COLUMBIA, Mo. _ New Missouri coach Robin Pingeton and the rest of her staff will likely feel in a bit of limbo for a while. While they moved into their offices here right away, many family members remain back home Bloomington-Normal, Ill.
Spouses still have jobs there, while children are still in school or daycare. Some of the staff’s family, like that of assistant Randy Norton, will be staying in Illinois for another year while one of his daughters finishes out high school.
It’s a drive of four and a half hours between the old home and the new one. Along the way, an hour and a half northeast of Columbia, is Bowling Green, Mo. That’s where the prep senior who was just named Miss Missouri Basketball _ heavily recruited 6-foot-3 forward Anne Marie Hartung _ is from. She grew up on a farm there, and her mother, Sharon, played basketball at Missouri.
But where is Anne Marie going to play? At Texas. That’s right. She’s a born-and-raised Missouri farm kid whose mother was a Tigers player. Yet she didn’t choose Mizzou.
This points to one of the things that Pingeton and her staff will be trying to improve. Missouri doesn’t have high school girls’ hoops talent in abundance. But what talent it does have, especially the cream of the crop, should find the pull to Mizzou extremely strong, if not irresistible.
“You’ve got to lock down the borders of your state,” Pingeton said, one of the mantras she’s been repeating in a series of interviews in the past week-plus.
She’s also talked a lot about how much she needs to embrace her new players and the energy she has to show in the community.
As to the former topic, Pingeton said. “I don’t like that idea of, ‘Well, we just need to get our recruits in here.’ I think you have to be awfully careful to avoid that kind of attitude. These young women already here are our recruits now. It’s sort of like we have to re-recruit them.”
As for the latter topic, Pingeton previously was an assistant to Iowa State’s Bill Fennelly and references him often, including about the obligation to be “on” all the time out in public.
Columbia is a community that really has not bought into women’s basketball. Pingeton wants to sell it, which means winning over an audience that is, to a large degree, indifferent.
Pingeton is trying to soak up knowledge about Mizzou, the city of Columbia and the surrounding state as quickly as possible. She’s a native of Iowa and coached in that state and Illinois. So to a Midwesterner, Missouri is not some big mystery.
Still, as someone who grew up in the Show-Me State, I could tell her this: Missouri is somewhat a hard place to completely understand if you are not from here or don’t take time to learn about it.
Missouri _ which has its two largest metropolitan areas, St. Louis and Kansas City, on its extreme opposite borders_ is a “purple state,” if you will. Which is to say politically/socially all over the map. The complicated, convoluted status of Missouri during the Civil War – it remained, technically, in the Union, but was also claimed by the Confederacy _ remains an accurate indicator of how conflicted and diverse of opinion the people of this state historically have been.
One of the most famous wits in American history is from northeast Missouri, Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain. I feel it is not presuming too much to say that, had they been contemporaries, Twain would have sparred frequently with southeast Missouri’s Rush Limbaugh, of Cape Girardeau.
The best women’s basketball player from Missouri? While still early in her career, Maya Moore might claim that title. The UConn star is more “known” as being from Georgia, where she went to high school. But she was born and lived until age 11 in Jefferson City, Missouri’s capital city a half-hour south of Columbia.
(For what it’s worth, Twain also ended up settling in Connecticut, where he wrote his most famous works, including “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”)
But we also should mention that former Tennessee and current LA Sparks star Candace Parker was born in St. Louis (grew up in Illinois). Perhaps the best “full-time” Missourian for that title? Former Stanford hoops/volleyball standout Kristin Folkl, who was born, went to high school and still lives in St. Louis.
At any rate, this is Missouri – a place both liberal and conservative, rural and cosmopolitan, but not really North, South, East or West. It is in this environment that we now look at the two inter-related issues that arose from the press conference Pingeton had on April 8 in Columbia.
“I’m a Christian who happens to be a coach,” Pingeton said early on. Later, she pointed out, “I’m very blessed to have my staff here. This is something very unique for Division I women’s basketball. A staff where the entire staff is married with kids. Family is important to us. And we live it every day. A lot of people talk about that family environment. We’re living it every day as a staff.”
