DULUTH – Five years ago this month, Shannon Miller was called to her superior’s office.
The University of Minnesota Duluth women’s hockey coach had a lot on her mind. Her sixth-ranked team had won 12 of its last 13 games, and her players were preparing for final exams. At this meeting, Miller believed she would finally hammer out a contract renewal, as her current agreement was about to expire.
Instead, when Miller sat down with UMD Chancellor Lendley Black and athletic director Josh Berlo, she was told she would not be retained after the Bulldogs’ season. Nor would her three-person, all-female staff.
“I was stunned,” Miller said. “I was absolutely stunned.”
In the two-minute walk from Black’s office to her car, Miller resolved to fight back. With five NCAA titles under her belt and a winning percentage of .712 during her 16 seasons with the university, she felt the decision to fire her was “blatant discrimination.”
Now, after more than four years of hearings and appeals and headlines, Miller feels some validation. She recently reached a $4.5 million settlement with UMD, of which she’ll receive $2.1 million.
“There’s no question it was the right thing to do,” Miller said last week, discussing the conclusion of her lawsuit. “There is no question that it was worth it. And there is no question that I would do it again.”
UMD publicly said the decision not to renew Miller’s contract was “financially driven.” Black and Berlo did not respond to a request for comment, though a university spokesperson said that the school “welcomes the conclusion of this matter.”
Miller is now living in her Las Vegas condo with her partner, Jen Banford, the former UMD softball coach who also sued the university alleging discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation. The pair started an electric pedal pub company based in Palm Springs, Calif., where Miller owned a second property.
Miller said the small business has helped cover some, though not all, of the couple’s costs of living since it launched in 2015. But she looks at the venture as more than a financial endeavor.
“We didn’t want to sit here, year after year, not get a job and have the lawsuit be the focus of our life,” Miller said.
Both women have been looking for new coaching gigs to no avail. Before she launched litigation against UMD, Miller said people warned her that it could hurt her hiring prospects down the road.
“But I needed to do this for my own soul,” she said. “I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t.”
It was with her players in mind that Miller decided to take on the University of Minnesota Board of Regents — what she described as “almost a David and Goliath story” — to shine a spotlight on what she believed was wrong. Before Miller was fired, her team saw how their coach worked long hours despite a lower salary, smaller staff and worse ice times.
Banford and former UMD women’s basketball coach Annette Wiles are still waiting for a U.S. Supreme Court decision expected by June that could set a precedent on whether sexual orientation is protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
If that ruling is made in their favor, their cases could go to trial based on related claims — a right Miller waived by settling.
Still, she is paying close attention to the outcome. Since 2015, Miller has received hundreds of calls from female coaches and other women across the nation asking about her case.
Miller listens to their stories and if women tell her they’ve felt humiliated, bothered or like they’re getting strung along, she first encourages them to document everything. Though enduring the legal process has not been easy, she said her experience may inspire women facing similar situations to act.
“If we don’t stand up and fight,” Miller said, “how is it ever going to change?”