Decline in women coaching issue is complex, with solutions

Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw, second from left, with associate head coach Carol Owens and associate coaches Niele Ivey and Beth Cunningham. McGraw has had an all-female coaching staff since 2012. Photo by Mike Bennett.
Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw, second from left, with associate head coach Carol Owens and associate coaches Niele Ivey and Beth Cunningham. McGraw has had an all-female coaching staff since 2012. Photo by Mike Bennett.

It has become a well-known fact – and recently, a topic of conversation – that the overall percentage of female coaches in the NCAA ranks has declined since the passage of Title IX in 1972. Then, 90 percent of the coaches of women’s teams were female, but today, that number hovers around 43 percent.

What isn’t as known is that this apparent drop hasn’t affected women’s basketball as much. In fact, the overall majority of coaches combined in all three divisions of the sport are women, with only Division II having a slight majority of male coaches.

Though this puts basketball in good standing compared with many other women’s sports, the same high percentages don’t seem to exist at the assistant coach level, and they sure don’t within the athletics director ranks.

A number of female assistant basketball coaches worry about future opportunities, and there is resentment that male coaches have dual career options while women have only one. Maintaining work-life balance also makes coaching parity more complex for women.

However, the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) has several coaching development programs in the works to bolster career possibilities for women. Leaders in the sport say the future for female coaches is bright – if they keep fighting.

NCAA statistics through the 2014-2015 season show that the number of female head basketball coaches in all three Divisions was 57 percent, while male head coaches numbered 43 percent. The highest percentage of female head coaches was in Division III, where 61 percent were women. Division I female coaches numbered 59 percent, and in Division II, 52 percent of head coaches were men.

Divisions I, II and III, women’s basketball only

57 percent female head coaches/43 percent male head coaches

Division I

59 percent female head coaches/41 percent male head coaches

Division II

52 percent male head coaches/48 percent female head coaches

Division III

61 percent female head coaches/39 percent male head coaches

  • Information provided by the NCAA

This gives women’s basketball a “B” grade among collegiate women’s sports, according to a 2016 study, “Head Coaches of Women’s Collegiate Teams,” from the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota, and the Alliance of Women Coaches. Gymnastics also earned a B grade, while field hockey, golf, lacrosse, equestrian and softball all received an A grade for having the highest percentage of female coaches.

Heading the top of the “C” grade list was Nordic skiing, with a 50-50 female-male head coaching rate. All other women’s sports are mostly coached by men (Table 3).

Why is women’s basketball one of the few college sports left that has a female head coaching majority? No one can say for sure.

“I have no idea why basketball has more. I want to be clear: I’m no guru on that one,” said Big East Conference Commissioner Val Ackerman, who was the WNBA’s first president. “Maybe it’s correlated to former players, and the passion for the game that leads them into coaching.”

The NCAA doesn’t keep data on the gender breakdown of associate head and assistant basketball coaches. But a 2013 Tucker Center study, “The Decline of Women Coaches in Collegiate Athletics,” found that the number of female assistant coaches in all sports is only slightly better than the number of women head coaches in six major conferences – around 44 percent (Table B).

Conversely, 70 percent of those holding director of operations positions and 68 percent of graduate assistants are women, marking a break in the coaching ladder that is supposed to lead to the top. Anucha Browne, the NCAA’s vice president of women’s basketball championships, said it is a significant issue that is on the radar of stakeholders.

“It’s important to us that women are in the coaching pipeline, and that female student athletes see women as head coaches,” Browne said. “It’s hard to aspire to be a coach when you don’t see anyone like you in those positions.”

Kathie DeBoer, the executive director of the American Volleyball Coaches Association, sees a similar lack of women coaches in her sport. She disputes the 90-43 percent drop because colleges typically had three sports at most when Title IX was enacted.

“Ninety percent of zero is zero,” DeBoer said.

Men began coaching women’s sports, she said, when they became lucrative.

“Women’s basketball coaching jobs at the elite level are really high paying jobs,” DeBoer said. “Any job where you make a lot of money is going to draw a lot of competition.”

Less women in coaching and so few female athletic directors is discouraging to numerous assistant coaches. Many despair because of what they see as less-qualified men getting jobs over women. Browne sees it too.

“Men get more opportunities than women, even if they’re not qualified,” she said.

One recent hire that seems to have drawn resentment from assistant coaches around the country is Santa Clara athletic director Renee Baumgartner’s appointment of Bill Carr to be the head coach of women’s basketball. Baumgartner is one of only a handful of Division I female athletic directors in the country, and Carr has coached basketball for 25 years, but has never coached women.

A Santa Clara spokesman said both Baumgartner and women’s basketball administrator Staci Gustafson felt Carr was the most qualified applicant for the position.

Coaches are afraid to speak on the record about what they call disillusionment and fear that their coaching jobs, as women, are threatened, for fear of retaliation.

Ackerman taps into the probable reasons behind the industry-wide anger and unease among female coaches.

“What’s always been interesting to me is why male coaches have two career paths: they coach women and coach men,” she said. “Women have been held back on two paths. This has always troubled me. I would have hoped we had moved past that.”

Ackerman said the only question she had when former WNBA guard Becky Hammon was hired as San Antonio Spurs assistant coach last year was why it took so long for women to break that barrier in the NBA.

“It seems like there’s so many coaching spots on these male coaching staffs,” Ackerman said. “That’s what success looks like for me; it’s about women coaching across all levels of basketball.”

Browne said every level of sports needs more women in it.

