Shannon Miller spotted a familiar face on a billboard in March on the way to her federal discrimination trial. It was Josh Berlo, the University of Minnesota Duluth athletic director who removed the five-time NCAA champion as women's hockey coach in 2014.
With Berlo set to testify in the trial, UMD had posted the billboard along Duluth's Central Entrance, celebrating his selection nationally as one of 28 winners of the Under Armour Athletic Director of the Year Award. Miller viewed it as another sign of the power struggle for women in coaching.
"Give me a break," she said. "They picked the road many jurors would have to drive down to get to the courthouse."
A week later, Miller's case became the third in as many years to follow a pattern: an outspoken, successful female coach won a judgment or settlement for her firing, while the man who oversaw the dismissal received a national award and a higher salary.
A jury of eight women and four men delivered a unanimous verdict against UMD, awarding Miller $3.74 million, ruling that the school discriminated against her based on her gender and retaliated against her for making equity complaints.
UMD Chancellor Lendley Black sent a campuswide e-mail, saying, "I respectfully disagree with the verdict. I remain confident our decision [to remove Miller] was not based on discrimination or retaliation."
He reiterated his support for Berlo, saying, "I'm incredibly proud of him."
At a time when men hold more than 93 percent of major college athletic director jobs and the percentage of female coaches shrinks, Miller's victory drew national attention. Some have touted the potential impact of the case, but civil rights attorney and Title IX advocate Nancy Hogshead-Makar isn't so sure.
"The [UMD] athletic department so far has basically learned nothing," Hogshead-Makar said. "There's no light-bulb moment. There's no 'Ah-ha.' They are essentially saying, 'The jury's wrong.' "
Black and Berlo declined to be interviewed for this story. UMD has not ruled out appealing the decision.
Miller's trial offered parallels to recent discrimination cases involving Iowa field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum (from 2017) and San Diego State basketball coach Beth Burns (from 2016).
Each coach lost her job. Each sued her respective university, receiving at least $1.5 million.
In all three cases, a female coach had her career derailed, with no real prospects for another top job. Meanwhile, the athletic directors who ousted them — all men — have flourished.
Miller is out of sports, running a tour business in Palm Springs, Calif. In December, UMD gave Berlo a two-year contract extension that includes a third $5,000 pay raise.
Griesbaum, who led Iowa to six NCAA tournaments, now works for Duke's field hockey team — as a volunteer assistant. Gary Barta, the Iowa AD who fired her, has since received a five-year contract extension, a $150,000 raise and 2016 Under Armour AD of the Year honors.
Burns, who went 27-7 in her final season at San Diego State, is the strength and conditioning coach for the Louisville women's basketball team. Jim Sterk, the AD who jettisoned her, won the same Under Armour AD honor in 2016 and doubled his salary to $700,000 when he became the AD at Missouri.
To fill that opening, San Diego State picked John David Wicker — the former assistant AD who conducted the investigation into Burns, leading to her dismissal.
The Star Tribune requested interviews with Wicker, Sterk and Barta, and each athletic director declined.
The National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA) criteria for the Under Armour award says each nominee must, among other things, "demonstrate an ongoing commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion."
Asked about the Berlo, Barta and Sterk selections, NACDA's executive director Bob Vecchione said the organization "takes claims of discrimination of any kind within our membership seriously."
Vecchione said NACDA is "closely following ongoing litigation," adding the organization is "enacting the right to revoke this award at any time."
Alleged injustice at UMD
Berlo arrived at UMD in 2013, three years after the Bulldogs won their last NCAA title for Miller. Her teams reached the eight-team NCAA tournament 11 times in 12 years but missed it in each of her final four seasons.
She was the highest-paid women's hockey coach in the country, at $207,000, but in her last three seasons, UMD went 3-26-7 against Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota. In December 2014, with the Bulldogs ranked No. 7 nationally, Berlo told her UMD wouldn't be renewing her contract.
"I basically went into shock," Miller said.
Berlo initially explained it publicly as a financial decision. UMD later cited the team's performance late in Miller's tenure, attendance and recruiting.
Miller sued, alleging discrimination on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, age and national origin. The 54-year-old Saskatchewan native is a former police officer who has been in a long-term relationship with Jen Banford, a former UMD softball coach and women's hockey operations director.
Miller described a hostile work environment that predated Berlo's arrival. She said she received hate mail in 2010 and had her office door name tag replaced with a yellow sticky note that said, "Dyke." She said she voiced concerns to administrators throughout UMD, including Chancellor Black, but that the university "took no remedial action." Black has said UMD looked into Miller's claims and appropriately handled them.
Miller repeatedly raised Title IX issues, including discrepancies in recruiting budget and staff size compared to the UMD men's team and rival women's teams. UMD argued that Miller's gender and complaints played no role in its decision, and pointed to other hires and promotions made by Berlo and Black as signs of their diversity commitment.
The jury awarded Miller $744,832 in past lost wages, and $3 million for past emotional distress. Miller, Banford and former basketball coach Annette Wiles also have a state lawsuit alleging that UMD discriminated against them based on their sexual orientation.
As for Berlo receiving a contract extension four months before Miller's trial, UMD spokeswoman Lynne Williams said, "The university has maintained throughout that the [Miller] accusations were baseless, therefore the pending nature of the litigation had no bearing on the decision to extend Berlo's contract."
Under Berlo, 13 of 16 Bulldogs teams have reached the NCAA tournament, and his fundraising guided projects such as the $10 million renovation of a basketball/volleyball arena.
