When Shannon Miller was called to a meeting in early December, she assumed she was going to be offered a contract extension. The women’s hockey coach at Minnesota Duluth, who had won five NCAA titles and amassed a winning percentage of .712 over 16 seasons, had just led her team to 12 victories in 13 games and a No. 7 national ranking.
Instead, Miller was told by athletic director Josh Berlo and Chancellor Lendley C. Black her contract — and those of her three-person, all-female staff — that made her the nation’s highest-paid women’s hockey coach would not be renewed. And when Berlo later said the reason was that UMD could not afford her $207,000 base salary, her dismissal ballooned from a local controversy into a national conversation about the treatment of female coaches and athletes.
A tough, fiery ex-cop from Calgary, Miller, 51, will coach the remainder of the Bulldogs’ season — but she is not going away quietly. She believes the decision to let her go violates Title IX, the law that prohibits gender-based discrimination at schools that receive federal funds. Her attorney Dan Siegel, who in 2007 won the largest Title IX settlement in U.S. history, said she has “a tremendously strong case” that raises civil rights issues.
“This is a slap in the face to our gender,” said Miller, whose sixth-ranked team is 17-8-5 entering this weekend’s series against the No. 2 Gophers in Minneapolis. “I’m concerned about what this says to society about the value of women.”
University officials, including Black, later said there were other factors that led to Miller’s ouster. Berlo declined repeated interview requests from the Star Tribune. Black responded via e-mail Thursday, calling the move a “financial decision that took into account a variety of factors,’’ adding it was made after assessing whether UMD was getting “an appropriate return on its investment” in Miller’s contract.
“I believe the decision was well-founded,” he wrote, “and that it remains the right decision for Bulldog women’s hockey.”
Miller’s critics point to a downturn in the program. The Bulldogs have not made the eight-team NCAA tournament field since 2011, and their record against their primary WCHA rivals — the Gophers, Wisconsin and North Dakota — is 3-24-7 over the past three seasons. Miller has one victory against the Gophers in the past four seasons.
Miller counters that funding for her program has not kept pace with those teams in recent years as the women’s hockey landscape has grown more competitive.
As an outspoken, openly gay woman who advocates for her athletes and her sport, Miller has long been a polarizing figure. Her dismissal, effective in June, has energized those who support her personally and those who view her as an emblem of a larger cause. Miller and Siegel have been contacted by women’s sports organizations, gay-rights groups, female CEOs and strangers offering assistance and encouragement.
Some of her players said they cannot go to the grocery store or the mall without being stopped by people who express sympathy. “It’s heartbreaking. It’s devastating,” said senior forward Meghan Huertas, who wept when Miller told the team of her dismissal. “Shannon Miller is the reason I came to UMD. She’s an unbelievable coach and a great mentor off the ice.”
Caroline Ouellette, a four-time Olympic gold medalist for Canada who played for Miller at UMD and later coached with her, said she worries about the future of the program.
“It’s hard to understand,” Ouellette said. “She’s the best coach I’ve ever had, and what’s important is that her players absolutely love her.
“I was so proud to say I went to UMD. Now, I’m extremely sad. I don’t think she deserves this.”
In a Dec. 15 news release, Berlo said the decision not to extend Miller’s contract was “difficult and financially driven,” adding that “UMD Athletics is not in a position to sustain the current salary levels of our women’s hockey coaching staff.” Miller is making $215,000 this season, slightly more than Wisconsin’s Mark Johnson ($214,350). The Gophers’ Brad Frost makes $185,000. Johnson has four NCAA titles, and Frost has two.
Duluth’s three-coach staff made more than $338,000 last season, more than the staffs at Minnesota and North Dakota. UMD men’s hockey coach Scott Sandelin, who has one championship, makes $265,000.
UMD has been reducing costs in the wake of a universitywide $6 million budget deficit. During earlier discussions with Berlo, Miller said he told her the school might cut women’s hockey — and if it didn’t, the program would have to be “gutted.” Black said Thursday it would “continue to be funded at a level that allows UMD to continue to compete on the national level and achieve the kind of success the program has experienced in the past.”
Duluth reported a loss of more than $1.4 million on women’s hockey last year, not an unusual figure for the nonrevenue sport but a large hit to the school’s athletics budget ($9.87 million). Minnesota lost more than $1.8 million and Wisconsin over $1.2 million, but those two departments operate with about $100 million.
Former UMD athletic director Bob Corran said he chose Miller to start the program because of her international reputation, earned while coaching Canada to the 1997 world championship and the Olympic silver medal in 1998. He and then-chancellor Kathryn Martin committed to quickly building a powerhouse, and the program’s budget increased as the Bulldogs won the first three NCAA titles in women’s hockey.
