UVM’s athletic priorities

The University of Vermont chose Friday afternoon, traditional bad-news dumping ground, to announce the firing of its women’s basketball coach, Lori Gear McBride.

It couldn’t have been a surprise; Gear McBride had compiled a miserable 46-134 record in six seasons. In her “best” campaigns, the team lost twice as many games as it won. Throughout her tenure, UVM was a consistent cellar-dweller in the America East converence.

So the real question isn’t “Why was she fired?” it was “Why did it take so long?”

And here’s another puzzler. After her first four seasons, coaching the team to a 32-89 record, she was given a four-year contract extension at an annual salary of $131,000. That seems, shall we say, out of proportion with Gear McBride’s performance.

No way a men’s coach with such a record would see his contract extended. No way a men’s coach would be allowed to lose that many games, period.

Now, I realize that wins and losses aren’t everything. Maybe she brought intangible qualities to the job. But when the team is losing three-quarters of its games, well, it’d take a whole lot of intangibles to compensate for that.

I’m speculating here, but I can offer two interlocking reasons for UVM’s forbearance.

First, women’s sports are simply not a high priority at most universities. There’s no established fan base and the revenue streams are puny. You can build a following — the top women’s programs play before loud and boisterous crowds — but it takes many years and a lot of effort. In truth, most universities maintain their women’s programs because of Title IX, the federal government’s equal-opportunity mandate. Whether the women’s programs thrive or simply survive? That’s a secondary concern.

Second, Gear McBride is married to one Pat McBride, who happens to be the athletic department’s Director of Major Gifts. He’s the one who butters up the deep-pocketed donors and convinces them to write big fat checks.

That’s a critical task, since most universities loses money on sports. Indeed, I think it’s safe to say that Pat McBride is far more central to the success of UVM Athletics than is the women’s basketball team.

Ya think maybe Gear McBride got such a long leash — and that nice extension — because UVM wanted to keep her husband around?

As long as she was at UVM, her husband was staying as well. Now, if she wants to continue coaching, she’ll almost certainly have to move. If she gets a good enough job, maybe Pat will pack up and move as well. A good fundraiser can always find employment.

Of course, the family is under no immediate financial pressure because Gear McBride will get half her salary for the remaining two years on her contract. That’s $131,000 for doing nothing.

I’m only speculating here; I have no evidence. But it seems clear that UVM has not been truly engaged in making a success of women’s hoops. Perhaps that will change from now on.

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