Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Guru's NCAA Special: Interview With Anucha Browne Sanders -- The New VP of WBB Championships

By Mel Greenberg

For much of the WNBA's 16-year existence, the women's pro basketball league founded under the auspices of the NBA took a page from the growing popularity of the collegiate game in the NCAA and tried to build on it.

Now it appears the NCAA has taken a cue from the WNBA.

The powerful governing body last Thursday finally filled the vacancy for the most important women's basketball position in the organization that had been vacant nine months and one tournament since the November departure of Sue Donohoe, who had been vice president of the Division I championship.

Now that job, with a refinement that additionally includes overseeing the rest of NCAA women's basketball in Divisions II and III, has been given to former Northwestern star Anucha Browne Sanders, who had been Buffalo University's senior associate athletic director in marketing as well as the Bulls' senior women's administrator.

Turning to a woman with strong marketing skills follows the WNBA hire in May 2011 of its third president, Laurel Ritchie, who was plucked from a marketing world in which she possessed tremendous talent.

But unlike Ritchie's predecessors in founding president Val Ackerman and her successor Donna Orender, the Dartmouth graduate had no basketball background.

Browne Sanders, the nation's leading scorer her senior season at Northwestern in 1985, of course has dined on basketball most of her life from her days in her native Brooklyn thru college and then in through her marketing career in the NBA and back to the collegiate world.

She is familiar to most administrators and coaches, serving on the boards of the National Association of Collegiate Women's Athletic Administrators (NACWAA) as well as the Black Coaches Association.

"I think she'll do a great job," said Debbie Corum, an associate commissioner of the Southeastern Conference who has served with Sanders on the NACWAA board.

"I think Anucha brings great marketing skills, which we need to grow this game and grow the tournament. I think she sees herself as a former basketball player in which she has an opportunity to to really help grow the sport which she loves and make a difference.

"She's smart. She'll be courageous. And she'll become a great leader."

Browne Sanders' hire completes what amounts to an entire internal overhaul in the basketball operations at NCAA headquarters since Mark A. Emmert became president in October, 2010, following the death, caused by cancer, of Myles Brand, who had been a strong advocate of women's athletics during his tenure.

However, Michelle Perry, who had been Donohoe's right-hand woman, is expected to remain on the staff.

Perry, who has been popular with the media, especially during the annual operations of the women's tournament, has been the wonk guiding participants from all levels in the mock bracket excercises at NCAA headquarters in which the invited laymen simulate the work of the tournament committee when it comes time to select and seed the 64-team national women's tournament.

Donohoe was a proponent to open up the inner workings of the NCAA to allow coaches, administrators and the media learn more about how the committee goes about its business.

Browne Sanders said she talked to Donohoe, now in charge of the Kay Yow Cancer Fund, when considering the job.

Having Perry around is similar to the situation at the WNBA executive level where Ritchie at the outside of her new job was able to turn to Renee Brown, who is still in place since she joined the league when it launched in the summer of 1997.

In a telephone interview with the Guru on Wednesday Browne Sanders said she's never participated in the exercise, but at least with such persons as Perry and Tina Krah, another former basketball player, still on the NCAA staff, there will be people with institutional knowledge to help the new VP get acclimated.

Browne Sanders' salary terms have not been revealed but during the original posting a range of $200,000-$400,000 annually was revealed, figures which many women's administrators at the conference and university levels privately take exception to when compared to the recent hire of Dan Gavitt to become vice president of the men's championship in all three divisions.

"I mean we talk about equality and they're both hired to do the same job, essentially, and his pay is going to be much higher," said one women's administrator who asked to remain anonymous echoing others with similar commoments.

Both Gavitt and Browne Sanders will report to Mark Lewis, recently hired to oversee the NCAA's entire range of championships.

Even if Sanders is trading in her current Buffalo life on the shores of Lake Erie for a return to big city action in Indianapolis, home of the NCAA headquarters, at the lower side of the reported salary range, money would be the least of her concerns.

That's because Browne Sanders, the mother of a son and two daughters, eventually landed an $11.5 million settlement in January, 2007, following a jury ruling in her favor on sexual harrassment charges against then-New York Knicks general manager-coach Isiah Thomas and MSG.

Browne Sanders, who worked for the same organization that is the parent of the WNBA New York Liberty, had been a marketing executive with the Knicks and was fired in January 2006 when she complained about Thomas's actions.

The ruling was actually for $11.6 million but newspaper reports mentioned that NBA commissioner David Stern urged the Knicks to settle, especially since Browne Sanders had sought additional compensation that was likely to cost the organization several more million dollars.

