College News

A Female Head Coach of a Division I Champion: Y Not This Year?

Kirsten Bernthal Booth’s Creighton Bluejays are the No. 9 national seed in this year’s NCAA Division I tournament

The NCAA Division I volleyball tournament gets underway today. For 24 women coaching teams in the tournament, it means they will be asked the question that ALWAYS seems to get asked at this time of year:

“Will this be the year when a female head coach finally wins the championship?”

It is understandable that many female coaches have grown weary of being asked why, in the 37 years since Chuck Erbe won the very first NCAA Division I title with USC, no program headed by a woman has ever won.

“I will be honest in the fact that I am tired of hearing about this,” said Washington State’s Jen Greeny. “It just seems like it’s always a topic in the AVCA, at the convention, in the AVCA magazine, surveys, etc.”

Odds are that this will NOT be the year when a female head coach takes home the title. Only three – BYU, Creighton, Washington State – of the 16 national seeds (19 percent) are coached by women. And of the teams in the tournament from the sport’s two most dominant conferences, the Big Ten and Pac-12, Greeny and Utah’s Beth Launiere are the only two female head coaches represented. Two out of 15. Thirteen percent. In a sport where the participants are exclusively female, women’s volleyball continues to be dominated by male head coaches.

Of course, the odds are very long for most male head coaches to win the title also. That’s because since the year 2000, only seven programs have won NCAA championships: Nebraska, Stanford, Texas, Penn State, Washington, UCLA and USC. Only three others, Pacific, Hawaii and Long Beach State, have EVER won.  

“Many ‘prominent’ programs have had very little opportunity for other coaches, male or female, because of the longevity of the head coaches,” Greeny observed.

Indeed, of the programs that have won titles since the new millennium, Nebraska and Penn State have had the same head coach, while Stanford, Texas, UCLA, USC and Washington have had only two. Stanford, Texas and USC hired men who’d been head coaches elsewhere. UCLA hired Mike Sealy, a longtime assistant coach at Hawaii. Washington hired from within, tabbing assistant coach Keegan Cook after Associate Head Coach Leslie Gabriel did not seek the position, choosing instead to remain in her same role.

Carolyn Condit, head coach at Miami (Ohio), pointed out that male dominance extends to most of the traditional top 20.

“There aren’t enough women coaching top 20 teams and men in the top 20 stay at those jobs for years,” she explained. She added that top 20 teams that lose coaches tend to fill their openings with other head coaches from top 20 teams, which then fill vacancies with other male hires.

“It was good to see a female get the Tennessee job recently, but quite honestly there are not enough women in coaching or going into coaching,” said Condit.

Part of the reason may be that only 12 percent of Division I athletic directors are female.

“Those who do the hiring, the decision-makers, are of the same demographic as the coaches they commonly hire,” said Illinois State head coach Leah Johnson.

“Athletic Directors hire more men in these positions as ‘it seems’ only men have the highest success,” added Condit.

The coaches surveyed for this article were adamant that that neither luck nor coincidence explains why there have been zero female head coaches of volleyball champions when there have been 13 women winning national titles in women’s basketball over the same span.

“I think that women have not had the opportunities or maybe even sometimes taken the opportunities at some of these programs that are year in and year out powerhouses,” said Northern Iowa’s Bobbi Petersen. “I definitely do not feel like luck is involved and definitely feel like women having these opportunities would be successful.”

There is no doubt, however, that women seeking to be head coaches in Division I program, especially those with the highest expectations, face more challenges than their male counterparts.

“If there was a study done, I think you’d see that many of the men who run the “top 20” programs have wives that stay at home and run the family,” said Creighton head coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth.  “I would guess many of the women who are running a top 20 program have husbands that work.”

 “I think work/life/balance plays a role,” said Petersen. “I do think that as a female there are some of us that feel like we need to do it all and do it all well.  This presents some challenges at times in terms of what that means in our job and what that means in our home.”

