Despite Record Female Participation in Athletics, Percentage of Women Coaches Declines

PHOENIX

Coaching women’s sports has become a man’s world.

At youth, club, high-school, college and pro levels, men are dominating head-coaching jobs in women’s sports.

Women’s participation in sports is higher than ever, a success of the 1972 federal law known as Title IX. It prevents gender discrimination in any educational program or activity receiving federal funding. Because of Title IX, female participation in high-school sports has soared to more than 3 million. In college, it has grown from 16,000 in 1968 to more than 180,000. Yet the percentage of women coaching women’s college teams is near an all-time low (42.8 percent).

Some say that trend has helped women’s athletics. Male coaches bring tested, aggressive playing styles from the men’s game that can work wonders with accelerating women’s skills.

Others worry that one of the promises of Title IX is slipping away as female athletes see mostly men in charge.

“If women were entering the coaching ranks of men’s sports, it wouldn’t bother me as much,” said Linda Carpenter, one of two professors emeriti at Brooklyn College (N.Y.) who have biannually tracked trends in women’s collegiate athletics since 1977. “Men have coaching role models available all the time, but women don’t. That becomes very, very important.”

Coaches, executives and athletics directors point to several key reasons for the male hiring trend.

Finding the best coach, regardless of gender, often leads to a male, even for administrators who say they would like to hire a woman. The higher up in the athletic world the job, the more this is true.

“We are always vigilant about seeking the top female candidates,” said Arizona State Vice President for Athletics Lisa Love. “What you find is there are a lot less of them as the pyramid gets tighter at the top.”

In three years, Love has filled four head-coaching positions for women’s sports. All went to men.

Jason Watson is the latest. He makes it a clean sweep in Pac-10 women’s volleyball: Every team now has a male head coach.

Love said in hiring softball, water polo, soccer and volleyball coaches, the pool of applicants was as high as 10-to-1 male.

“It comes down to who do we believe can fit the competitive categories that we seek,” Love said. “If it’s a man, it’s a man.”

Title IX works against female coaches in some ways. When more jobs and money are pumped into women’s sports, more men vie for those jobs.

ASU’s decision recently to eliminate its men’s swimming, wrestling and tennis programs illustrates the changing dynamic of the coaching profession. The majority of job opportunities are in coaching women, and male coaches gravitate to those opportunities. In volleyball, there are 14 times more Division I women’s programs than men’s.

Better salaries also make the jobs more attractive. And any stigma that might have kept them away in the past is gone.

In the past, “there was a reticence to do it because you didn’t get anything for it,” said Carpenter, the Brooklyn College professor. “Women back in the day did it for a thank-you note at the end of the year.”

“I guess society has changed,” said Corey Gaines, who made his head-coaching debut May 17 with the WNBA champion Mercury. “It’s not looked down upon. Coaching is coaching. What matters is are you a good coach or a bad coach?”

Men have the experience in coaching pros. In the young world of professional women’s team sports, teams are just beginning to grapple with the issues of handling pro athletes. Coaches find pros require different coaching than college players. And someone who already knows how to coach pros often has the most success.

Nine of 14 head coaches in the WNBA are men. In the WNBA’s first season in 1997, seven of eight head coaches were women.

Mercury General Manager Ann Meyers Drysdale has watched the transition.

“It is a different game than college,” Drysdale said. “That’s why this league is changing and coming into its own now as far as trying to find coaches that understand how to coach a professional … The majority of us would like to have a woman. We really would. In saying that, we want to hire the most qualified person.”

Whether at the college or pro level, male coaches are pushing the envelope. A prime example is the Mercury.

In 2006, then-coach Paul Westhead implemented the fast-break system he coached successfully at Loyola Marymount University and with the Los Angeles Lakers. The question, though, was could women run the same system?

The answer was an immediate yes. The Mercury averaged a WNBA record 87.1 points per game in 2006 and 89 on their way to a championship last summer.

Gaines, one of Westhead’s assistants, was a logical replacement when Westhead left to take an assistant coaching job in the NBA.

“It would have been tough to say we’re going to do Bobby Knight (basketball), tough defense, pass the ball around for 22 seconds then shoot,” Gaines said. “You’d have to rebuild everything. My style fits our players’ style.”

At ASU, Love’s first coaching hire was softball coach Clint Myers. Before that, he had an impressive coaching record at Central Arizona junior college — in baseball.

The Sun Devils won their first Pac-10 title in their third season under Myers.

The cold facts remain: Nine out of 10 women’s teams were coached by a female in 1972; now it’s fewer than half. At ASU, eight of 11 women’s programs have male coaches.

For female athletes with coaching aspirations, those kind of numbers can be discouraging.

But ASU’s athletes say they have one of the best possible female role models in Love.

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