She's Your Coach?

From basketball to golf to football, there is a new gender applying to head men's teams. Here's a look at the legal, philosophical, and practical issues related to this trend.

By Shelly Wilson

Shelly Wilson is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management.

Athletic Management, 14.2, February/March 2002,

Barbara Wilburn has done what most coaches haven't. Twofold. She has led her team to a state title. And she has done it as a female coach of a boys' team.

But when she arrived at the Arkansas state boys' basketball tournament last winter with her team, she couldn't even get directions to the locker rooms. "I walked in with my male athletic director and the greeter started telling my AD where the hospitality room was and other orientation details,"Wilburn recalls.

"And when my athletic director told him he needed to give me that information--that I was the head coach--the greeter looked at me, looked back at my athletic director, and proceeded to tell my AD the directions again. My players stood there telling the greeter, 'She's our coach,' and he still didn't believe them."

Once Wilburn was finally given the directions she needed, her team quickly went to work. By the time the Marked Tree High School squad was finished, it had topped Turrell, 54-49, for the 2001 Class AA state title.

At the same time, 3,500 miles away, another female coach was lifting a trophy with the word "boys" on it. Amy Rakers, Head Coach of the boys' basketball squad at Kodiak High School in Alaska, led the Bears to their first state title in more than 30 years by topping powerhouse East Anchorage High for the 4A title.

At the college level, Bernadette Mattox served as Assistant Coach under Kentucky's Rick Pitino, helping lead future NBA stars like Jamal Mashburn, Rodney Dent, and Tony Delk to the 1993 Final Four (she is now Head Coach of the Kentucky women's squad). And, at the professional level, Stephanie Ready, former Assistant Coach of the Coppin State University men's basketball team, was hired last summer to be an Assistant Coach of the National Basketball Development League's Greenville Grooves, making her the first woman to coach a professional men's sports team in the United States.

But the most newsworthy female coach of a boys' team as of late has to be Geraldine Fuhr. That's because she is among the first to bring the question of females coaching boys' and men's teams into the U.S. federal courts. In 1999, Fuhr applied for the head coaching position on the Hazel Park (Mich.) High School boys' varsity basketball team. When she was not selected for the job, she sued the school district. And won.

Hazel Park had chosen John Barnett, the school's freshman boys' coach of two years, for the position. But Fuhr believed her experience as Head Coach of the Hazel Park varsity girls' basketball team for 10 years and of the boys' j.v. team for nine years, as well as her role as Assistant Coach of the varsity boys' team for nine years, made her a more qualified candidate.

Last summer, a jury agreed with Fuhr, and she is now coaching the Hazel Park boys' team. The school district must also pay her $245,000 in damages. (See "Fuhr v. Hazel Park" at the end of this article for more.)

Question Marks
Although the number of women applying for coaching positions of men's and boys' teams is still small, the Fuhr case indicates that administrators may need to change their thinking about cross-gender hiring. The jury's decision makes it clear that treating a female candidate differently than a male when she applies for a job coaching boys or men can be found to be discriminatory.

But it also brings up an important question: Should we encourage females to apply for positions coaching male athletes? Especially with high-profile hires, there is more to think about than a coach's experience.

The initial concerns of many athletic administrators center on the differences between men's and women's sports. For example, are boys' and men's sports fundamentally different in intensity, competitiveness, physicality, and difficulty than those played by their female counterparts? And do these differences require a kind of coaching and insight only men who've played these men's sports can provide?

"I think the difference between men's and women's programs shrinks all the time,"says C.M. Newton, retired Director of Athletics at the University of Kentucky, who supported the hiring of Mattox in 1990. "Could a woman coach a men's program? Absolutely. Pat Summitt could coach here at Kentucky, or anywhere else, in my opinion."

Dave Hewett, Head Football Coach at Ransom Everglades High School in Miami, Fla., and a former high school athletic director, agrees. He says that coaching is as much about administration, education, and personnel management as it is about drawing on personal competitive experience.

"As an athletic director, some of the best coaches I ever hired never played college ball,"he says, "and some of them never played high school ball. In fact, one of my best baseball coaches I don't think ever played baseball a day in his life."

And Hewett has put his money where his mouth is. In 1991, when he was the Head Football Coach at Miami's Palmer Trinity High School, he hired Michelle Brenner as an Assistant Coach in charge of the wide receivers and defensive backs. She remained with the team until 1995, when she was hired as a Physical Education Teacher and Assistant Football Coach at Ransom Everglades. When Hewett took over at Ransom Everglades in 1999, he hired Brenner on his football staff again.