“Although our culture has made many strides for women, they still are looked upon to take the leadership roles in the home,” added Bernthal Booth. “This is a challenge and I know has led to many peers getting out of coaching.  They want more balance in their life.  I’m very fortunate to have married someone who shares in the parenting/household duties (if not does more), but had I married someone else, I have no doubt I couldn’t be doing the job that I do.  I think this challenge is real, and keeps a lot of women out of the higher level/more time consuming jobs.” 

Here’s how one female coach responded when asked to comment for this story:

“Been on the road almost all of last week.  Played four matches in eight days, then went recruiting.  Got back home and went grocery shopping, did laundry, helped kids with homework, cleaned the house, made dinner, paid bills, took dog for a walk, went to the bank, took dry cleaning in, packed school lunches, my week for neighborhood carpool, worked out…Back in the office today.”

“I specifically believe that there are more men than women in coaching volleyball because many women drop out of coaching when they become mothers,” said Rice head coach Genny Volpe.  “Often it is difficult to find the support needed to raise a family while traveling so much for competition and recruiting year round.  The support system at home has to be very strong.” 

“Speaking personally because it is the center of my life right now, I do believe having/wanting a family could potentially be a massive barrier for female coaches,” said Molly Alvey of Cincinnati.  “There is not a lot of precedence set administratively to assist head coaches with family needs.  For a job that is so incredibly time-demanding, I do believe there has to be some help for coaches to be successful at coaching and parenting.  By shear nature, the relationship of mom to child is different than dad to child.  What is a mom supposed to do in season (assuming she and partner are able to precisely plan a pregnancy that least interferes with the competition season, recruiting season, camp season, etc.) if she is nursing a child?  That is just one small example of so, so many that moms can be faced with as a parent.”

Johnson, who is taking Illinois State to the tournament in just her second year in Normal, told this story when asked about barriers to entry for women:

“I spent two years trying to get pregnant at just the ‘right’ time so it didn’t compromise my career. The timing was still terrible as it turned out. I was on maternity leave when the Illinois State job opened.  I was breastfeeding during my interview and had to request additional time and accommodations in order to pump throughout the process (Illinois State was amazing).  My spouse attended the interview with me because he also works full time and we had to vet the community in order to determine if it was a good fit for our family, not just me.  I relocated alone with my 10-week-old child because my husband could not move at a week’s notice like is expected in our profession.  It didn’t matter that the timing was awful or that I was not in a state of mind to be my best.  I had to be; that’s what the opportunity required. I ended my maternity leave early. I left my 3-year-old and husband behind for two and half months.  I started a new job (in late June nonetheless) while acting basically as a single parent of a newborn while desperately missing my oldest child and husband.  My first season was spent waking up every three hours to breastfeed my son.  I spent countless hours pumping in storage rooms, closets, bathrooms at visiting gyms and stops along the bus trip not to mention at my office desk while I prepped for practice or studied scout film.  I threw up the entire season prior with morning sickness during the first trimester.  I swelled so badly in the third trimester I had to stop traveling/recruiting in the spring.  I had complications from delivery that affected me for well over a year.  It may sound like complaining. It isn’t.  It is just a recount of my life and career happening simultaneously during a two-year window.  I don’t need or want pity. This was all a choice and a blessing. This is not unique.  This is not unusual.  I am just one of many women who balance their life and career.  Some will be forced to decline an opportunity like this when in a similar situation.  Others will be weeded out because of the extra effort required by their employer to see it through (though none could legally admit it).  Still many will withdraw on their own because the culture of college athletics is so demanding. It isn’t easy.  There are little to no breaks in our coaching lifestyle.  It is a challenge for all coaches.  It is a challenge for all parents.  It is uniquely challenging for mothers.”

“I think there is a major shift right now in sports and life where females believe they can have it all (family, job and team success),” said Oklahoma head coach Lindsey Gray Walton. “The best thing programs can do is embrace the fact that we as females want to have it all. The best thing women can do is stay true to THEIR OWN goals. Don’t let outside influencers dictate your future or what you ‘should do.’”

Virginia Tech head coach Jill Wilson said that one challenge to being a female head coach is that there aren’t enough in the profession currently to mentor younger coaches. Tennessee head coach Eve Rackham agreed.

