Via a Circuitous Career Path to ESPN, Carol Stiff has Helped Make Women’s Basketball What it is Today
The coach-turned-broadcasting-executive has put her stamp on the growth and popularity of the game nationwide.
When she looks back on a career path that began in college coaching and jumped to television programming at ESPN, Carol Stiff is smart enough and humble enough to realize she had plenty of help along the way.
There were multiple points in her journey where if she didn’t have the right person in her corner, she wouldn’t be ESPN’s vice president of programming and acquisitions. And, she probably wouldn’t be a guest speaker at USA Basketball’s Women in the Game conference in Washington, D.C., Sept. 9-10.
The Women in the Game program educates young women from high school to early career professionals about career paths in the sports industry. Registration is available online.
Stiff’s list of influences actually reaches back to her childhood, long before she was thinking about career choices. She grew up in New Jersey and began playing basketball for Catholic Youth Organization in seventh grade where she encountered the best coach she ever had, Sister Mary Cleary.
“I always called her the cool nun, because she went to the University of Dayton undergrad and my uncle was the head basketball coach at Dayton, Don Donoher,” Stiff said. “He actually coached in the Olympics with Bob Knight. …Long story short, I fell in love with the game.
“Athletics was always a big part of my upbringing and my growth.”
Stiff said Cleary remains a good friend all these years later and is someone she can go to if she is wrestling with a problem.
After climbing the ranks as a college coach — first in field hockey and then in women’s basketball — Stiff reached a crossroads in 1990. She found herself questioning the coaching profession, at least at the college level where politics seemed so heavily involved, and decided to make a move. A former colleague, Rosa Gatti, who also had moved out of higher education, was working at ESPN. Gatti suggested Stiff join her.
ESPN hired Stiff, and she immersed herself in learning everything she could. She started with entering programming into a computer system, learning about Nielsen ratings and eventually began taking on larger roles and more responsibility.
“I didn’t know anything more than how to turn the TV set on and at the time. I don’t even know if we had remotes,” Stiff said. “It was all foreign to me. I did everything and anything I could to learn.”
Just a few years in to her new professional life, an enormous opportunity was handed to her — literally. One day a coworker who was in charge of all of college sports said he didn’t have time for women’s basketball and passed her the baton for the sport.
“He gave me the files and said, ‘I know you coached. I know you played. I know you have a passion for women’s basketball. Why don’t you program all our women’s basketball games for college?’” Stiff recalled. “I said, ‘Oh my god, that’s great.’”
Stiff still had a lot to learn, and she kept asking questions and trying to break new ground for herself and also in women’s basketball. She recognized an opportunity in May 1994 when she was trying to schedule games for the 1994-95 season. She saw an up-and-coming program at the University of Connecticut and tried to pair them in a matchup against the University of North Carolina, the defending national champion.
North Carolina turned down the opportunity. Instead of being dismayed by the failure, Stiff turned to the perennial powerhouse University of Tennessee and legendary coach Pat Summitt and asked the Volunteers to travel to play at UConn the following year.
After a long pause, Summitt agreed to the game saying, “You know what? For the good of the game, I’ll do it,” Stiff recalled.
Seven months later, the matchup made history, pitting No. 1 Tennessee against No. 2 UConn at 1 p.m. on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. UConn won in what to this day remains a key game in the rise of the Huskies program.
After the game as UConn coach Geno Auriemma conducted his press conference, Stiff walked down the hall and saw Summitt looking over statistics from the game.
“She looked at me coming down the hall and all she said was, ‘For the good of the game.’ And so, it took off from there,” Stiff said.
Stiff said Summitt became a trusted friend and mentor who helped her continue to grow and push for more opportunities for women’s games to be televised at ESPN.
Later that year, Stiff worked with USA Basketball to program eight games for the women’s national team tour. Stanford University coach Tara VanDerveer had stepped away from her job at Stanford University to coach the national team for a year in preparation for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. Stiff arranged for eight of the team’s games to be televised leading up to the Games.
The year of preparation helped the team reach a new level of play, and the U.S. team rolled to the gold medal in a championship game that ended up being the final event of the Games to be televised.
“I remember crying watching it, just teared up because they were on all cylinders,” Stiff said. “Every sub that came off the bench just kept the level of play at its highest. They won the gold, and then we launched the WNBA the following year.”
The WNBA was born, at least in part, out of the success of those pre-Olympic broadcasts for the women’s national team tour. The ratings for the games showed everyone involved there was a market for the women’s game beyond college.
Not only is the WNBA still going strong more than two decades later, Stiff also has managed to help the women’s game at the college level earn more respect and primetime slots on TV. The women’s game has enjoyed great success on Big Monday for years and will now also have time slots on Thursday nights in January of the coming season.
One of Stiff’s biggest and most daunting challenges almost got the best of her. She acquired the rights for the NCAA women’s basketball tournament when she promised that ESPN would allow the women a day off between semifinals and the championship, which didn’t used to be the case. Even more important, she promised the network would televise each game in the tournament.
At the time Stiff made that promise, she didn’t actually know how the network would deliver. She had two years to figure it out, but she felt overwhelmed by it. She offered her resignation to her boss, John Wildhack, now the athletic director at Syracuse University. Wildhack refused to accept it.
That night, Stiff explained, she realized she didn’t have to know the answer to everything. She took advice she always gave when she was a coach. She needed to surround herself with great teammates and rely on everyone to do their job. The problem would be solved that way.
These days, Stiff continues to push for more opportunities for women’s sports on television.
“Find the openings and then jump on it,” Stiff said of her philosophy. “That keeps me going. I know we can do more. I just know it. I just feel like women’s sports is taking off now.”
Stiff said she would offer this advice to young women who want to get into careers in the sports world but might not know exactly what they want to do or how to get started.
“I would say really concentrate on networking and meeting people, talking to people and asking a lot of questions,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to do that. Most of us will give back the time to help and pull somebody up the ladder with us. I don’t know of anyone here who would turn down a coffee to talk about careers. I do it all the time.”
Stiff actually does more than accept coffee meetings with her young colleagues. She encourages her young female coworkers to get to know each other and work to help each other in what remains a male dominated industry.
Several times each year she takes a group of about 30 female coworkers out to spend time together and network. It might be golf one time and a great dinner the next. Stiff picks up the tab and enjoys watching her coworkers exchange ideas and discuss problems or issues that have been a problem or source of frustration.
“I just kick back and laugh and watch them get to know each other,” she said. “That’s a big part of giving back.”