"She had never played football, but she had studied the game,"says Hewett. "She went to a lot of clinics, talked to many coaches, and went to a lot of area high school practices. So she knew the game--not from a player's point of view, but as a game.

"And that's why I hired her,"he continues. "She knew what she was doing, and she was an educator. And if you're an educator, it doesn't matter if your players are male or female, white or black, you're there for the kids."

Dr. Ellen Staurowsky, Associate Professor of Sport Studies at Ithaca College, is a former Director of Athletics (at William Smith College) and Head Coach of men's soccer (at Daniel Webster College). Like Hewett, she believes it's the ability to educate that enables the best coaches to reach beyond the differences between gender and connect with their players.

"Maybe some athletes respond better to certain authoritarian structures than others,"she says. "But the assumption that all male athletes benefit from a certain [male] coaching style is as ridiculous as the notion that all females respond better to a kinder, gentler, nicer coaching style. Different athletes respond in different ways depending on who they are, what their goals are, and what motivates them. And good coaches know how to tap into those differences and adjust accordingly."

A second question is, "How will my male athletes feel about being coached by a woman?"Dr. Marty Ewing, Associate Professor of Sports Psychology at Michigan State University, has found a straightforward answer.

"What we have learned in our research with youth, six to 18 years of age, is that they don't care who coaches them as long as the coaches know what they are doing,"says Ewing, who has been studying the topic for 18 years and has polled more than 30,000 youth. "The kids want to learn skills, they want to improve, and they want to play. And if a coach will work with them to improve their skills, if they see themselves getting better, and if they get to play, then you're a great coach in their eyes."

Chuck Bell, Director of Athletics at San Jose State University, found that true when he hired Nancy Lewis as Director of Golf and Head Men's and Women's Golf Coach. "Our recruiting has improved in both sports since Nancy took over,"he says. "The male athletes respect what she's achieved as a professional golfer, collegiate national champion, and as a coach, and they can relate to her success. Young folks know better than to buy into the old stereotypes. Whether the players are male or female, they want to know what the quality of the coach is."

A third question for some administrators is, "Will she stay with the team if she decides to have children?"It is clearly discriminatory to judge a candidate this way, but it is a concern at some programs.

"One issue people don't want to talk about is the personal aspects associated with a female coach versus a male coach,"says Dr. Robert Corran, Director of Intercollegiate Athletics at the University of Minnesota at Duluth, where a woman led the men's track team for seven years. "There's an expectation that a male is going to stay in coaching, that this is going to be a career for him, and that he is committed to the profession, whereas there's an attitude toward females that coaching for them is a temporary thing--that family obligations will become greater than they can handle and that they'll leave.

"But that is an unfair bias,"he continues. "There are lots of examples of men who leave coaching to enter other professions. We discount those occurrences involving men yet count those instances very heavily against women."

A final question is, "Will my boosters and other supporters look less favorably on the program if it is headed by a woman?"Many administrators say that should not be a concern.

"It's going to be an issue with some people,"says Newton. "There are some people who don't want you to hire a black head coach. And there are some people who don't want you to have a woman assistant. But you can't worry about that stuff. You have to hire the best people."

"What we do is provide meaningful experiences for our student-athletes,"says Corran, "and those who support our programs are supposed to be supporting that ideal. If you've made the right decision--if this coach is the most qualified, competent candidate and is going to have a positive impact on your student-athletes--and some people don't support that, then those are people you really don't want as boosters, and you might suggest they support something else."

Changing the Process
If considering female candidates for men's and boys' team is to become part of an athletic director's hiring process, how does one make it happen? The first step, say athletic directors who have gone down that road, is to change your strategy in one major area. Instead of looking for the best male for the job, you need to think about finding the best coach for the job.

Bell suggests establishing gender-neutral criteria for the position even before compiling and considering candidates. Not only can this help avoid unknowingly committing sexual discrimination in hiring, but it also provides a useful guideline as to what professional qualities are most important to the position.

"When we were beginning the search for a new director of golf, who would also coach both teams, it was our mission to return both teams back to national prominence,"he says. "To do that, we felt we needed one of our former greats to be the coach. We wanted someone who had been on one of our national championship teams, and we wanted someone who was presently teaching pros or was a coach. So the candidate had to not only be a great golfer, but also part of our school's tradition and have coaching experience. And Nancy met all of those criteria."