Miller has set NCAA records for most national titles (five) and most NCAA tournament victories (15), and her 380 victories are fourth most in Division I women’s hockey history. She won her most recent national championship in 2010 at Ridder Arena. Miller has had one losing season in 15 years, a 14-16-4 mark in 2012-13.
Over the past four years, Miller said, her resources have not kept pace with other top programs. She said UMD does not cover costs for players to attend summer school or a fifth year of school, and the director of women’s hockey operations was part-time. The Gophers, North Dakota and Wisconsin all have provisions to pay for summer school and a fifth year, which allows athletes to spread out their course loads, and all have full-time directors of operations.
“I’ve been talking about this for four years, saying, ‘You’re putting us in an impossible situation,’ ” Miller said. “It would be OK if UMD said, ‘Hey, just be competitive.’ But it’s not.”
Budget figures provided to the Star Tribune by the schools show that UMD is spending $1.54 million on women’s hockey this season, highest of the four WCHA rivals, but it is the only one that does not play at an on-campus arena. Minus the rent it pays to Amsoil Arena, its expenditures fall between the Gophers’ $1.28 million and North Dakota’s $1.37 million.
UMD’s recruiting budget of $30,723 is about the same as the Gophers’ $29,135 but significantly lower than Wisconsin ($43,673) and North Dakota ($52,439).
Equity in Athletics data reported by the schools to the U.S. Department of Education show UMD with game-day expenses of $11,293 per athlete, lowest of the four schools. Wisconsin is the highest at $31,587.
Miller acknowledges she has made enemies at UMD because of her constant push for more resources. She has been branded difficult to work with and criticized for her assertiveness. Miller served one-game suspensions from the WCHA in 2003 and 2011 for unsportsmanlike conduct and arguing with officials, and UMD vacated some victories in 2007-08 when the NCAA found one of its athletes had been paid while playing in Russia.
Corran described her as a passionate, highly competitive coach who wants the best for her program and her sport. “Shannon is very committed to her athletes and very protective of them,” Corran said. “She has a great deal of integrity, and she’s honest. You know exactly what you’re getting with her.”
Title IX violation?
A native of Melfort, Saskatchewan, Miller wound up with a black eye and stitches when she tried out for the newly established team at the University of Saskatchewan in the early 1980s. She made the roster, earning the nickname “Killer Miller.” She also realized she wanted to coach, though there were few paying jobs for women.
She became a police officer, patrolling a beat and working undercover with drug, vice and robbery units. While off duty, Miller worked her way up the coaching ladder, including six unpaid years as assistant and head coach for Team Canada. Though she initially turned down the UMD job — she thought the city was too small — she connected with Duluth and now holds U.S. citizenship.
“There are people that will hate me because I’m a successful woman, because I’m a strong woman, because I’m gay, because maybe we do better than the men’s program typically, because we’re Division I and we have this and [other UMD sports are] Division II and they don’t,” she said. “Several times, I thought about leaving. But I love my players, and they love me.”
Some women’s sports advocates believe that Miller and her players could have grounds to file a Title IX complaint. Nancy Hogshead-Makar, past president and legal adviser for the Women’s Sports Foundation, said coaches cannot be paid less for a gender-based reason. Title IX also requires that coaches of men’s and women’s teams must be of similar quality.
“Salary is one way you measure how good a coach is,” she said. If UMD hires a coach less accomplished than Miller or Sandelin, or pays the new coach a substantially lower salary, it could be found in violation of Title IX.
Other women’s sports experts said Miller’s ouster signals that women coaches could lose their jobs if their success propels them to high salaries. Nicole LaVoi, who studies coaching as associate director of the U’s Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport, said she has never heard of a coach being let go for making too much money.
“You would never tell [Alabama football coach] Nick Saban, ‘You’re paid too much, therefore we’re going to have to let you go,’ ” LaVoi said. “Usually, it’s the converse argument, where [a school] wants to pay high-performing coaches what they’re worth. This is a game-changer for women coaches, and not in a good way.”
Black wrote in his email that it was a difficult decision to let Miller go and knew there would be a strong reaction, but he noted he has heard from “many people” who support it.
The number of female head coaches has declined steadily over the years; a new Tucker Center report shows that 40 percent of women’s teams at major colleges are coached by women. Miller is the only female head coach remaining in the eight-team WCHA.
For now, Miller said, she is concentrating on making the most of her final season at UMD. While supporters are calling for her reinstatement, she said she will not return to UMD as long as Berlo is athletic director.
She does not know what lies beyond the end of the season next month, save for one thing.
“I am not going to back down,” Miller said. “I feel like I’m supposed to be doing this, and I embrace it. Good is going to come of this, for women and for society. There’s no doubt in my mind that that’s the path we’re on.”