Myth No. 1: Arizona’s women’s basketball team can’t attract fleas.
On Senior Day, 2004, Arizona drew 5,003 to watch the Wildcats beat Oregon. In the previous month, the Wildcats drew crowds of 4,350, 4,111 and 3,507. They would go on to win the Pac-10 co-championship.
Myth No. 2: Arizona’s women’s basketball team has never won a game that meant anything.
On Jan. 12, 1998, the No. 9 Wildcats broke Stanford’s 48-game Pac-10 winning streak when Reshea Bristol swished a three-pointer at the buzzer. The Cardinal had won 22 consecutive games against Arizona.
The crowd of 3,010 rushed the court at McKale Center. UA coach Joan Bonvicini did a full-on dive onto the pile of celebrating bodies at midcourt.
Myth No. 3: Nobody outside of McKale Center cares about UA women’s basketball.
When all-conference center Shawntinice Polk died in September 2005, UA President Peter Likins attended the funeral in Hanford, California.
It was, symbolically, the day Arizona’s women’s basketball program died. The Wildcats have since gone 130-209, firing Bonvicini and choosing on Tuesday not to re-sign her successor, Niya Butts.
A lot of Pac-12 schools care (a lot) about women’s basketball. Arizona State pays coach Charli Turner Thorne $464,000 a year. Powerful Oregon State pays coach Scott Rueck a base salary of $365,000. The Beavers drew 5,654 fans to its Senior Day last week. Oregon paid “silly money” — $3 million over six years — to hire Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves in 2014.
Don’t expect as many zeros in Greg Byrne’s search for a women’s basketball coach. Some things don’t make sense.
One of them is that former Arizona forward Brenda Frese, who has coached Maryland to the 2014 and 2015 Final Fours, is paid in excess of $1 million by the Terrapins, who are 27-3 this year. The Terps drew 11,428 for a game against Minnesota last week.
She won’t be “coming home” any time soon.
Another is that Colorado State coach Ryun Williams, who is 27-1 this year and 75-17 the last three seasons, appears financially untouchable. He signed an agreement through 2021 that includes a $1,075,000 buyout. He would be No. 1 on virtually any AD’s search list.
But after that, Byrne almost can’t botch this search the way his predecessors did by hiring the 30-year-old Butts in 2008. Byrne can win the press conference with any of the following (no particular order):
1. JR Payne. Santa Clara’s head coach took a job at a bottom-feeder that had gone 56-127 the previous six years. Now, the Broncos are 22-7. Payne, 38, is a St. Mary’s grad who coached at Gonzaga before being named head coach at Southern Utah. She is married to assistant coach Toriano Towns, who knows what it’s like to coach and succeed at Arizona; he coached the UA “bigs,” including Polkey to a 20-win season and an NCAA tournament berth in 2004-05.
2. Bob Bolden. At 40, Bolden worked his way into the head coaching job at Ohio after coaching at Youngstown State and Arkansas-Monticello. His Ohio Bobcats are 23-5 this year after going 27-5 a year ago. He doesn’t have any roots in the West, but he is undeniably one of the names of interest in any women’s hoops search.
3. Julie Brase Hairgrove. Time has gone by in a blur; seems like only yesterday Brase led Catalina Foothills to a 31-2 record and the 1997 state championship. But after four seasons as an Arizona guard, Brase married former UA football player Mike Hairgrove, spent a year coaching at Loyola Marymount and then joined the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury. Lute Olson’s granddaughter has been a Mercury assistant for the last 11 seasons, three of which led to WNBA championships. Only 36, she will surely express strong interest in coaching her alma mater. She has three elementary-school-age daughters and lives in Tucson. No one has better Tucson basketball bloodlines.
4. Todd Holthaus. At 46, Holthaus has taken Pima College’s women’s basketball team to the NJCAA championship game, and before that coached Flowing Wells High School to a 160-64 record. He is large and in charge, a man of presence with a link to the UA: He was on Bonvicini’s staff from 2005-07 when he replaced Santa Clara’s Towns.
5. Mandy Close. Oregon State’s 32-year-old assistant coach, a former Beaver standout, is in her eighth year of coaching, including five at Montana State and three at her alma mater. She is probably viewed as the emerging young star of coaching in Pac-12 women’s basketball.
Byrne’s instincts have been impressive, both at Arizona and Mississippi State. His only failed hire was ex-UA swimming coach Eric Hansen, who didn’t embrace the demands of coaching an elite program and left after 2½ seasons.
The UA women’s basketball program is certainly not at the elite level, but it plays in an elite conference and spends at an elite clip. The UA spent $3.9 million in expenses for women’s hoops in 2014-15, or exactly $390,000 per victory.
This time, whether he hires Hairgrove or Holthaus or someone else, Byrne should expect more for his money.