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 recruit, you had to FedEx her every day. And there are four coaches on each team’s staff, so probably all four coaches were sending her a FedEx package. When she’d get home every day from school during her junior year, she’d have a stack waiting for her. I think any young person would be swayed by that—would think she was probably more important than she really is.
ES: And wouldn’t realize that there are a whole bunch of other kids out there who are getting the same treatment.
JC: Absolutely. So the recruiting process makes our job harder, because after you’ve pursued someone for several years, after you’ve been writing to tell them how good they are, suddenly they’re on your campus and you’re supposed to talk to them about their weaknesses and what they have to do to improve and what the standard is to have a chance to compete.
ES: Is there a sufficient support system on campus for kids this age? Because they really are being thrown into the deep end.
JC: There’s a tremendous support system for them. There’s someone to manage every part of their lives. In some ways we’re continuing this process of holding their hands, of making them believe that they’re special. But at some point there’s a decision to be made by each individual student: “Am I going to take responsibility for myself? Or am I going to delude myself into believing that I don’t really have to?” I like to say we’re a safety net: We’re not going to let them fail the first month, but we’re going to try to help them establish a pattern and habits that will lead to success. They have counselors, they have mentors, they have people who monitor what they’re doing hour by hour. That’s not going to happen through their whole career, so when they can show us that they’re responsible, that they’re ready to move forward, we let them go.
ES: This sounds like the kind of thing that most of these kids would love to have.
JC: Oh, you’d be surprised. They don’t want to hear that you make them sit in the study center for two hours every day. It’s a struggle.
ES: I’m interested to hear you use the phrase “student athletes.” You’re serious about the academic piece, aren’t you? I understand that 99 percent of your players have graduated over the past 31 years.
JC: That’s probably accurate. You recruit four or five kids at most every year, and you have three in an incoming class. Every once in a while one will say, “I’m not getting enough playing time and therefore I’m going to go somewhere else,” but typically all of them progress and graduate. If they don’t, that’s the biggest failure I can have. Yes, basketball is really important to them, but what they do from this point forward is not going to depend on their basketball ability but on their ability to find a way to be successful.
ES: Do we in the media focus too much on graduation rates?
JC: In a lot of ways you do. I used to think the general public was right in line with the media in wanting to know about graduation rates. I’m not so sure that’s on their minds now. Winning probably overshadows it. And if you look at Kevin Durant—okay, he didn’t graduate. We’d like to believe he’s going to come back and finish, and he probably will, because he’s an outstanding young man who has the right values. But if he were your son, would you tell him to pass up $30 million, or whatever that number is, to graduate? If we had a position of influence with a young person, most of us would say, “Kid, set yourself up for the rest of your life.” Isn’t that what we’re all trying to do—have a profession that we love? I think athletes love what they do.
ES: Is the issue different in men’s sports than it is in women’s sports?
JC: It’s easier to have a higher graduation rate on the women’s side because there’s not the lure of professional sports. Yes, [UT’s star forward] Tiffany Jackson is going to be able to play in the WNBA, but she’s not going to make six figures doing it. Does every freshman coming in here think she’s going to be in a pro league? Absolutely. But the ones who grow and mature start to think, “It’s probably not going to happen to me, so I’d better grab on to this education.”
ES: Let’s talk about how you ended up at UT. Donna Lopiano had just been hired as women’s athletics director. Coming from New York, she was a bit of an odd fit, wasn’t she?
JC: She was the most unlikely person to come to Texas but, in retrospect, probably the absolute best that the university could have chosen. I only knew her by reputation, and I have to say that my first couple of meetings with her didn’t change my view that she was a pushy Yankee and very unlike the environment that she had been placed in. But at that point in time, it took someone who was willing to push and someone who was willing to think outside the conservative box to bring women’s athletics to a position of prominence here.
ES: You were at UT-Arlington at the time. How did she think to call you?
