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Originally published Thursday, March 12, 2009 at 5:11 PM

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Black coaches breaking through in Pac-10

Oregon State's LaVonda Wagner has company now — three other African-American coaches in the Pac-10.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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It's championship week, but the women's basketball world will barely notice the Pac-10.

There aren't many story lines as the conference tournament begins Thursday in Los Angeles. How will third-seeded Arizona State respond without fiery guard Dymond Simon? Can top-seeded Stanford defeat California, the only conference team to beat the Cardinal, if they meet in the final?

Can Washington, which finished last during the regular season, win a game in the tournament? The Huskies will play Oregon at 6 p.m. today at the Galen Center in Los Angeles.

There isn't a lot of mystery in a conference that was dominated by three teams this season — Stanford, California and ASU.

But four new coaches are determined to change that trend. They've already altered one, becoming the first black coaches at their schools — LaVonda Wagner at Oregon State, Tia Jackson at Washington, Niya Butts at Arizona and Nikki Caldwell at UCLA.

"I feel really good about it because now there's three other people that look like me in the conference," said Wagner, who became just the second black woman coach in the Pac-10 when she accepted her position in 2005. Former USC coach Cheryl Miller was the first, from 1993-95.

According to information released this month by the Women's Basketball Coaches Association, they are four of the 49 black women among 345 coaches at NCAA Division I programs this year. Many are entering the profession through a Black Coaches and Administrators initiative called A.C.E. — Achieving Coaching Excellence.

Former players have received training through the WBCA's "So You Want To Be A Coach" program, which targets minorities. Since 2003, of the 278 players who entered the workshop, 158 are working in women's basketball.

"When I first left the East Coast to come out here, some eyebrows were raised, but now, it's a really good thing," Wagner said of leaving an assistant-coaching position at Duke. "It's different because you're away from home and your network. Anything that has not been done before is always different. Since I was the first one to do that, it was a very different place to be. But I have enjoyed it."

Seeded fifth, the Beavers (19-10, 9-9 Pac-10) will face fourth-seeded UCLA (18-11, 9-9) on Friday. The veteran-laden Bruins are led by Caldwell, who played and was an assistant coach for Tennessee coach Pat Summitt.

Both Washington (7-21, 3-15) and Arizona (11-18, 4-14) have struggled to find victories this season, Jackson feeling heat from Internet message boards calling for her job. Jackson, who has the support of administrators, isn't concerned.

"I'm looking forward to the day when I can sit back and the players go [because her system will be in place]," said Jackson, describing a style that Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma uses at times on the bench.

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In her second season, Jackson's 10th-seeded Huskies play No. 7 seed Oregon (9-20, 5-13) today. The No. 9-seed Wildcats face No. 8 seed Washington State (11-18, 4-14) today.

In fact, one of the connections between the Pac-10 coaches is their mentors. Caldwell and Butts, both in their first seasons, were groomed under the legendary Summitt, playing for the Volunteers. Wagner and Jackson both worked for former Duke coach Gail Goestenkors, who is currently at Texas.

"I wouldn't say administrators are taking chances, because everyone's résumé is really strong," said Caldwell of hiring minorities. "You have coaches who have given their livelihood to this game. It's almost like it's time to pass the torch on, and my generation are the pupils of those coaches. Their message is embedded in us. The delivery may be different, but what's instilled in us is that mentality they taught."

Said Wagner: "To be honest, those who are given an opportunity need to do a good job so that other people will [be hired]. And that's happened. Other people are being given opportunities because people [administrators] are seeing that we can run our own programs."

Jayda Evans: 206-464-2067 or jevans@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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