Over the next several days, I heard from various people interested/involved in women’s basketball who were concerned about those remarks. Some were female, some male. Some gay, some straight. Some I would call quite religious. Others do not affiliate themselves with any religion.
But they all understood the potential “underlying meaning” to what Pingeton was saying: This is a program where all the coaches are heterosexual. And, thus, if the “gay issue” is a problem for any recruits (or more likely, their parents) they could see Missouri as a place that was “not gay.”
That’s not an extreme, oversensitive reaction to what Pingeton said. Anyone familiar with the struggles women’s basketball has gone through for decades about this issue knows that “family environment” and “Christian atmosphere” both frequently have been used as “code” terms for “straight program.”
But … are they always intended that way? Did Pingeton actually mean them to be interpreted that way? Further, did she see Christianity as compulsory for being a Tiger? I needed to ask her, face-to-face, directly.
Which I did. And I want to give her credit: She did not duck these issues; in fact, she said she appreciated the chance to talk about them. She was aware the questions were coming; Missouri’s sports information director Kate Lakin had showed Pingeton a copy of the blog I wrote before I went to talk to her. I had hoped Lakin would do that, because that is something good SIDs do: They prepare their coaches for the interviews if they feel something complicated may come up.
I didn’t want to “ambush” Pingeton. After all, she doesn’t know me. Other than talking to her briefly after two games, one in 2004 and the other in 2005, I’d had no interaction with her. She just started a new job and has a million details to absorb and immediate recruiting duties to attend to. She has a 3-year-old son back home, and it’s never easy for moms to be away from their children. She also had one of her inherited Missouri players, center Kendra Frazier, suffer an ACL injury in a workout.
So the point wasn’t to put Pingeton on the defensive or make accusations. The objective was to ask her explain what she meant by her remarks.
“You know, there are all kinds of families,” she said. “That certainly doesn’t mean ‘heterosexual.’ A lot of people have different kinds of families. I’ve always believed that, and I think as people get to know me here, they’ll know that’s just not an issue with me.”
Pingeton said the big reason she referenced all her coaches having families is to convey the stability she hopes the group brings to this program, which had somewhat of a revolving door for assistants in previous coach Cindy Stein’s 12 seasons. The decision to move to Columbia by Pingeton and her Illinois State assistants, as mentioned, is requiring some family sacrifice and flexibility.
I fully understand that some observers may still see what she said as, indeed, code and part of a recruiting tactic. Especially by emphasizing a married-with-children staff as “unique.” But it’s only fair for me to point out, again, that she did state flat-out that’s not what she meant.
As for Christianity, Pingeton said that there is no litmus test of faith that any player or staff member has to pass to be involved in her program. Of course, let’s be realistic: It would be pretty surprising for a coach to tell a reporter otherwise.
Especially considering the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. As state employees, coaches legally cannot establish any religion.
Of course, some still do it. Frankly, it amazes me how often coaches – unlike most of their counterparts who teach classes at public universities – seem to think that they really don’t have to abide by the Establishment Clause.
It’s a bigger part of the fact that, as a society, we’ve developed different rules and standards of behavior for coaches than we do for teachers/professors. And these rules/standards have been so widely accepted that they seem rarely questioned until – typically – a student-athlete raises the issue.
For example, virtually nobody would think it was OK for English professors to scream at their classes for mistakes made in understanding or interpreting what was taught. But that’s standard procedure for a lot of coaches.
Obviously, not all coaches scream. And maybe some English professors do scream. But the bottom line is because they run “programs” with their own recruited and selected participants (who typically are compensated in the form of scholarships), most coaches are given far greater leeway in how they exercise their “power” in regard to young people
Legally and ethically, that “power” should not extend to a coach trying to dictate or enforce or even mediate over a student-athlete’s religious beliefs. Pingeton said she agrees that coaches should not use their power in that way.
But it’s notable that while at Illinois State, Pingeton and all three of her assistants were quoted on a Fellowship of Christian Athletes web site talking about how religion impacted their coaching. Among the statements to the FCA were these:
Pingeton: “The neat thing about coaching is that you can share your faith, and people don’t even realize it, through how you handle situations and how you handle your players. Our coaching staff has a passion for the Lord and a passion for coaching basketball. I feel so blessed that I am in a position where I can combine these passions. How many people get to go to work and say, ‘I do my two favorite things in the world?’ ”
She also said, “We certainly want to win games here, but our main focus is to serve the Lord and impact lives for Christ.”
