The Gophers women’s basketball team has never had a male coach.
Will the 11th coach in the program’s 43-year history break that streak?
There’s a national trend toward more men coaching women’s college teams. In the six major conferences, nearly 40 percent of women’s basketball teams are coached by men. Seven of this year’s Sweet 16 teams were led by men and, as the Gophers search to replace the fired Pam Borton, at least two of the emerging candidates are male, a source told the Star Tribune.
“We will conduct a national search to secure the best candidate possible,” athletic director Norwood Teague said March 28, hours after he ended Borton’s 12-year run.
There is no timetable, and candidates include South Dakota State’s Aaron Johnston and Wright State’s Mike Bradbury, a source confirmed.
But in a high-paying and high-profile job, would a man or woman be the best fit?
Not a new question
Paul Fessler has heard questions like these before. He’s been coaching women’s college basketball for 17 years, the past 13 at Concordia (St. Paul), where he has made the Golden Bears into an NCAA Division II power. An opinion he hears often and — perhaps surprisingly — supports: When it comes to women’s college sports, women should coach.
The most qualified coach should get the job, Fessler said. But he added: “As a male, I might be in the minority: I think, all things being equal, you should always hire the female to coach the female sport.’’
Fessler agrees with the notion that young women athletes need women coaches as role models. Fessler’s three assistants are all women.
“They need that support, somebody who can talk the same language,” he said.
Ruth Sinn has been coaching basketball for nearly 30 years. The University of St. Thomas coach since 2005, she spent 17 years at Apple Valley High School, where she coached the great Carol Ann Shudlick, future Gophers star.
To Sinn, the most important aspect of having women in the head coaching position is the example set for the athletes.
“In the coaching profession, obviously, you want the best candidate,” Sinn said. “But in a female sport, having a role model for your young players to aspire to, to emulate — it’s very important.’’
Played for both
Shannon Nelson played at the University of Minnesota as Shannon Bolden and was a key part of the 2004 Final Four team. She just coached Northland Community & Technical College in Thief River Falls to a 27-1 season that ended with an NJCAA Division III national championship.
“In my opinion the most important thing is the person the [Gophers] hire, rather than just the gender of the coach,” she said. “How can they relate to the player? Motivate the players, teach them life lessons, get the most out of them? How well can they recruit?’’
Bolden played for a male coach at Marshall [Minn.] High School, and then played for Borton. “I had both,” Nelson said. “I didn’t notice a difference as far as how I played, how I grew as a player or a person.’’
Nelson believes it is important, however, to have some female presence on a coaching staff.
“If a male coach is hired — I don’t think there is any problem with that — I’m sure he’ll have assistants who can relate, on a female level, to the players,” she said. “That is one thing I’ve realized as a coach. I have them for two years. They’re 18 and 19. Sometimes, it’s like I’m their mother: teaching them life lessons, how to speak to the media, how to treat other people. It’s nice to have a female role model for that.”
More men coaches than ever
When looking nationally, more and more men are being hired to coach women in college athletics.
The Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sports at the University of Minnesota studied 76 schools that comprised the six major conferences in the country last year. While opportunities for girls and women to participate in sports since Title IX — the 1972 law that mandated equal opportunity for men and women in athletics at any college or university receiving federal funds — is at an all-time high, the percentage of women coached by women has declined to an all-time low.
In 1974, more than 90 percent of college women athletes were coached by women. The 2013 study showed that, through the 2012-13 school year, 40.2 percent of women’s teams in all college sports were coached by women. A year later, that number has dropped to 39.6. Basketball’s numbers skew higher for women: 60.5 percent of those 76 schools’ teams were coached by women through the end of this regular season.
“We wanted to start a national dialogue about the decline of women’s coaches,” said Nicole M. LaVoi, associate director for the Tucker Center. “I think the point is we know from a host of research that girls desperately need same-sex role models. It is not that men are not good coaches. That is not the point. Many male coaches are wonderful role models for young women. But there is evidence that a female role model for female athletes is also good.”
The trend isn’t hard to explain. When Title IX was first passed most of the women’s head coaching jobs were relatively low-profile and low-paying.
“There weren’t too many men that were interested in these positions,” said Judy Sweet. As the athletic director at University of California-San Diego from 1975-2000 she was the first woman in the nation to direct a combined men’s and women’s intercollegiate athletics program. From 2001-06 she was an NCAA vice president.
Salaries and profile aren’t the only reasons more men have been selected to lead women’s teams. Stereotypes continue to play too big of a role in hiring, said LaVoi.
“At the organizational level, there needs to be discussion with athletic directors about why diversity in the workplace matters,” LaVoi said. “Ask people what they think of when they think of a coach. Nine times out of 10 they think of a male.’’
Next season, a new coach will try to lead the Gophers back into the NCAA tournament for the first time since the 2008-09 season. If that happens, many will argue the Gophers made the right choice this spring, man or woman.