But life has moved on since she was a prominent figure in the nation's sports pages during the trial and in the interview with the Guru Wednesday Browne Sanders talked about the future and the opportunity she has been given following a nationwide search to fill the position.

"I was asked if I had any interest in the position, and, of course I did,"
Browne Sanders related. "Obviously women's basketball is a passion of mine. It's where I got my beginnings. It's the foundation of my career.

"I'll be working in a capacity that will help allow me to grow the game and bring it to the next level, and that's what really seemed attractive to me," she continued.

"I was approached by the search committee and the NCAA and asked if I was interested in interviewing and I said, 'Absolutely.'"

As for her early vision, Browne Sanders responded, "I really don't come in with any real pre-determined ideas. This is going to be a delicate role.

"I'm privileged. I think first and foremost, there's a lot of outreach. Spending time with our head coaches across the NCAA -- Divisions I, II, and III -- and spending time with our ADs and our conference commissioners and our SWAs and our administrators.

"Spending time with the WBCA (Women's Basketball Coaches Association). It really is understanding the current state of affairs and then getting from different players -- student athletes and fans, as well -- it's really understanding where we are and what is perspective and what is needed to improve where we are."

The topic of marketing came up early in the interview, considering many around the game have sought to see the NCAA help grow attendance and pick attractive venues for the tournament.

Of course, in her time with the Knicks in the nation's top market, Browne Sanders was able to view the WNBA operation through the sister New York Liberty organization, which was run at the time by Hall of Famer Carol Blazejowski.

"I think I learned a lot when I had an opportunity to oversee marketing at Madison Square Garden and the New York Knicks," Browne Sanders said. "But it's very different. If anything, I learned from how the Liberty approached their fan base and marketing.

"And here in the Buffalo market, I've been able to take from all my experiences in marketing ... and on the Olympic project ... and clearly I have a deep experience in marketing but I reiterate that the women's game is different.

"The fans are not the same fans that are on the men's side, so we have to treat it differently. We have to look at things differently. We have to look at approaches that have to be different," she added.

"So all that remains to be seen. And I think the most important thing is listening to people who are in the throes of it every single day. Again, those are our coaches, our fans, our student athletes, our conference commssioners, our ADs, the WBCA, and getting to a place as to what is the best go-forth strategy for our game."

Browne Sanders was impressed with what she saw at neighboring Saint Bonaventure, which had a landmark season in landing a national ranking for the first time and making a deep run in the NCAA tournament.

The Guru asked about two hot topics involving the tournament in recent seasons in terms of expansion of the field and moving off the current dates either backwards or forwards to limit being overshadowed by the men's tournament occurring at the same time.

"It's still wide open and the jury is still out," Browne Sanders said. "A lot of people have different opinions. And my plan is to come in and really spend time understanding the implications of moving, implications of of staying, implications of format changes, location changes, how we determine sites. All those things need to be digested and we need to spend some time on."

Recalling Life at Northwestern

Browne Sanders has many ties to persons in the game and friendships and noted former Liberty coach Pat Coyle, now on the staff of Pittsburgh coach Agnus Berenato, and Joe McKeown, the current coach of her alma mater at Northwestern who previously coached George Washington and is a native of Philadelphia as is Coyle.

"Joe's a great guy," she said. "I've known him a long time and he's had success wherever he's coached."

One of her daughters is about to enroll at Northwestern on the Wildcats' nationally-prominent lacrosse team.

"Anucha is sensational," McKeown returned the compliment. "I think she'll do a great job. I've had her come here a couple of times as one of our all-time players in the program and have had her talk to the team."

The Guru talked with Browne Sanders about her younger days when she played for Annette Lynch and then Don Perrelli.

Coming out of Brookyn, Browne Sanders was asked about her recruiting process.
"Duke, Brown, Holy Cross, obviously Northwestern, Boston College, there were several schools, Iona, too," Browne Sanders said.

So what was the magic that made the Wildcats her decision to head to the Midwest in the suburbs of Chicago?

She responded, "I had the option to be near a large city, phenomenal academic reputation, I had a really good feel for the coaching staff and the committment to the student athlete experience.

"And I thought about it and I went there to visit and it really came down to between Duke, Brown and Northwestern and I chose Northwestern. Now my daughter will be there as a freshman and playing lacrosse so I'll be following them in another sport."

Guru note: Check back here throughout the day. There's big WBB news coming out of the Atlantic 10. Thursday night your Guru will be in Newark for the Liberty-Connecticut Sun game.

-- Mel

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

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