Elaine Elliott isn't a self-promoter by nature, but she is understandably proud of the type of program she's been in charge of for more than two decades.

The head coach of the University of Utah's women's basketball team for the past 21 years has made winning conference championships the norm. The Utes, once again, can clinch the Mountain West Conference crown tonight at the Huntsman Center with a win over UNLV. Even if they slip up against the Rebels — which isn't likely since the Utes have won 27 consecutive home games — they will have another chance to wrap up the league title at home Saturday afternoon against San Diego State.

It will mark the eighth time in nine years the Utes will have won or shared a conference championship of some sort. Regardless of what happens in the MWC Tournament in Denver next week, Utah is a lock to be invited to the NCAA Tournament.

And for all the on-court success, Elliott is even more proud of the high character of the young women she's brought to the university.

Still, there is one thing that continues to bug her, something that she hasn't accomplished at the U. despite all her efforts: Getting more fannies in the seats to watch her team play.

"It's frustrating," she admits. "That's the one thing that I have not been able to do — provide the type of community support the players who have played here deserve. I hate that."

Of course, lack of support for women's college basketball isn't unique to Utah. Few places are like UConn and Tennessee, where demand for tickets to women's games rival that of their male counterparts. Utah's average attendance at women's games this season of 1,643, in fact, is better than four of the eight MWC schools — including BYU.

But Elliott wishes her team's games could average half the crowds of MWC rival New Mexico. While the Lobos have an improving program and are in second place a game behind the Utes, New Mexico certainly hasn't had as much success over the years as Utah. Yet the Lobos are averaging 11,265 fans per game this season — including more than 18,000 to a recent game against UNLV.

"I don't have an answer," Elliott said. "We're working really hard to have the product on the court that we're expected to have."

The WNBA's Utah Starzz couldn't make a go of it in Salt Lake City, relocating to San Antonio prior to last season. Elliott feels the Starzz experiment was good for women's basketball in Utah.

"The Starzz did well by our standards," she said. "They didn't do well by New York standards, but I thought they did pretty well for Utah. They had a nice following, and that was exciting for Utah."

Media coverage of women's basketball has increased in recent years. All of Utah's games are broadcast on the radio, and they were on television five times this season. Both Salt Lake City daily newspapers are devoting more space to the local women's teams, too.

"We are proud of what we have to offer," she said. "We have good role models for young females and for families. We're grateful for our fan base — but we'd love for it to grow."

Elliott believes greater community support is possible.

"I don't think we even know what the potential of the community is," she said. "Is it 3,000 (fans per game)? I wish we could have the resources to figure the potential out and then work to get to that potential."

On the court, reaching their potential is a trademark of Elliott's teams. Her career record is 434-176 — a 71 percent success rate, averaging 21 wins per season. Only once in those 21 years have the Utes had a losing record — 12-14 in 1993-94 — but even then the team finished .500 in league play.

"First and foremost, we've had good players," Elliott said. "You don't do it with smoke and mirrors. The players have to get the credit. There is a lot of talent out there, but the uniqueness of this program has been the character the players have. It has made them champions instead of underachievers."

Then again, players on the team know coaching is also a big part of their success.

"Elaine is a great coach," said sophomore guard Shona Thorburn. "She pays great attention to the details. It's what makes her a great coach and us a successful program. She notices the little things that you need to get done to win games."

Perhaps the key to Elliott's success over the years has been finding talent others have overlooked. Utah never lands recruiting classes that gain national attention — yet the team is a regular NCAA tourney participant.

"We don't feel like we can go out and call anyone and get into anyone's front door on a national level and know that they are going to listen to Utah," she said. "There is a certain reality to who you are and what conference you belong to. Having said that, the USA Top 100 players aren't the only ones out there. There are all kinds of players that belong on recruiting lists that are every bit as talented that don't make the lists because they don't play at the right place and in front of the right people. We find our kids in different places, and they've obviously been just as talented."

While recruiting Utah high school players is still the priority, Utah has had particular success in recent years getting players from north of the U.S. border. It started with Amy Ewert, a player not highly recruited out of Vancouver.

Ewert, who would later go on to marry current Ute men's star Nick Jacobson, became the MWC's co-player of the year in 2000-01 as a senior. That year she led the Utes to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tourney. The Utes finally lost to eventual national champion Notre Dame.

Since then the Ute roster has been dotted with Canadians, eh. This year's 21-5 team is led by a pair of sophomores from the Great White North, Kim Smith and Shona Thorburn. Both are on the Canadian national team. Two more Canadians have already signed on to join them next year.

"We now have contacts in Canada and people who've had personal experience with us," said Elliott. "We treat our kids well and that has made all the difference in the world to the kids and their parents being comfortable with us."

Smith, the favorite to win her second consecutive MWC Player of the Year honor, put it this way: "Elaine knows how to coach defensively and offensively, and I thought that I would improve a lot in her program."

One of the struggles with having a program as successful as Utah's is that expectations run wild. The Utes entered this season as the No. 19 team in the nation. Four losses in the pre-league schedule knocked Utah out of the rankings, but Elliott is still pleased with the way this season has gone.

"I can't think of anything that's tougher in sports than being the frontrunner and having all the expectations," she said. "It's hard to celebrate and be happy when good things happen because everybody says you are supposed to be doing that. And yet, the competition is fierce. It can be a burden."

But 21 years into her head coaching duties and 25 years after moving to Utah to become an assistant coach at the U., the burden of success is still worth it. Elliott, who grew up in Tacoma and Boise, has found a home in Utah.

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"When I came here I didn't see myself being here 25 years later," she admits. "I was just fortunate that it turned out to be a great place."

"It's been a good fit. I love the lifestyle and I love the mountains."

And the University of Utah has loved the success the women's basketball program has had under Elliott.

E-mail: lojo@desnews.com

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