All eyes are fixed on Coach Hill-MacDonald

Aaron Kirscht

Coaching changes are nothing new, of course, in any sport at nearly every level. But in the ranks of Big Ten women’s basketball, turnover has become the name of the game.
So if Gophers women’s basketball coach Linda Hill-MacDonald receives a pink slip sometime soon — as some observers have presumed she will — she’ll join a number of coaches who’ve met the same fate in recent years.
Nearly half of the 11 Big Ten coaches have been in place for three seasons or less. So far, the switches appear to have worked out; three of the five newcomers finished in the upper half of the Big Ten this season, and all five have broken that barrier since their hirings.
Hill-MacDonald shuffles aside suggestions that another coach may soon pick up where she leaves off, saying “everyone is entitled to an opinion.” She said before the Big Ten tournament this weekend that she plans to continue her duties as coach until she’s told otherwise.
“Yeah, the last two years have been very disappointing,” Hill-MacDonald said, “but I certainly haven’t given up. We’re still out in the trenches, recruiting and working on bringing it back up to that level.”
The level of which Hill-MacDonald speaks was reached during the 1993-94 season, when the Gophers made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament. But the downfall has been severe; since that point, Minnesota is 9-41 in Big Ten games, 20-62 overall.
Women’s athletics director Chris Voelz won’t say if a coaching change is imminent, but admitted to being disappointed with the results. Vice president of student affairs McKinley Boston — who must approve such a change — is on record with similar feelings.
“I look back and see (the NCAA appearance),” Voelz said, “and my dreams were to see the program go up, up and away. But wasn’t that the dream of the coaching staff and the athletes, too? I don’t think I’m alone on that.”
She’s not. The fans appear to feel the same way. Attendance figures are down for the third straight year, from 2,257 per game in 1993-94 to 1,353 this season. Wisconsin, which finished sixth in the conference this season, averaged 8,849. Three schools — Purdue, Illinois and Wisconsin — had a higher fan count for a single game than the Gophers’ total attendance all season.
Those numbers have left Voelz feeling envious, and perhaps a little nervous about the department’s bottom line.
“I’m proud that the Big Ten is No. 1 in the nation in women’s basketball attendance,” Voelz said. “But we ought to be right up there. In volleyball we are, and soccer and softball are right up there. We need women’s basketball up there, too.”
Voelz and Hill-MacDonald reportedly met on Monday to discuss the season, but neither has issued a statement.
But are dwindling attendance figures and a poor showing in the win column enough to release Hill-MacDonald?
They probably would be, if not for the coach’s $87,000-per-year contract, which has one season remaining. Whether Hill-MacDonald hangs on or not, the University is liable for the rest of the contract. That’s a lot of money, especially when ticket revenues from last season amounted to less than $48,000, and will likely come in even lower this year.
“(Women’s basketball) is not showing the income at the gate that I would like or that I even projected,” Voelz said. “It’s simple. Your income has to meet your expenses, and when women’s basketball income is down like it is this year, it gets my notice.”
Voelz’s options are not so simple. She can retain Hill-MacDonald until her contract runs out, but run the risk of another losing season and even lower gate receipts.
Or Voelz can release Hill-MacDonald, bring in a new coach and hope that the potential excitement surrounding the change can boost revenues to more acceptable levels, or at least enough to offset the contract pay-off.
Voelz took a considerable amount of heat in 1994 in the wake of former volleyball coach Stephanie Schleuder’s firing. Schleuder’s successful wrongful-termination lawsuit leveled a $300,000 blow to the University and provided ammunition to Voelz’s detractors.
It wasn’t until Voelz’s feather-in-the-cap hiring of Mike Hebert that the critics were quieted. Hill-MacDonald’s possible release isn’t likely to incite the same furor, but the move could re-harm Voelz’s reputation within her department.
Ellen Mosher Hanson resigned as Gophers coach following a pair of 4-14 Big Ten seasons — the only two losing seasons of her 10-year career. Her successor, LaRue Fields, posted a losing record in three seasons as coach before resigning to pursue outside interests.
But Hill-MacDonald, who was hired seven years ago to turn the program around, has no intention of quitting.
“I love the game of basketball,” she said. “I’m a teacher, and I love teaching. The past two seasons haven’t been easy on anybody, and I’m no exception. But it’s going to get better.”
Whether it gets better with Hill-MacDonald at the helm, however, remains to be seen.