When the eight teams in the WNBA started play in 1997, they were guided by seven female head coaches and one male, all of whom had run college women's basketball programs.

Today, the WNBA, which expanded to 12 teams this season, has five female head coaches and seven males. Five female head coaches from that inaugural season have been fired and their former teams now are led by men, three of whom have coached or played in the NBA, which owns the WNBA.

When the NBA announced plans for a women's professional league in 1996 it was touted as giving women opportunities to showcase their talents at the professional level. And while the women on the court have done that, the person directing them from the bench this season is more likely to be male than female.

WNBA President Val Ackerman said a coach's sex doesn't matter and said coaching in the league is "an evolving profession."

"I kind of look upon our coaching ranks as a bit of a melting pot," Ackerman said. "I think we have a unique mix of coaches from the NBA, from women's college basketball and men's college basketball and a few international coaches. . . . I think our teams are less concerned about whether [the coaches] are men or women than what their job qualifications are.

"Can they motivate the players? Do they know their X's and O's? Can they handle the media? Can they represent the club in the best possible way?"

Sacramento Monarchs General Manager Jerry Reynolds hired former NBA scout and assistant Sonny Allen to replace Heidi Vanderveer, whom he fired at the end of last season. Under Allen, Sacramento has gone 19-11 and made the playoffs after an 8-22 finish in 1998.

"It's a professional sport," Reynolds said. "It's not Title IX [the federal anti-discrimination law that requires schools to provide equal sports opportunities for women].

"You are legitimately dealing with world-class athletes, and they expect to be coached and to learn as best as they can. They want to get better. And our fans pay money to see the product, so they expect a better product. . . . In my opinion, when you look for coaches, you look for somebody who can do those things. If it is a male or female, I couldn't care less."

Los Angeles Sparks General Manager Johnny Buss said that he never considered the matter when he promoted former NBA player Orlando Woolridge, a Sparks assistant, to head coach last season. Woolridge replaced Julie Rousseau, who had replaced the team's first coach, Linda Sharp, fired 11 games into the league's inaugural season.

"It was a matter of personalities getting together," Buss said. ". . . I am sorry that we had to go through two other coaches to get there. But we did. And they're responding."

Woolridge sees his WNBA job as a steppingstone to an NBA job, and believes a coach's sex shouldn't be an issue.

"This is professional basketball," Woolridge said. "It seems only logical that you bring in people with professional basketball experience. . . . The WNBA should absorb as many great coaches as [the league] can, regardless of if it's a college coach, if it's a male coach."

Richie Adubato of the New York Liberty is another coach who got his job based on NBA experience. A longtime NBA assistant who has had stints as an NBA head coach, Adubato, 60, most recently had been a consultant to Rick Pitino and the Boston Celtics.

Three other male coaches have devoted the bulk of their career to college women's basketball programs: former University of Mississippi coach Van Chancellor, who has led the Houston Comets to back-to-back WNBA championships; former USC coach Fred Williams, who became head coach of the Utah Starzz this season; and Minnesota Lynx Coach Brian Agler, who led the Columbus Quest to consecutive championships in the now-defunct American Basketball League.

Dan Hughes, who was named interim coach of the Charlotte Sting after Marynell Meadors was fired July 11, has experience in men's and women's college basketball.

While many WNBA players indicate no preference about playing for a woman over a man, a leading advocate of women's sports said she would like the league to hire more women as head coaches.

"That is troublesome that they would go to men, some of them older retreads, when they could easily take a chance on a young and upcoming female," said Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women's Sports Foundation.

". . . That's not to say that only women should be coaching women. That's not the issue. The issue is no women are coaching men's teams. . . . You're going to say that it's okay for 100 percent men to coach NBA teams or men's teams. And we're going to now give them the edge in women's teams, too. It seems like there is some sense of balance here that should be considered."

Former ABL and Purdue coach Lin Dunn, who recently was hired to coach the WNBA expansion team in Seattle next season, said that if the choice is between a qualified male and qualified female candidate for head coach, "I would always encourage the teams to hire a female. Nothing against the guys -- but I do think it is important for us to have role models in leadership positions. I think it is important for young girls to see women as the head coach."

Nell Fortner, coach of the U.S. Olympic women's basketball team and former Purdue coach, was hired yesterday to coach the Indianapolis WNBA expansion franchise beginning with its second season. Fortner will be coaching the U.S. women's team at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney next summer, and an interim head coach will be hired for the team's inaugural season in 2000.

Coaches in the college and WNBA ranks point to several reasons that some of the top female collegiate coaches have not jumped to the pros.

One is the rapid rate of turnover among head coaches in the league's first three seasons. Two coaches were fired midway through the WNBA's first season. Five coaches and an interim coach were let go last season, and one coach resigned and a second was fired this season.

Mary Murphy, a television analyst for WNBA games on the Lifetime cable network, was Sacramento's first coach, but was fired after 15 games.

"Originally, teams went in really wanting female coaches and coaches who had worked with women in the college setting," she said. "When [Los Angeles] fired Linda Sharp so quickly . . . it began a trend that hasn't stopped."

For well-established female coaches, there is far more job security in running top-level college programs.

"I think college coaches are certainly reluctant to give up their security at the college level to take a risk" in the WNBA, said Cleveland's Linda Hill-MacDonald, who along with Houston's Chancellor and Phoenix's Cheryl Miller are the only coaches from the WNBA's first season still with their original teams.

Coaches such as Allen and Adubato "don't really need to coach," Hill-MacDonald said. "They were pretty much retired from coaching and now they're coming back to coach. The women who are in the game are in the game because it is still their livelihood."

The salaries for top women's college basketball coaches generally are much higher than WNBA coaching salaries, partly because the pro season is only three months. University of Colorado women's basketball coach Ceal Barry recently signed a five-year contract extension that will pay her more than $200,000 a year. Tennessee's Pat Summitt reportedly earns more than $500,000 in salary, benefits and other income, including summer basketball camps and an athletic shoe contract.

WNBA coaches generally earn between $100,000 and $200,000 annually in two- or three-year contracts.

While acknowledging difficulty in attracting top female collegiate coaches, Ackerman said she is optimistic that more will become head coaches in the WNBA as the league becomes more established.

"I think there is more interest now than there was two years ago," Ackerman said. "They [college coaches] are still generally hesitant to make a career change. But I think that will change."