It was a Rookie mistake. Meeting with her players for the first time on Sept. 2, just hours after she had been announced as USC's women's basketball coach, Cheryl Miller said, "Any questions?"
In her return to USC, where she had dominated women's basketball as a player in the 1980s, the new coach would inevitably make several mistakes in her first real stab at administration. Her initial recruiting would prove so awkward—"I was goofy, just goofy," she says—that she would drive home with tears in her eyes. But this first blunder was the big one. Any questions? Freshman forward Cindy Page looked at Miller and asked, "Don't you feel you've betrayed women's basketball?"
It was an astonishing question, explainable by the player's youth as well as by the emotional chaos that pervades the USC program. There had been a time, not long ago, when Cheryl Miller was women's basketball. She was a four-time All-America at USC from 1982 to '86, a three-time Naismith Award winner, a member of the 1984 gold-medal-winning Olympic team—she was perhaps the best woman, and certainly the most charismatic, ever to play the game.
So here was the Cheryl Miller, defending her legacy to a freshman. "I looked for a chair to throw," Miller recalls. But she calmed down, then reminded the players that the reason many had chosen USC in the first place was a tradition she had helped establish. She then offered to walk anybody who felt betrayed to the athletic director's office, where they could relinquish their scholarships.
But it may yet be Miller who is shown the door, because of the very developments that prompted the freshman's pointed question. This curious situation was born last August when Marianne Stanley, the tremendously successful women's coach at USC since 1989, rejected a three-year contract offer from the Trojans worth $288,000. A subsequent one-year offer for $96,000 was also deemed unsuitable. Instead Stanley filed an $8 million sex-discrimination suit against the university and Trojan athletic director Mike Garrett, seeking pay equal to that of men's coach George Raveling, who is thought to earn a salary in the neighborhood of $130,000 a year. She also sought an injunction reinstating her as coach, a matter that a three-judge U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel in San Francisco could decide any day now. A ruling favorable to Stanley would bounce Miller from her new job.
Garrett's hiring of the untested Miller, a move that had an unmistakable p.r. gloss to it, was immediately controversial. Some USC players threatened to leave, and some rival coaches hinted that they might give Miller the cold shoulder. "There is a lot of animosity," says Tara VanDerveer, the Stanford coach. "Coaches feel that if you fight the system, this is what happens. None of this will be personally directed toward Cheryl—someone was going to take that job—but I won't go out of my way to do anything special for her."
Miller and associate head coach Fred Williams quickly dealt out a dose of tough love to the players. "I told them I want to be successful, and I can't help but be successful," says Miller. "If they have a problem with me, Fred and I will take students from the business school and make a team out of them. I wasn't entirely prepared for that first meeting, but I was prepared not to take any lip."
One concern at USC is whether Miller, even if she's allowed to stay, can coach. According to her rèsumè, Miller was an assistant coach from 1986 to '89, but she was far busier during that time as a sports reporter for ABC-TV. The question is, Will her flamboyance as a player translate into brilliance as a coach?
Forward Lisa Leslie, a two-time All-America, makes it plain that her concern is mostly about Miller's credibility as a coach. "That was one of the biggest issues," Leslie says, "as far as evaluating her acceptance."
Miller knows she can offer her critics few coaching credentials, but she does promise that she is not the arrogant hot dog opponents remember from the '80s. (She probably won't blow kisses toward the opposing team's star as she did as a player.) But if she is no longer the opponent you love to hate, she is still as self-confident as ever. The idea of failure at USC does not occur to her. It's like in 1984, when she roomed with center Anne Donovan at the Olympic trials. Donovan openly despised her. Miller promised Donovan that if she got to know her, she would love her. Miller bet dinner on it. Before they left camp, Donovan had bought her dinner. Same thing now. "The players?" Miller says of her malcontents. "How do they feel now?" She laughs. "They love me."