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Archive for Thursday, March 7, 2002

s Washington

March 7, 2002

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No need to worry about disturbing Marian Washington with a phone call on Sunday night. Washington won't be wrapped up in the ballyhooed ESPN movie "Season on the Brink."

Washington, whose next season as Kansas University's women's basketball coach will be her 30th, has about as much use for Bob Knight, the movie's protagonist, as she has for Aunt Jemima, Little Black Sambo and watermelon jokes.

"They should make a movie about Nolan Richardson if they can do one for Bobby Knight," Washington told me. "He (Knight) has done enough to embarrass the nation. It's that kind of unevenness that's tough."

Richardson, as you know, uttered some words last week that probably were best left unsaid, and it cost him his job as head men's coach at Arkansas, although he's currently battling to regain the post.

Washington has spoken to Richardson since the flap and, she says, "I think he regrets what he said and I think he should return. Nolan is a great man and a great coach and I wished him well."

Richardson and Washington are soulmates. They rode into unexplored territory about the same time. They were black basketball coaches at major universities when black coaches at major universities weren't cool. They were instrumental in founding the Black Coaches Association. They were the pioneers, the few and the proud.

It is that pride, I think, which makes Washington such an icon to the people  and there are many  who would follow her into a brick wall. To her detractors, though, Washington is aloof, overpaid and has a chip on her shoulder.

I'm sure there has never been a coach on Mount Oread who has stirred such passionate reactions from each end of the emotional spectrum as Washington.

Once she sued Dick Vitale's magazine because it contained words questioning her coaching ability. Was that pride? Or was she too sensitive to criticism?

Once Washington complained about a Journal-World story that led with comments from the coach of an Oklahoma State team KU had just defeated. She thought the story belonged in the Stillwater paper, not the Lawrence paper. Was that pride? Or was she being thin-skinned?

Several years ago, when the Kansas University men's team was playing at an NCAA site in Atlanta and the KU women had been assigned to nearby Athens, Ga., sportswriters from the Kansas newspapers assigned to the men's site also covered the women's game even though most hadn't seen the KU women play all season.

When Washington spoke at the mandatory postgame media session, she never acknowledged the presence of the Sunflower State writers. Was that pride? Or was she being overly sensitive?

One time before Horesji Center was built and the KU men's and women's teams had to share Allen Fieldhouse for practice, Roy Williams asked Washington if she could alter her schedule because of an unforeseen circumstance. She declined. Was that pride? Or was she paranoid about the highly successful men's program?

To her, in each case, it was pride. To those of us who will never be able to know what it's like to have skin color other than white, it was the other answer.

"For people of color," she said, "it does get tough some times. If I play black players and all of sudden I don't play white players someone will say something. I don't know if a white coach has to do that."

Nobody wonders why Kansas State coach Deb Patterson, who is white, has mainly white players on her roster. Meanwhile, it is a misconception Washington recruits only black players when, in fact, she had a equal mix this season of six blacks and six whites.

Unfortunately, few of those 12 players on Washington's 2001-2002 roster possessed NCAA Division One skills. The result was the worst season in school and Big 12 history.

Washington was humbled. Seventeen straight losses squeezed a refreshing dose of humility into her coat of armor. Still, I'm sure her pride and determination remain intact.

Anyone can have a bad year. The legendary Phog Allen had a 3-15 record one season and a 9-15 record in another year. But they weren't back-to-back. At Kansas, successive losing basketball seasons  whether by the men or the women  won't cut it.

So Washington is on notice. She knows next year's team has to show marked improvement. They pay coaches to produce winners and they really don't care whether you're black, white, red, yellow or green.

It's not racial and it's not gender bias. It's strictly business. That may not be right, but that's the way it is.

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