Teresa Phillips

(WOMENSENEWS)–When Teresa Phillips donned her whistle to lead the Tennessee Tigers against Austin Peay, she became the first woman to coach a Division I men’s basketball team–but only for one game.

Last February, Phillips, athletic director overseeing men’s and women’s athletics at Tennessee State University in Nashville, named herself head coach of the men’s basketball teamfor a day while the interim head coach servedout a one-game suspension. The hardest part, shesaid, was the media field day that followed.

“There was a lot of hullabaloo, which made for a hard week for me,” said Phillips, who has nearly 20 years of experience coaching women’s college basketball. But, she added, “The minute the ball went up in the air, it was just another game.”

Tennessee State lost the game to the team from Clarksville, Tenn., but Phillips scored a point for women. Her authority to make the call is more remarkable, since women make up less than 20 percent of college athletic directors. Advocates say it is this dearth of women holding the top jobs in college athletics that has led to the decline in their ranks among college coaches.

Last year, the number of women’s teams per National College Athletics Association school was at an all-time high. But as women’s participation in college sports rises, the chance they’ll be coached by women has not. Women hold only 44 percent of the head coaching positions for women’s teams, the lowest representation of females as coaches in women’s college athletics in history, according to research sponsored by the Brooklyn College of the City University of New York and the Project on Women and Social Change at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. The percentage of women coaching men’s teams, however, remains under 2 percent, as it has for the past three decades.

Advocates argue female coaches “got game,” but male-dominated hiring practices put them on the bench.

“Sports traditionally has been a bastion of male dominance,” said Phillips.

Phillips said few women are athletic directors now because few had the opportunity to participate in college sports until Congress enacted Title IX in 1972, prohibiting gender discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funds.

“The average athletic director is probably 50-plus years old,” said Phillips. “There aren’t many women in that category who had opportunities in college sports.”

But the research by Brooklyn College and the Project on Women and Social Change indicates that, while Title IX has led to more opportunities for female athletes, it has also inadvertently resulted in a loss of female coaches.

Before Title IX, men’s and women’s college athletic departments were separate, but unequal, entities at most schools. Female directors usually ran women’s sports programs. Women coached 90 percent of women’s teams, mostly serving as volunteers. In the wake of Title IX, coaches for women’s teams were offered salaries for the first time and men wanted in on the game. At the same time, most colleges merged their men’s and women’s athletic programs into a single department, with the director of the men’s program in charge.

Old Boys’ Network

When it comes to hiring decisions in college sports, “The buck stops at the desk of the athletic director,” said Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women’s Sports Foundation, an East Meadow, N.Y., nonprofit dedicated to women’s equal access to participation and leadership in sports.

“There’s no dearth in qualified applicants among women. There’s only a dearth in athletic directors committed to maintaining a gender balance among coaches,” she said.

Since most athletic directors are men, female coaches are often overlooked in the hiring process, said Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida.

“There tends to be an old boys’ network,” said Lapchick. “That doesn’t mean they’re racist or sexist. It means they deal with their inner circle . . . Generally speaking, white men hire other white men.”

When searching for coaches for women’s teams, athletic directors typically put out a job announcement, review the resumes that come in, conduct interviews and make someone an offer. Advocates argue that athletic directors need to do more than make a paper hire: They need to recruit qualified women.

“The thing to ask athletic directors is, ‘Are you spending the same effort as you are on the more visible teams on the men’s side?'” said Athena Yiamouyiannis, executive director of the National Association for Girls and Women in Sports, a Reston, Va., nonprofit organization dedicated to providing equitable opportunities for girls and women in sports.

Lower Pay, Name Calling

When athletic directors search for their next head football coach, they don’t put out an ad. They pick up the phone. They call around hunting for the best candidate and make competitive offers to lure good coaches away from other schools.

At the same time, directors will claim a lack of qualified female applicants for a coaching position, but don’t go out and actively recruit them away from other schools, say advocates. Coaching salaries for men’s and women’s teams can attest to the lower importance accorded women’s athletics. On average, women’s team head coaches earn 62 cents for every dollar earned by head coaches on men’s teams.

“If there’s an open invitation, or support or guidance provided, there will be an increase in women as coaches,” said Yiamouyiannis.

Female coaches can also do more to promote themselves in the hiring process, said Phillips. She recently conducted a search for a new women’s basketball coach and more men called her office than women.

“You’ve got to have women of courage to stick their neck out there and demand opportunities . . . you have to push the envelope a little,” she said.

Phillips said that female coaches also tend to be more inclined to stay in one job, rather than take a position that would require them to move their families to another part of the country.

But single women who are more likely to be willing to move to take a coaching job are less likely to have that opportunity, some say. Athletic directors fear that hiring a single woman will negatively impact their ability to recruit student athletes, said Yiamouyiannis, since coaches keen to recruit a top student athlete have been known to play the homophobia card and claim that a competing school’s coach is a lesbian.

Little Chance to Get in on Men’s Game

While the dynamics of the hiring process make it easier for men to poach positions coaching women’s teams, they make it tougher for women to land a job leading men.

“Women think it’s useless to try to apply because they don’t think they’ll be seriously considered. It’s a vicious cycle,” Yiamouyiannis said.

Nancy Harris got a chance to coach men because her athletic director gave her a shot. When Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., decided to combine the men’s and women’s tennis teams in 1994, the athletic director offered the new job to Harris, then the women’s coach. The following year, she led the guys to a national championship, which along with a previous women’s title, made her the first woman to coach both a men’s and a women’s college tennis team to national championships.

Her male athletes treated her with respect, she said. And when it came time to recruit new team members, her championship record spoke louder than her gender. She had no problem recruiting new athletes, and made it to a second national men’s championship before she moved on to become head coach of the women’s team at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C.

Harris said, in time, more women will be given the opportunity to coach both men’s and women’s college teams. Until then, “I wish all the young women out there who want to go into a career in coaching a lot of persistence, discipline and strength.” she said.

Shauna Curphey is a freelance writer and law student living in Long Beach, Calif.

For more information:

National Association for Girls and Women in Sport–
“Women in Intercollegiate Sport: A Longitudinal Study–
Twenty-five Year Update”
(Adobe PDF format):

Smith College–
Project on Women and Social Change: