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Q&A: Jackie Carson aims to keep elevating women’s basketball in new role with ACC

In this 2022 file photo, Jackie Carson — then the head coach at Furman — directs her team against Mercer in the first half of an NCAA women's college basketball championship game for the Southern Conference tournament, Sunday, March 6, in Asheville, N.C.
Kathy Kmonicek
In this 2022 file photo, Jackie Carson — then the head coach at Furman — directs her team against Mercer in the first half of an NCAA women's college basketball championship game for the Southern Conference tournament, Sunday, March 6, in Asheville, N.C.

Jackie Carson has spent much of her life on the basketball court.

She played at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, and had a career that finished with her jersey being retired. She then played professionally in Belgium and Israel before returning to the U.S. to become an assistant coach at the high school level and then at Bucknell University and James Madison University. In 2010, she went back to Furman to become the school’s head women’s basketball coach, where she won more than 200 games and led the team to the postseason five times.

In June, Carson gave up the coaching seat at her alma mater. She’ll still be heavily involved with basketball — just behind the scenes.

The Atlantic Coast Conference hired Carson this summer as its newest senior associate commissioner for women’s basketball, replacing Mary McElroy.

Carson’s objective in the first year of her tenure is simple: Keep increasing awareness about the caliber of women’s hoops in the ACC.

“The goal is don't mess this thing up. This is a premier women's basketball league. How do you elevate the top? We're going to find some creative ways to keep elevating our programs,” Carson told WUNC. “I still think more people need to know about our players, our coaches, and how great women's basketball is. So, getting a louder bullhorn and just screaming from the rafters how strong ACC women's basketball is. I think that's the biggest thing.”

On Tuesday at the ACC’s Tip-Off event in Charlotte, Carson sat down with WUNC for a conversation to discuss all things basketball and the ACC.

This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Editor's Note: The NCAA transfer portal is an online database and compliance tool, and a mechanism in which college athletes can change schools. Players inform their current school of their intent to transfer, then place their name in the portal. In 2021, the NCAA made it so student-athletes could transfer one time without having to sit out a season. This has resulted in an increase in roster turnover in college sports. In 2022, 1,197 women's basketball players entered the transfer portal, according to The Athletic, nearly double the amount that transferred in 2019.

People walk past signage at the 2023 ACC Tip-Off in Charlotte, N.C., Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2023.
Nell Redmond
Courtesy of the ACC
People walk past signage at the 2023 ACC Tip-Off in Charlotte, N.C., Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2023.

For the casual fan, can you explain what you do as the ACC’s senior associate commissioner for women’s basketball?

“So, anything and everything that touches women's basketball, I'm in charge of. So, I help with scheduling, the ACC Tournament, and I help oversee (supervisor of women’s basketball officials) Debbie Williamson — just making sure that we can amplify and move forward anything and everything dealing with our 15, soon to be 18, programs.”

You were a coach at Furman, your alma mater, for 13 seasons. What was it about this job that made you want to leave coaching?

“I always got into coaching because I love impacting females to do something that they never thought they could do. And I've been able to do that, you know, because that's what basketball did to me. I had a great career at Furman, I played overseas, it just opened so many doors… I just loved the impact of using basketball to impact these women for their lives, during their careers, and then life after basketball. So, I did that for 20 years, and really focused on one team at a time, and this opportunity came about from a friend and she said ‘I really think this sounds like you. This looks like you.’

"I’ve served on a number of (NCAA) committees, so I’ve been trying to impact women’s basketball globally, speaking at clinics, (dealing) with the transfer portal, recruiting, a little bit of everything. People always said, ‘You impact so many people,’ so, now I can do that across 15 teams, soon to be 18, and I feel like I can do it on a national level. It’s spreading the wealth a little bit, in my mind, and just being more impactful in a game that’s given me so much.”

You previously served on the NCAA Oversight Committee and the Transfer Review Advisory Group. How do you think the transfer portal has changed women’s basketball?

“The things that are coming through women’s basketball and college athletics has changed the coaching perspective for a lot of people. The transfer portal is a game-changer. You can reverse a whole program in a season; you used to not be able to do that… It’s changed how you recruit high school athletes and — are we giving enough opportunities to high school athletes now? Because you can go get a kid from another (college team) and you don’t have to wait for them to be seasoned players. Our coaches have to recruit their current roster almost harder than the recruits that they’re trying to get from high school, because you don’t want them to leave. So, you got to figure out a way to keep your absolute top players in your program, and then still build some pieces around them. So, it’s harder than ever to build culture now, I think."

Do you think there’s anything the NCAA should do to change recruiting or the portal?

“I don’t think there’s anything you’re going to be able to do about the transfer portal… I think the NCAA has got its hands tied with NIL, which directly, probably, impacts transfers. I think until we do something about the NIL environment, the transfer window is probably the smaller problem.”

Virginia Tech vs. Louisville women's basketball in Greensboro
Mitchell Northam
Louisville's Hailey Van Lith (left) battles for position with Virginia Tech's Elizabeth Kitley (right) on March 6, 2023 in the ACC women's basketball championship in Greensboro.

The ACC women’s basketball tournament has left Greensboro just once (in 2017, because of HB2 — the controversial and commonly-called "Bathroom Bill") since 2000 and it’s coming back there again this season. What was that process like and did the conference consider any other venues?

“The conference is always going to keep an open eye — we want to continue to elevate. Greensboro has been great to us, but we're always going to look and see, is there something else, is there something greater, is there a destination spot? Until then, Greensboro is home. The school community, the fan base, the proximity to some of our schools, I think helps in that regard.

“But to say we’re never looking to go beyond Greensboro, that wouldn’t be accurate. We want to continue to grow our brand. And now, we've added three schools. So now, we need to see what that looks like. Is that still an ideal location when you have three schools on the west coast, or do we need something bigger, or something a little bit more centrally located? So, there’s going to be a lot of factors that play into it. Right now, Greensboro is home, but we'll see what the future looks like.”

You’ve mentioned that we’re moving to 18 teams. Cal, Stanford and SMU are coming. How do you see that impacting women’s basketball — not just from a competition standpoint — but scheduling and traveling?

“It will actually even us out a little bit. We play 18 games, and now we have 18 teams, so you play everyone once and then you play a rival twice. So, that’s what we’re looking at. It would probably make our model a little bit more balanced, because you eliminate those scheduling pods where you had, you know, UNC, Duke, Virginia, Virginia Tech, N.C. State — they all had to play each other twice, so there was always going to be one pod that was stronger than the other. And now, you eliminate all of that. Everybody has one chance to knock off somebody in the league, and then you have a model where you have a rival, to keep some of our important rivalries intact. We can’t give up that Duke-Carolina rivalry, or UVA-Virginia Tech. I think it is going to showcase and highlight women’s basketball even further in our league and keep a little balance for those fights for the regular season championship and tournament seeds.”

Virginia Tech is going to play Iowa here (in Charlotte) in a few weeks. Notre Dame is going to Paris, France to play South Carolina. (UNC-Chapel Hill) and N.C. State are both playing against UConn. Would you encourage ACC coaches to keep scheduling tough, high-profile matchups like this in an effort to grow the game?

“We have to. Not only do you challenge yourself by playing those games, but then you win them. I know we’re going to have great success with those types of schedules, and the ACC-SEC Challenge is going to be a huge thing that amplifies our league. What bigger spotlight to show on some of the nation's best teams? It’s a great time to show the country, show the world, what kind of league we have… To put together some of the schedules that I’ve seen, that’s not easy. But that’s faith in your program, faith in what you’ve built and faith in this league, that we can produce those numbers and continue to grow.”

Editor's Note: Notre Dame vs. South Carolina will be the first time an NCAA basketball game has been played in Paris, France. Both teams are ranked in the preseason AP Top 25 Poll — of which the author is a voter in — and the game will be televised by ESPN.

Mitchell Northam is a Digital Producer for WUNC. His past work has been featured at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, SB Nation, the Orlando Sentinel and the Associated Press. He is a graduate of Salisbury University and is also a voter in the AP Top 25 poll for women's college basketball.