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Perspective: by Jerry Pyle
Perspective: The Top-Billing Problem
It was a pretty good week for Cobber sports. The Cobber football team put the fall sports season to rest with a nice win at home. The women's cross country team capped off an outstanding season with a gutsy performance at the NCAA Regionals.
And the hockey team ushered in the winter season with their opening games. Around here that means it's time to watch for signs that Lady Cobber basketball might be getting over-promoted.
At least until indoor track starts in late January, the Cobber winter sports scene consists of three male sports (hockey, wrestling, and basketball) plus Lady Cobber basketball. Lady Cobber basketball has been immensely successful for years at Concordia. The other winter sports have been less so.
When the sports information director (me) works in that Lady Cobber basketball program (as I do) there can arise a series of delicate questions that, from time to time, challenge one's diplomatic skills. When one's diplomatic skills are limited, as are mine, the situation becomes even more interesting to watch. I shall now demonstrate that limited diplomacy.
Concordia has a long history of special success in two sports, football and women's basketball. (Baseball and women's track would probably be next in line by most criteria.) And in both cases their success predates the current coaches in those programs.
Jim Christopherson took over the football program from the legendary Jake Christiansen in 1969 and has put together a 21-year record of 153-57-5, one of the best winning percentages in the nation. He took a successful tradition and built on it.
Duane Siverson took over the Lady Cobber basketball program in 1984 from a series of coaches who had found success in women's basketball at Concordia. In his first five years he won a national title and put together a record of 120 wins against 25 losses, one of the best winning percentages in the nation. He took a successful tradition and built on it.
All coaches want to win. But having the ability to make it happen is far more an art form than a set of technical skills. Christopherson and Siverson have a gift, or perhaps a set of gifts, which make them able to succeed at teaching their teams to succeed. And they generally get their due credit for what they are accomplishing in their profession. At least in Fargo-Moorhead, both programs receive outstanding media coverage.
But, as my Dad often told me, don't assume that others are always happy about your success.
In the fall around here it is generally pretty easy to decide who gets top billing in the sports information business. Not only does football draw the most fans of any sport at Concordia, the football team also is generally having the most success of any fall sport here.
But with women's basketball in the winter there are other dimensions to the problem of who gets top billing.
There is tremendous mutual support between coaches and programs at Concordia, much more than is often found in athletic departments. But that does not mean that we are without sin.
Last year the Lady Cobbers went 24-3, beat NDSU, were ranked 2nd in the nation most of the year, lost to the nation's #1 ranked team in the NCAA Regional Finals, and went away feeling that they had had only a so-so year.
In the mean time, the Cobber hockey team was going 11- 12, the Cobber men's basketball team was posting an 11-14 record, and the wrestling team, despite having some outstanding individual athletes and a gem of a coach, was performing in the typical obscurity that non- Iowa wrestlers have come to expect.
And I was getting to decide, in my limited little arena as sports information director, what would go out as the top story each week.
All sorts of fun questions arose, and will likely arise again. Was I writing so much about Lady Cobber basketball because it was the most successful winter program or because I was just hyping the program I worked in? Should we behave like seventh-grade coaches who pretend that everyone is doing equally well and divide the news space, like playing time, with scrupulous equality? Should we hype the programs that are doing poorly because they are obviously in need of recruiting help?
Or, should we have more sensitivity to male egos which might take offense at being up-staged by successful women?
Or, should we just let success be the general measure of what is newsworthy in our athletic department, as it is in nearly all of sports reporting? (Besides, writing about successful teams is infinitely easier. Writing about how or why a Cobber team might be losing is only slightly more fun than a walk in a mine field.)
Let's move the problem away from Cobberville to make it easier to stomach. At North Dakota State there is a women's basketball program which has been terribly successful in recent years, far more so than their men's team.
Admittedly the men's team draws more fans. Part of the reason for that is that the women play the "preliminary game" while most of the world is eating supper. The men play at prime time, 7:30 or 8:00. But part of it also has to do with the fact that men are just born stronger and faster. The men's game is, usually, more popular, even when the women are showing far greater ability to think on the floor and execute the artistic nuances of the game.
But, All-Star wrestling draws a lot of fans too. Does that make it a more newsworthy sporting event than NDSU women's basketball?
Women compete on a level playing field, just as men do.
Women who achieve success on that playing field are entitled to recognition for their relative excellence.
Treating women's sports as a side-show by putting it on the back pages or, for instance, by assuming they have to play the "preliminary game" in an evening of basketball, is wrong-headed, sexist, and, often, inconsistent with fan interest.
Related note: Amy Ruley, NDSU's women's basketball coach, runs the most successful college basketball program in the state of North Dakota. Duane Siverson, the Lady Cobber coach, heads the most successful college basketball program in Minnesota.
Their two outstanding teams will meet at the Cobber Fieldhouse at 7:30 on Friday, November 24th. There will be no "preliminary" game.
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