to dig down deep when the going gets tough."

 

 

 

By the time this magazine arrives in your mailbox, Ole Miss officials will have most likely interviewed South Alabama coach John Pelphrey for its head coaching position.

 

Pelphrey, a former Kentucky player under Rick Pitino and a former Florida assistant under Donovan, has emerged as the leading candidate for the Ole Miss job, but other reported candidates include Cincinnati interim coach Andy Kennedy, Murray State's Mick Cronin and Sam Houston State coach Bob Marlin, who just happens to be a native of Tupelo native and a Mississippi State graduate.

 

"There's still names popping up that we want to research," Ole Miss athletic director Pete Boone told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. "We're not closing doors on particular candidates. This is a good week to really do some research and find out more and continue to talk with knowledgeable basketball people.

 

"We're just trying to get as much information as possible and turn over every rock."

 

All four would appear to be good candidates for most Division I jobs, but Jackson Clarion-Ledger columnist Rick Cleveland offered four more suggestions last week.

 

How about Mike McConathy of Northwestern (La.) State, whose team upset Iowa in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last week. Northwestern State produced only five winning seasons in 23 years at Division I before McConathy arrived and his team won 26 games this season despite playing nine of 12 non-conference games on the road.

 

Consider Louisiana Tech's Keith Richard, who led the Bulldogs to 140 victories over the past eight seasons.

 

Or former Ole Miss coach Bob Weltlich? He's now a TV analyst, but he did guide Ole Miss to its only SEC Tournament championship ever. "I'd come out of retirement for four years and bring in the guy to take my place as an assistant," Weltlich told the Clarion-Ledger.

 

And finally, there's always Rob Evans, who did an outstanding job of building Ole Miss into a winner before he left for Arizona State in 1998. ASU recently fired him, but Evans has proven he can win at Ole Miss.

 

If some of the Ole Miss players had their way, Boone would hire assistant coach Tracy Dildy. Sophomore center Dwayne Curtis, who has already sat out one season after transferring from Auburn, is pushing Dildy for to get the job and said he might transfer yet again or go pro if Dildy isn't hired to replace Rod Barnes.

 

"I've got a few options on the table," Curtis said. "I want to play under Coach Dildy. If I can't play under Coach Dildy, I'll probably look at those different options.

 

"Coach Dildy will be a great coach," Curtis said. "We all know Coach Dildy has the qualifications for being a head coach. He has a lot of experience but has just never had a chance to be a head coach."

 

 

 

Vanderbilt barely lasted long enough in the NIT to get the at-home version of the game as a consolation prize, losing 79-69 in the first round at Notre Dame.

 

For a team that spent the past month trying, unsuccessfully, to convince the NCAA Tournament selection committee it belonged in the tournament, it was an ignominious way to end a season that fell short of expectations.

 

"We obviously didn't attain the goals we set out for," junior wing Derrick Byars said. "I don't want to call the season a disappointment. I know there are a lot of people who want to call it that given what was expected going into the season. I can't explain it."

 

 

 

The SEC remains the best, most popular and most successful baseball conference in the nation, but so far the SEC's rep has taken a few hits this season, starting with Florida, the 2005 national runner-up Florida, losing to Mercer and then dropping three consecutive games two weeks later?

 

Alabama lost a series to Winthrop, Auburn lost two of three to Virginia Military Institute and Elon and Ole Miss lost consecutive games to Arkansas State and Illinois-Chicago.

 

The SEC has been at the forefront of college baseball's growth in quality and popularity over the past 15 years and now the SEC may be feeling the effects of the college game's growth. SEC baseball coaches have convinced their athletic directors, presidents and major boosters that baseball can make money (or at least pay for itself) and other colleges, especially those in the south where baseball is more possible, are finally catching up.

 

With so few scholarships being split up among so many talented players, just about any Division I college can put together a competitive program, especially if it can develop two or three decent starting pitchers and an effective closer and then play solid, fundamental baseball in the field, at the plate and on the bases.

 

Just don't start playing taps for the SEC. The SEC is still the nation's deepest conference, with seven teams in each of three major national polls and five teams listed among the nation's top 15 teams.

 

"As usual, this league will be very good and very competitive," Georgia coach Dave Perno said. "It's definitely 12 deep. You just never know how it's going to turn out."

 

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Richard Scott is a Birmingham-based sports writer, author and a featured columnist in Tiger Rag. Reach him at RScottfree@aol.com.


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