Evan Smith: First off, Coach, I’d like you to end the mystery about why you decided to step down after 31 years as the University of Texas at Austin’s women’s basketball coach. Some people have speculated that you were pushed, even though you’ve said it was your decision.
Jody Conradt: It certainly was my decision, and I think [women’s athletics director] Chris Plonsky and the administration at UT would substantiate that. I’d been thinking about it for a while. Thirty-one years is long to be at any institution, particularly in a coaching role. I had a wonderful opportunity to [watch the program] go from a time when women’s basketball was totally in obscurity to a time when it has a lot of visibility, but I’d gotten to the point where I thought it would be fun to have my own life back, to control my schedule, to not be in a situation that’s so stressful. It’s a roller-coaster ride, and everything you do is scrutinized.
ES: The fact is, you came off a season in which the Longhorns didn’t make the NCAA tournament for the second straight year.
JC: You always want to end on a positive note. If I’d been able to write the script, certainly I would have had us win a national championship and then say, “I’m done.” But you know what? If that had happened, I might have felt an urge to go forward. In coaching, there’s never a quitting point. It’s about the student athletes—it was in the beginning and continues to be. You go into a home and you speak with parents and a student athlete about coming to the University of Texas—“This is a wonderful institution. These are your opportunities”—and the question always comes up: “Are you going to be there?” So you look into the eyes of an eighteen-year-old and you say, “Yes.” You’re not going to say, “No.”
ES: They’re making a decision in some respects based on your being there.
JC: That was the hardest thing, having to say to a class of freshmen or sophomores, “I know what I told you, and I know you came here with the intention that I would be your coach, but now I’m going to step aside.” So in the most candid way I’d say—and again, I wish it had ended differently—it gave me an excuse. Texas needs to be in the NCAA tournament. There’s a standard at the University of Texas: We have to be there. Everybody’s expectations are that you have to be number one or better.
ES: The pressure of being at UT is different from the pressure of being at another school?
JC: Oh, I don’t think there’s any question about that.
ES: Is it from alumni? Inside the institution? Fans?
JC: I think it’s all of them. Texas has a tremendous tradition of success in athletics, so you’re in an environment where winning is expected, where it’s considered to be just like the sun rising. It has to happen.
ES: Surely it wasn’t that way when you first arrived, in the earliest days of women’s sports at UT.
JC: When I came to the university, in 1976, you’re right—there wasn’t that pressure to win. You played because you loved it. In fact, if you were a woman who was involved in athletics at that point, it wasn’t at all prestigious; there were times when you felt like you were doing something that society really didn’t want you to do.
ES: How has the game itself changed from then to now?
JC: I like to say everything that happens within the boundaries of the basketball court is unchanged. You still deal with motivated student athletes who are talented and competitive and want to be good. You’re a teacher. Those two or three hours that you’re in the gym as a coach, you’re actually teaching basketball, just as you’d teach any other subject as an educator. And, really, the physical components of the court haven’t changed: The court’s the same size, the goal is the same height. But everything around the court is totally different. There are people in the stands, the media is paying attention, there are bands, there are cheerleaders. When all of those people were invited into the gym—or coerced into the gym, as the case might be—the expectations changed.
ES: Is it better or worse now?
JC: In some ways it’s really, really good now, because the student athletes who played early on were very talented and wanted an opportunity to showcase that talent, but there was none. They didn’t have scholarships, or if they did they were minimal. When I first started coaching at other institutions, you made the team if you had a car, because you traveled in your own vehicle, you paid for your own gas, and you ate as cheaply as you could. You sacrificed. With respect to the opportunities that women athletes have now, the change is positive.
ES: Anything negative about it?
JC: Kids used to be so excited just to have an opportunity to play. Now I see more of a mentality of entitlement: “I’m a tremendous athlete, so you owe me this. This is what I should get because of my talent.”
ES: How do you deal with that? I’m imagining a kid who shows up with great talent and says, “Coach, I know you’ve been waiting all your life for an athlete like me to arrive on this court. Put me in immediately.”
JC: We’ve created that environment to a great degree. The recruiting process is a deterrent in terms of athletes’ staying grounded. Imagine if you’re fifteen or sixteen years old and you start to have all these adults following you around the country, watching you play, and eventually writing you every day, texting you or e-mailing you or sending you letters. We thankfully have changed this over the last couple of years, but it used to be that if you really wanted to land a