“We do need to see more women in the coaching pipeline, and it’s also important to see female officials in the game as well as women in influential positions in athletic administrations,” she said.

One reason there is a gap between entry-level basketball staff jobs, assistant coach positions and head coaching appointments may be that women sometimes have conflicting demands in their work and personal lives.

Browne and others say that sometimes women leave coaching when they have trouble balancing coaching duties with family responsibilities.

“We do know women are leaving the field, and a lot of it is trying to manage work and family, which is a 24/7 job,” Browne said. “How do you have a quality of life? Those variables may be very different for women.”

Ackerman said that conflict played a role in her leaving the professional basketball ranks.

“One of the reasons I left the WNBA was that I was burning out on family and kid demands,” she said. “Coaching is hard, if not harder.”

In the Tucker Center’s 2012 study, “Barriers and supports for female coaches: an ecological model,” the most common barrier cited by female coaches across all levels was balancing work and family. It is a blockade that seems to effect assistant coaches in particular, as a look around the women’s basketball community sees few assistants with children.

Georgia coach Joni Taylor has noticed that trend.

“It is harder for female assistant coaches at certain high-level programs to manage having a family and children,” Taylor said.

Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw also acknowledged that it is “harder for assistants to have a family” than it might be for head coaches. But two of her assistant coaches do have children.

“We work things out,” McGraw said. “There’s not a lot of spontaneity in finding babysitters, but when it’s planned out, we can be more accommodating.”

The work-life balance is an issue that women will have to negotiate if they hope to take professional steps forward, according to DeBoer.

“In the work place, there is no title IX. In the market place, there’s no title IX,” she said. “This is a competitive space, and there are no job guarantees for you just because you’re a woman.”

There is a lot of specialized training now available, however, through the WBCA. Executive Director Danielle Donahew said the organization did quite a bit of research the past few years in preparing to offer more professional development for coaches. Their findings shaped the steps that they took to build new programs.

“There are a lot of ways coaches can refine their style and knowledge in progressing in their careers,” Donahew said. “We conducted a number of focus groups and got a great deal of survey data from our members trying to understand the coaching journey better.”

“What the data shows is there are three stages to a career: beginning coach, intermediate and established coach, and legacy coach. What we’re trying to do is reinforce each stage of growth for our members with our programming at our annual convention, and to have other programs exist outside of the convention as professional development.”

One of the WBCA’s staples is the “So You Want to Be a Coach” program, which targets graduating college seniors who think they want to enter the coaching profession. Interning with coaches, administrators and media members gives participants what Donahew called “an immersion experience” into the profession.

“It shows them what coaching can offer them for a lifetime,” Donahew said. “We have a number of current college coaches who went through the program. It creates a formal pipeline for student athletes to enter the coaching ranks.”

A new endeavor this year is the expanded Center for Coaching Excellence, which aims to teach coaches the business side of the profession. Before it was limited to head coaches, but now includes assistants as well. There is a teaching session in June and one in August.

“Some of the issues we address include working with personalities, developing positive analogies for administrators,” Donahew said. “We talk about how to create strategies for your team.”

The Marines Leadership Workshop is for assistant coaches, who are taken through team and leadership-building activities using the principles of the Marines.

“We incorporate the power of teamwork into the teachings, and we provide encouragement and direction,” Donahew said. “You are as good as your team.”

The last new WBCA offering is a coach-to-coach mentoring program, which was the brain child of Penn State coach Coquese Washington. Donahew said a pilot program recently run was successful, which enabled them to come up with a model.

“It’s coaches working directly to mentor coaches, in groups, and it was very well-received at the (annual) convention,” Donahew said. “We look forward to bringing it to the membership, and will be launching it in the next few months.”

Browne said the NCAA is keeping an eye on the WBCA’s new professional development endeavors, and plans to work with them on it.

“We are focused on keeping women in the coaching pipeline,” Browne said.

Stanford assistant coach Kate Paye, head coach Tara VanDerveer, associate head coach Amy Tucker, and assistant coach Tempie Brown. VanDerveer's coaching staffs have been all women in her 30 years as Cardinal head coach. Photo
Stanford assistant coach Kate Paye, head coach Tara VanDerveer, associate head coach Amy Tucker, and assistant coach Tempie Brown. VanDerveer’s coaching staff has been all women in her 30 years as Cardinal head coach. Photo

The final piece of the puzzle in seeing more female coaches in the college ranks is that women need to hire women, and women need to apply for coaching jobs.

McGraw has had an all-female staff since 2012, and said she is enjoying it.

“I am trying to prepare them to be head coaches,” McGraw said. “Women need to hire women.”

At the same time, McGraw sees too many potentially great coaches holding back.

“Women need to be more confident and apply for jobs,” McGraw said. “Women are more hesitant than a man would be. Women need to be more aggressive. There a lot of overqualified women out there that could be coaching.”

McGraw said women also need to watch out for themselves more.

“Many coaches are very loyal and hesitate to leave where they are when a better opportunity is available,” she said. “They are such team players that they don’t want to desert anybody.”

In more than 30 years as Stanford’s head coach, Tara VanDerveer has had only female assistant coaches. They have been women she knew, and who were recommended to her for their coaching skills. VanDerveer said she believes it is important to give women an opportunity to coach and mentor other women.

“When we announce recruits, I always ask them why they chose Stanford,” she said. “Our highest-rated recruit coming in this year, Nadia Fingall, said that our culture has cultivated championships, but more importantly educated and developed hard-working young women. That lends credence to what we do.”