Michael Arace | Darsch helped build women's basketball. Springfield should take notice
Here in Columbus we remember Nancy Darsch as a women’s basketball coach at Ohio State who led the Buckeyes to seven NCAA Tournament appearances.
But Darsch, who died on Monday, at age 68 after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease, must be seen through a wider aperture. She was among those who pushed women’s sports into the mainstream, and her death is another reminder that a great generation is passing from our midst.
Women of a certain age might remember the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women. Men of the same age are more likely to remember when “Saturday Night Live” first came on the air. Now, in a different century, anyone who loves basketball has heard of Elena Delle Donne.
Darsch helped build this bridge.
“Women’s basketball is now in a place where more people recognize those who are doing the same work Nancy was doing 20 or 25 or 30 years ago,” said Rebecca Lobo, an all-time great collegian at Connecticut and an early WNBA star.
“My Twitter field is a bunch of women’s basketball people, and it blew up Monday,” Lobo said. “It was full of players, coaches, former coaches, teams — all talking about coach Darsch. She had a stamp in a big way on the women’s game at the college and pro level.”
Lobo, 47, is a Basketball Hall of Fame member who now works as an ESPN color analyst.
Katie Smith, 46, is a Hall of Famer who currently serves an assistant with the Minnesota Lynx. Smith starred under Darsch at Ohio State and went on to become one of the most decorated athletes, male or female, in the history of American sports.
“As we get older, the bigger picture comes in, and it’s like MAN!” Smith said. “Nancy and her generation -- they really pushed everything to where we are now. They created the opportunities for the women who followed. They make you want to do the same for the next generation.”
Pat Summitt, a Hall of Famer, died of Alzheimer’s in 2016. She was 64. Before Summit built Tennessee into an NCAA power, she was losing to Old Dominion — and ODU’s dynamic duo of Nancy Lieberman and Anne Donovan — in AIAW championship games.
Lieberman, a Hall of Famer, works as a color analyst for the New Orleans Pelicans.
Donovan, a Hall of Famer, was the first female coach to win a WNBA title (Seattle Storm, 2007). She died of heart failure in 2018. She was 56.
Darsch was Summitt’s assistant from 1978-85, a stretch when the Volunteers made five Final Four appearances in the AIAW and NCAA tournaments. Darsch left Knoxville to take the top job at Ohio State.
Darsch’s 1993 team, led by freshman Smith, made it to the NCAA championship game — and lost to Texas Tech 84-82. Tech’s Sheryl Swoopes scored 47 points in the title game.
“If we held Swoopes to 42 we would have been all right,” Smith said in her classic, Midwestern deadpan. “That was a pivotal Final Four, with Swoopes and us and all the media and the fans. You could just feel it taking off from there.”
Darsch went on to coach in the very first WNBA game: her New York Liberty, led by Lobo, beat the LA Sparks 67-57 on June 21, 1997. Later that year, the Liberty lost to the Houston Comets in the inaugural WNBA championship game.
Be it in the AIWA, the NCAA, the WNBA, or as an assistant with the national team, Darsch for decades remained on the biggest stages of women’s basketball. And the stages kept growing. There was some correlation.
“She was at the forefront of change and growth,” said Julie Plank.
Plank, 58, is a Columbus native who played at Ohio State. She won two national titles at Stanford as an assistant under Hall-of-Famer Tara VanDerveer in the early 1990s. She has vast experience as a WNBA coach and general manager.
“I got to know Nancy when she was an assistant for Tara during the 1996 Olympic cycle,” Plank said. “I got to see firsthand how great a coach and person she was. I always considered myself fortunate to follow someone like that. She had a lot of influence.
“It didn’t matter what role she had with a team or a franchise, at whatever level she was involved. You know whatever she was a part of, it was going to win. I knew the respect players had for her. The loved and respected her. The best players. It was a credit to her humility and her no-nonsense approach.”
Nancy Darsch could flat-out coach. Hello … Springfield?