JC: What I’ve heard her say is that she asked people in the state who she should consider for the job. She came to Arlington, and her pitch to me involved cooking. Her parents owned a restaurant. I didn’t have any utensils, but she proceeded to go to Kmart and buy the things she needed to prepare this gigantic Italian meal.
ES: What was women’s sports like at UT back then?
JC: Nonexistent. Other schools were already starting to have programs and be successful. At Texas, the volleyball and basketball teams were still sharing uniforms; they had only been a year out of short skirts. When I arrived, the skirts were still in the closet.
ES: How were you received by the players?
JC: There was a man named Rodney Page who had been the coach as an aside to his job in the physical education department. When I was hired as head coach, nearly everybody on the team quit in protest of my being hired and his not being hired. Only two players continued—Cathy Self, who went on to coach at Westlake [High School] for years and is now coaching at Duncanville [High School], and the only African American on the team, Retha Swindell, who had been given a math scholarship to come to Texas. Everybody else quit, and we started over.
ES: How hard was it to get women to come and play for you?
JC: It wasn’t a hard sell, because there were all these women out there who hadn’t had an opportunity. The first person that I wanted to recruit was a player from South Carolina, of all places. I had met her one summer when I worked a camp out there. Her name was Kim Basinger; she’s a lawyer in Austin now. She had come to UT-Arlington, and when I took the job at Texas, she transferred. I also remember a very successful high school coach from Granbury named Leta Andrews. She had daughters who’d played, and her oldest had gone to Angelo State, but she had decided not to play there. I told Donna, “I want this player.” So Donna and I got in her Pacer and drove to Comanche, which is where Leta was coaching at that time. We stopped on the way at my parents’ house, in Goldthwaite; we had coffee with them, and Donna’s language was, uh, interesting. I remember her cursing. My mother dropped the sugar on the table.
ES: I’m sure nobody talked like that in Goldthwaite.
JC: That’s right. So, anyway, we talked Linda Andrews into coming, and then I recruited a junior college player named Cathy Burns, as well as some players from Waco Midway [High School]. Most of them came paying tuition only—if they came on scholarship at all.
ES: At what point during those years did you think, “I’ve got this figured out”?
JC: I can’t tell you that. When you’re nose to the grindstone, it’s hard to see the big picture. In those first years, when we started to sell season tickets to women’s games, you could have had a seat on the front row, the opportunity to come to the Fast Break Club, and anything else we could think to give you for probably $25. At that point, no one really thought any of that had much value, and of course I never envisioned that our program would grow the way it did. We just tried to do the best we could to create an environment for young people to succeed, and we were in the winning business, no question about it. We won a lot, and people came.
ES: Is there a game or two in the course of your career that you think back on as the toughest you ever coached?
JC: I laughed when a big deal was made about my nine hundred wins, because I don’t think they counted any of those junior college wins early on. They only counted wins against Division I schools. Yet some of the most difficult games we played were against Wayland Baptist [College]. They were always tough. Temple Junior College had a really good team. We ultimately recruited our backcourt off of Temple’s team—they were two of the players who helped us be really successful, so it wasn’t other big schools. Stephen F. Austin was really good. I think we had seven thousand or eight thousand people in the stands at a game with Stephen F. Austin. They were our rival at the time, not Tennessee. It was all very exhilarating because everything was new. There can only be one “first.”
ES: The big first that everybody talks about is the first undefeated season in the history of NCAA women’s basketball. That was 1985—86, wasn’t it?
JC: Right, but that wasn’t the biggest first in my mind. The biggest firsts were selling the season tickets to women’s games and the first-ever sold-out Final Four in women’s basketball [in 1987].
ES: How are you spending your time now?
JC: I’m just enjoying life, being stress free, spending time hanging out.
ES: Are you going to watch women’s basketball in the fall?
JC: I’m sure I’ll watch it some. Sports are a big part of my life.
ES: Will the new coach, Gail Goestenkors, see you at UT games?
JC: When she came here, I told her I’d be as close or as distant as she needed for me to be. And I meant that sincerely.