And her assistants all commented on the FCA Coaches Huddle, a weekly meeting group.
Norton, speaking about the FCA group leader: “Your ability to relate to our coaching staff, team, etc. and apply it to the Bible is a great gift.”
Willie Cox: “It allows one to see how others before us have had some of the same situations come up in their lives, and more importantly, how the Bible says we should handle these situations through Christ our Lord. It lets us see that through Christ, all things are possible.”
Jenny Putnam: “I am able to become stronger in my relationship with the Lord and better serve as a witness for him with our players in my words and actions.”
In May 2008, an Illinois State fan named Mark Harris wrote a letter to the daily newspaper of Bloomington-Normal, The Pantagraph. In it, he expressed concerns about whether evangelical Christianity had been established as the “official” religion of the Redbirds program. And, considering the FCA’s anti-gay philosophy and campaigns, was a homophobic attitude also part of the Illinois State atmosphere?
Harris, who now lives in Portland, Ore., recently e-mailed me saying that his letter, “Provoked quite a flood of online comments (many hostile), and more letters in print.”
I think it would be a similar reaction in Columbia. There are plenty of folks who would say, “What’s the problem?” But there would also be observers who would look at the issues that Harris raised then _ and that I and various other bloggers/readers are raising now _ as legitimate concerns.
Are the statements that Pingeton and her staff made to the FCA then reflective of a coaching style that requires a specific religious belief of student-athletes? Or were the coaches saying the values/lessons they hope to impart are inspired by their own Christian faith but are not dependant on the student-athletes accepting and practicing that same faith?
Pingeton told me that she hopes as people come to know her at Missouri, they will see it’s the latter. She said she has her faith, which helps her to teach people to do and be their best, but that she does not try to make anyone practice a specific faith.
(Incidentally, Illinois State replaced Pingeton with Stephanie Glance, the late Kay Yow’s former assistant at N.C. State. It would be difficult to argue that evangelical Christianity wasn’t “established” as the religion of the Wolfpack program under Yow.)
If I were a student-athlete and had any qualms about whether religion would be a big part of a program I was considering, I would talk at length with the coaches before committing to play at that school. And I would say the very same thing about someone who was devoted to a specific religion and wanted to be comfortable practicing her faith regardless of whether it was shared by the coaches.
But as for the FCA, I must be blunt: I don’t know how student-athletes or coaches who are gay _ or those who are heterosexual but committed to gays and lesbians being fully accepted in society _ make peace with being a part of that organization.
The FCA’s opposition to homosexuality is well-known. In order for someone to apply as an officer with the FCA, one of the many things – in a written document _ that they must promise to abstain from is homosexuality.
Perhaps there are gay or gay-accepting people who believe the FCA is an evolving institution, and that they may influence that evolution. Or maybe they feel the good they get out of being in the FCA offsets any specific disagreements they may have with the institution’s philosophies.
But it’s hard to reconcile how you can say you don’t discriminate against gay people if you are part of an organization that does.
Again, this is a topic that, ideally, a recruit should discuss with a prospective coaching staff. But that takes an incredibly confident and self-aware teen-ager. The reality is that a lot of kids are trying to ascertain their spiritual beliefs in college, and some of them are also trying to figure out their sexuality. Some may realize/discover they are Christians who are also gay.
I understand it’s quite a lot to expect most teens to have adult-level conversations about these topics. Heck, it’s hard for a lot of adults to have adult-level conversations about them.
Which is why it’s incumbent on the coaches to be sincere about the environment/culture of their program. Pingeton is devout in her Christian beliefs, and there’s nothing wrong with that … as long as her program is welcome and opening to those who don’t share those same beliefs or simply don’t know what they believe yet. Which she said it is.
Pingeton said her requirements are working hard, being a good student and a good citizen – which, certainly, should be the basic tenets for any athlete at any school.
I will take her at her word. And I won’t be the only one watching to see if that is indeed the atmosphere with Mizzou’s women’s basketball program.