“Schools want to hire women,” she said.  “I don’t think many women want to go into coaching.  Whether that is because we have so few role models as coaches or because we just have different interests, I don’t know.  I think I have had about five players in my 15-year career ever mention wanting to coach college volleyball.   I have had a ton of players say ‘I could never coach.’  It is interesting that so few see it as a viable career.”

“One reason I’ve pushed for the recruiting calendar is that I do think it is in the student-athletes’ best interest AND it hopefully allows coaches more opportunity to have a life,” said Bernthal Booth. “I think this balance is VERY important for our current student-athletes to see. I want them to see me not as only a coach, but also as a wife and mother.  These are our future female leaders and they not only want to lead, but I think they also want to have a family and enjoy life.   I truly believe this is very important and our JOB as coaches to role model this.  I think our culture loves to talk about the coach who sleeps in his office because “he is so committed and all he does is work.”  Is this really good?  I don’t think so. 

“My hope is my athletes who want to coach look at it as a great career because they can do something they love, mentor young women and have the personal life that they’d like.” 

The coaches surveyed mentioned other factors that have prevented women from coaching and winning at the highest levels: Females cannot coach with the same toughness as men without facing repercussions. Male coaches use the lack of championship success among females as a negative recruiting tool. Females are less ambitious, fear taking risks or failing. They are less motivated by money and are unwilling to move for a head coaching job the way men are.

“I also am not sure women support women the way men do in terms of helping each other get jobs,” said Rackham.  “There seems to be a network of men who help each other get hired.  When women do fail at head coaching, they usually get out of the profession, as opposed to finding another job as an assistant or looking for another head job.”

“As a former educator who also loves to win and hates to lose, I  have chosen to stay at a mid-major program at Miami University because they do things right, and academics is the No. 1 priority for student/athletes,” said Condit.  “We win conference championships, enjoy NCAA appearances and have pulled our share of upsets versus Big Ten and SEC schools.  My No. 1 priority with winning championships is to teach these young women how to overcome adversity and bring their best to the classroom and volleyball arena every day – no excuses.  I am driven in this cause and love the challenge of developing leaders and helping 16 different women learn to win together unselfishly.  To graduate champions at every level should be the ultimate goal.”

The diverse opinions aside about why it’s so hard for a female head coach to be in a position to challenge for a national title, there is consensus about one thing: It will happen. Maybe not this year, but within the next five. No more than ten.

“I definitely think a female head coach will win the title someday,” said Louisville head coach Dani Busboom Kelly.  “It easily could be BYU this year!  There are more females in head coaching roles than ever before so the probability is going up year by year.  There is also more parity in our sport than ever before and that will continue.  Instead of there only being a handful of teams that can compete at the highest level, there are two or three handfuls this year and hopefully that will continue to grow.  Administrators want to hire the best females so when more and more storied programs turn over, I think we will see females take some of those positions.”

“My great aunt was the first female to letter at the University of Texas,” said Wilson. “What I learned from her was that it wasn’t important that no female had lettered before her time at UT, but the fact that she worked hard to be the first and impacted so many young women that came after.  As a current female coach, I had to decide I wouldn’t get caught up in what hasn’t happened yet, but what WILL happen.  I focus on the fact that we have some extremely talented female coaches that I have zero doubt will win one title or more.  As a younger head coach, I want to pay attention, talk to them and also see how they thrive under the challenges that lay before all of us, male and female alike. 

“There is a first for everything, which is why sports are so inspirational across the country.  I have no doubt in my mind the answer to this is, ‘Yes.’  We are responsible for empowering our young women to succeed at the highest level.  We have to be an example to them and believe that we can do the same.”

“I have no doubt that a female will win a national championship,” said Launiere. “I think it will be within five years as there is so much more parity, so many resources going to untraditional powerhouses and some really good up-and-coming female coaches.”

“Yes, of course I think a female will win a national championship,” said Greeny. “I should quit my job now if I think I never will.”

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