Bobby Bolding, current Director of Athletics in the Stuttgart (Ark.) School District, was Director of Athletics at Marked Tree (Ark.) High School when he hired Barbara Wilburn. He says he also looked at his needs first. "You want the best person to meet the needs of that particular group of young men in that particular situation,"he says. "In our case, we needed someone who was a strong disciplinarian, who would look out for the kids, who had knowledge of the sport, and who was also strong in the fundamentals, and Barbara was perfect for our situation."

Gender-neutral criteria can be used in even the most high-profile hires with very short time frames. "At the college level, there is often a complete disregard of equal employment opportunity regulations and process [when hiring for men's teams],"says Donna Lopiano, Executive Director of the Women's Sports Foundation and former Director of Women's Athletics at the University of Texas. "The justification for quick hires without posting jobs or conducting adequate searches is that it's an "emergency"hire--that the recruiting period is going to end [soon] and they're going to fall behind. But if these programs can go out and do an emergency search and find male candidates, they can do an emergency search and find female candidates."

In other words, athletic directors must be willing to include female candidates on their emergency-hire short lists. "If you think about the hiring of Bob Knight at Texas Tech as a case in point,"says Staurowsky, "that certainly was not a paper search. It was very targeted and they had very specific individuals in mind. And in that kind of context, women don't have a shot, because the decision makers in those cases don't even think about a woman."

"I've had over 50 years in this business, and I can remember when the pool of applicants for athletes and coaches were all white,"says Newton. "We broadened that pool when we integrated our athletic programs. And now we're seeing African-American administrators, coaches, and players being successful. As an administrator, when you broaden that pool to also include women, it gives you a better chance of selecting the best person for the job."

When she was at Texas, Lopiano employed a simple technique to quickly pull together a diverse list of qualified job candidates. "For every head coach opening, I would get the NCAA ranking of top 10 or top 20 coaches in the country,"she says. "Then, I would call each one of those coaches and say, 'Would you please name for me the top 10 coaches of color in your sport, the top 10 female coaches, and the top 10 coaches [overall]. And the reason I asked those three questions is because typically you do confront unintentional sexism and racism when you talk to people. You have to force people to think about minority candidates.

"When I was done with my calls,"continues Lopiano, "I had a diverse job pool that I could go and hustle."

Another part of the hiring process includes not using the candidates' experience coaching boys as the primary determining factor for hiring. "You can't blame female coaches for not having experience coaching men and boys,"says Newton, "just as you can't penalize a man applying for a spot on a women's team staff for not having worked with women."

Making It A Success
Hiring a female coach for a men's team is still out of the norm, and such a move will raise eyebrows in many communities. Administrators who have successfully made these hires say the key to minimizing opposition and ensuring a smooth transition is to treat the coach just as you would a male coach.

That means introductions, preparations, guidance, and evaluations should be nothing but standard. Yet, it also means not ignoring that you're doing something a bit different.

"When we hired Barbara to head our boys' basketball team, we met with the boys and I introduced her,"says Bolding. "But I didn't say, 'Look, we have a woman coach, you need to be careful and watch how you act.' We didn't want her to be treated any differently than any other coach. We expected our boys to act as gentlemen whether it was a male or female in there.

"If you sit around looking for challenges,"he continues, "they're going to pop up all around you. We didn't. We said, 'She's the coach,' and we moved on."

Just as with a male coach, expressing confidence in your new hire is also extremely important. "Good administrative leaders set the stage for these coaches to be successful,"says Staurowsky. "If the leaders are not confident about who they hired, they create a lot of fear and uncertainty among the program and public."

"The administration didn't make me feel like they were taking a risk by hiring me,"says San Jose State's Lewis. "They made it clear they felt they had hired the right person for the job--not the right female for the job--and I think that, in turn, gave me, alumni, and supporters confidence.

"At the same time, Chuck didn't ignore the big elephant in the room, because it is rare in men's sports to have a female coach,"she continues. "Obviously, he still gets asked about it. But while he addresses the questions, he makes it clear it's not an issue."

Bell did experience some confrontations on the issue, but stuck by his decision and found the dissent was short-lived. "At first, it didn't go over well at all,"he says. "I caught a wrath, as did my president, for making that move. Some of the old timers in men's golf objected vehemently. They said they'd never support SJSU men's golf again, that we were trying to ruin men's golf, and other prejudiced remarks rooted in the fact that never before had a woman headed a men's program.

"But at the end of her first year, we received great vindication,"he continues. "She was selected WAC Coach of the Year, and that quieted the naysayers."