UMD cited a 2017 survey in which 94 percent of the athletic department responded favorably to the staff's commitment to diversity and inclusion. Black gave the Star Tribune a statement that said, in part: "I will continue to be a strong advocate in UMD's ongoing commitment to equity and diversity through our hiring and recruitment practices, values and everyday actions."
Berlo replaced Miller with Maura Crowell, who led the Bulldogs back to the NCAA tournament in 2017 and was just picked to coach the U.S. Under-18 Women's National Team.
"All I can speak of is my time here; it's been very positive," Crowell said. "It's a very welcome and safe environment. And I think the women's teams here are thriving."
'Administrations on notice'
Becky Carlson, a three-time national champion rugby coach for Quinnipiac, said she can name more than 50 female coaches "with nearly identical situations to Miller."
Carlson discusses discrimination issues on her blog, "The Fearless Coach." She said many women who contact her wish they could speak out but fear losing their jobs.
"The general public does not understand what the culture is like for [female coaches]," Carlson said. "They compare it to corporate America … and there are similarities. But athletics is a different animal. It's run by men."
By last fall, women held only 6.2 percent of the athletic director positions (eight of 130) in the highest level of college athletics, according to University of Central Florida research.
In 1972, women coached more than 90 percent of women's college teams. That number shrunk to 43 percent by 2014, according to a Brooklyn College study. That's counterintuitive, considering 1972 was the year Congress passed Title IX, the federal law prohibiting gender discrimination in educational settings.
"Title IX has been a very positive force for college female athletes — not so positive for college female coaches," said Tom McMillen, president of the LEAD1 Association, which represents athletic directors.
Carol Hutchins, Michigan's Hall of Fame softball coach, paid close attention to Miller's trial.
"She didn't just win for her; she won for all women coaches," Hutchins said. "As more women who are treated unfairly come forward, and win lawsuits, you're going to see more administrations on notice."
Iowa out millions
Griesbaum raised equity concerns at Iowa as she watched Barta, Iowa's AD since 2006, remove four female coaches and fill two of those positions with men.
"The longer I was at Iowa, I felt the equity slipping away," Griesbaum said.
In meetings, she "carried the torch" for other female coaches, who thought she was bulletproof because of her team's success. Then Griesbaum got fired, too.
Barta fired Griesbaum for alleged abusive behavior. A school investigation found no policy violations but described a team environment of "fear, intimidation and/or mistreatment."
Before firing Griesbaum, Barta created a new No. 2 position in the athletic department. The second post had belonged to Griesbaum's partner, Jane Meyer. Barta hired Gene Taylor, paying him $245,000 per year, or $70,000 more than Meyer.
Griesbaum and Meyer both sued. A jury awarded Meyer $2.3 million in damages. Two weeks later, Iowa settled with Griesbaum for $1.5 million. Throw in $2.7 million in attorney fees, and the lawsuits cost Iowa $6.5 million.
Barta replaced Griesbaum with a female coach, just as UMD did with Miller and San Diego State did with Burns.
"My fear is that new women's coaches know, if I stand up and I'm quote-unquote 'the squeaky wheel,' it's going to put my job in jeopardy," Griesbaum said. "So what do they do? They take three steps back. They just try to be liked and be nice."
At San Diego State, Sterk gave Burns a contract extension in 2012. But first he e-mailed colleagues saying he supported the move "if we have ways to separate if she has issues rising to that level [like driving us crazy w complaining]."
Eleven months later, Sterk gave Burns the option to retire, resign or be fired. An internal investigation — led by Wicker — had documented a history of Burns allegedly mistreating subordinates. As evidence, Sterk referred to a 2013 video that showed her elbowing assistant coach Adam Barrett, seated to her right, after the Aztecs made a defensive lapse.
"When I saw the video, I was like, 'What the heck? So what?' " another former Burns assistant, Jualeah Woods, told the San Diego Union Tribune. "You can probably find video of me doing the same thing when a kid misses a layup or the ref makes a bad call."
Burns, who declined a Star Tribune interview request, sued for breach of contract and whistleblower protection. The jury awarded her a $3.35 million judgment. SDSU appealed, and the sides settled at $4 million, including attorney fees.
"Her career's been devastated by this," said Burns' attorney, Ed Chapin.
Miller hasn't given up hope of coaching again. She has applied for women's and men's college teams, NHL teams and in college athletics administration. "Whenever someone tells you, 'Shannon, you may never coach again,' you cry," she said.
Three years ago, Miller and Banford opened Sunny Cycle, a touring business similar to the Minneapolis-based Pedal Pub. Miller takes the microphone and shares stories about Palm Springs' history, architecture and famous haunts.
One day last month, a guest rode the Sunny Cycle — Zoe Hickel, UMD's captain from Miller's final season.
"It was just weird seeing my coach in Palm Springs," Hickel said. "With all she's been through, I can't believe how strong she is."
Advocates cite examples of far more controversial male coaching figures — Bobby Petrino, Bobby Knight, Mike Price, Mike Leach and others — who got fired and landed at other schools.
"How come men resurface all the time, and women coaches are scarred for life?" Hutchins said.
One of Griesbaum's attorneys, Jill Zwagerman, hopes these verdicts are steps toward more equity for women in college athletics.
"If one athletic director pauses, and says, 'Hang on here a second,' " Zwagerman said, "that might be enough to save that one woman's career."