The first time I went to a women’s basketball game at Texas Tech, I took a cab from the hotel. The cabbie was listening to the pregame show on the radio and, of course, knew exactly when tipoff was. Didn’t everybody in Lubbock know that?
For a long, long time, opposing teams felt about visiting Texas Tech the way you might feel about visiting a faulty nuclear power plant.
“Um, really? We have to go in there? We HAVE to? Uggggghhhh.”
Because playing at Texas Tech was brutal for opponents. The crowd – at Lubbock Municipal Coliseum and then United Spirit Arena – was huge and loud and energetic. The fans created one of the best atmospheres in the country for women’s basketball. They were an enormous part of the reason that recruits wanted to come to Texas Tech.
There was a feeling for foes when they walked in that they weren’t just playing Texas Tech’s basketball team. They were facing Texas Tech Nation – several thousand red-and-black clad fans who would whoop and holler and shoot their imaginary “guns” and, typically, wear down or take the heart right out of the visitors.
When the Big 12 formed, Texas Tech – already an established program – soon became the boss of the conference, and the fan support for women’s hoops there was the envy of everyone in the league. It was a town and a school where women’s basketball really mattered and carried weight; in that, Texas Tech led the way not just in the Big 12, but was also one of the national leaders. Tech graduates felt real pride in what the program did. It represented the values, the dignity, the heart of the region. There wasn’t much of that, “Oh, it’s just women’s basketball” condescension so prevalent at other places.
So it’s rather painful for anyone who cares about the sport to witness nights like Wednesday in Lubbock. The top team right now in the Big 12, Nebraska, came to town. The announced attendance was 7,020, but there weren’t that many people at United Spirit Arena. Season ticket-holders, once loathe to miss a minute of action, aren’t showing up regularly anymore.
And by the end of the Huskers’ 89-47 destruction of Tech, many of those who had come were already out the door. Who could blame them? It was an epic defeat, and no amount of “Nebraska’s better than it’s ever been” – regardless of how true that is – could keep such a margin from looking and feeling horrendous to Tech followers.
In the previous home game, on Jan. 16, Tech had allowed its biggest rival, Texas, to scramble out of what looked like a sure loss and then win in double overtime. Any Texas Tech fans who sat through that agony and then the entirety of the Husker debacle probably have to wonder if it’s prudent to go anywhere near United Spirit Arena in the near future.
But alas, Texas Tech is back in action at home Saturday, as Oklahoma visits. It’s not overstating the case to say that Tech is on the edge of a cliff here, and desperately needs a victory to keep from going over. Because the first five games of February are extremely tough: at Iowa State (the North trip the Southern schools most dread for having to face Hilton Magic), at Texas, vs. Texas A&M, at Oklahoma State and at Baylor.
Not to foretell doom for Tech, but with just one league victory and facing this kind of schedule, the end of program’s NCAA tournament drought seems unlikely. Tech made the Big Dance every season from 1990-2005, which included the 1993 NCAA title, but hasn’t gone in the last four years.
As for why this has happened to Tech, it’s a combination of things. Longtime coach Marsha Sharp resigned after the 2006 season, citing the desire to work in another capacity for the university and pursue other interests. She is currently the executive director of the Kay Yow/WBCA Cancer Fund.
Kristy Curry was hired from Purdue in March 2006 to take over, but the Big 12 world she entered was vastly different than the one that existed when the conference began in 1996. For the first several years of the league, Baylor and Texas A&M simply were not competition for Tech either on the court or in recruiting. During that time, if a player from Texas really wanted to stay in state and play at the highest level, she was typically choosing between Texas Tech and Texas.
But Kim Mulkey taking over at Baylor and Gary Blair at Texas A&M totally changed the landscape. Texas has not yet been any more successful under Gail Goestenkors than the Longhorns were for most of their Big 12 days under Jody Conradt, but it’s not as if the program has gone downhill, either. They’re already frustrated at Texas because Goestenkors couldn’t manage to win a national championship instantly, but there’s nothing like a feeling of desperation in Austin.
Unfortunately, though, it might be getting that way in Lubbock. While the pecking order among the Big 12′s four Lone Star State schools once clearly had Tech on top, the program is now on the bottom.
Add to it that Oklahoma – which has successfully recruited from the West Texas area that Texas Tech once ruled – has made two Final Four trips in the last eight years, and Oklahoma State has upgraded in coaching and facilities.
But … does all that have to be seen as completely negative for Tech? Isn’t it a good thing when so many of the teams you face are powerful, too? Shouldn’t it energize the fan base to see their team going against the likes of Danielle Adams or Brittney Griner or Brittainey Raven or Danielle Robinson or Andrea Riley? Well, sure it does … provided Tech wins some of those matchups.
Tech just seems to have lost too much of the connection it used to have with its longtime loyal fan base. Certainly, not winning is the biggest part of that. And no matter what she did, Curry was never going to replicate Sharp’s near-sainted popularity with the fans. However, I thought, after a time, more of a bond would develop between Curry and the fans.That doesn’t seem to have happened very well.
And let’s face it – now that won’t happen until Tech seems like it’s back on a path toward the NCAA tournament, at the very least.
So it’s distressing, really. The sport simply doesn’t have enough places like Texas Tech used to be. There is no easy solution for how to get back there. The talent pool continues to grow, but that doesn’t do much good unless Tech can tap into more of it and – this is just as important – develop those players into the kind of successful, fun-to-watch team that excites people in that region and makes games the can’t-miss events they once were.
Tech has a very, very proud history. But the present and the future are both things to worry about.