And many stress the importance of keeping this strategy throughout the first-year mistakes and questioning. "Any new coach is potentially going to face discontent over who made the team, the style of play he or she wants to adopt, the coaching decisions they make, or how they run their practices,"Staurowsky says. "And sometimes, because of gender stereotyping, those kinds of tensions can be exacerbated. There's sometimes an assumption that the female coach is doing something wrong--that maybe she's not as good as they thought. And athletic directors have to be wary of jumping to those conclusions.

"Instead, when problems do arise, administrators should implement the same coach-athlete mediation process they always follow,"she continues. "You don't change that just because you have a cross-gender coaching situation. If you jump to the conclusion that the problems are because males and females just can't get along, the administrator has undermined the coach before she's ever had a chance to get going."

At the same time, however, the athletic director may need to help the coach with some strategies for winning everyone over. "To go into this without acknowledging that there may be some folks who don't want her there, and without strategies for how to win them over, would probably not be a wise survival strategy for the AD or coach,"says Staurowsky. "They may need to talk about keeping a good sense of humor--that the coach needs to remain confident and be able to laugh at some of the offensive things she might encounter."

The final point administrators make is that, just as with any coach, the key is to give her both the tools and the autonomy to carry out her work. "Here at SJSU, administration has given me absolute empowerment to do my job,"explains Lewis. "They told me, 'Here are your keys, here's your desk, do your job.' They don't micro-manage me. Instead, they give me the autonomy to do it on my own, and that adds to any coach's credibility."

Fuhr v. Hazel Park

In 1999, Geraldine Fuhr, Head Coach of the Hazel Park (Mich.) varsity girls' basketball team for 10 years and the boys' j.v. team for nine years, as well as Assistant Coach of the varsity boys' team for nine years, applied for the recently vacated post of boys' varsity head coach at the school. When John Barnett, the school's freshman boys' Coach of two years, was selected instead, she sued the school on the grounds of sex discrimination.

In the previous four seasons, Fuhr had posted a 60-20 record with the boys' j.v. team and led it to three league championships. She had stellar job reviews and many accomplishments as a high school and college player.

"Her qualifications were outstanding and perfect,"Fuhr's lawyer, Deborah Gordon, told The Detroit Free Press. "And she was passed over because of stereotypes about women coaching boys' varsity sports."

The school district argued that its selection for the position was not based on Fuhr being a female but rather on a host of other considerations. It explained that it selected Barnett over Fuhr due to his excellence as a high school basketball athlete and its belief that he could bring new energy to the team.

But the jury also heard testimony that School Board President Clint Adkins repeatedly expressed the opinion during the hiring process that the new boys' varsity coach should be a man. And, in August 2001, an eight-member jury found the school district guilty of purposeful bias, awarding Fuhr $455,000 in damages--more than double the amount Gordon had requested. One juror later stated it could have been more.

On Oct. 10, in response to a subsequent motion by Gordon, U.S. District Court Judge George Steeh ordered that Fuhr be appointed boys' varsity coach, leaving her to choose which award to accept: the job or the full amount of damages. On Oct. 31, Fuhr chose to take the job, and Steeh reduced her damages to $245,000 ($210,000 of the original award was meant to compensate her for reduced future earnings).

According to Judy Applebaum, Vice President and Director of Employment Opportunities at The National Women's Law Center, it should be emphasized that the law cited in the Fuhr v. Hazel Park case isn't designed to just protect females. It's written to protect the rights of all job applicants and applies universally in all hiring situations.

"Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits hiring and firing based on gender,"she says. "This is the same law that protects people against race discrimination or national origin discrimination.

"And there's no [legal] defense for sex discrimination just because a gender hasn't been hired in the past,"she continues. "[Discrimination] law has a very narrow exception that says you can hire based on sex if sex is a bona fide occupational qualification necessary to the normal operation of the business. I can't think of any good reason why sex would be a legitimate bona fide occupational qualification for coaching a team. That Fuhr won [her case] confirms this."

This also applies to assessing an applicant's qualifications. One candidate's experience coaching boys versus another's experience coaching girls should be judged as equal, says Applebaum.

"Unless an administrator can show why coaching boys is somehow so different than coaching girls, that's not a fair argument,"explains Applebaum. "So those in charge of hiring have to be really clear that each of the qualifications they're establishing [as hiring criteria] is really necessary to the performance of the job--the qualifications cannot be based on stereotyping or assumptions about differences between men and women or boys and girls.

"For example, assuming that she's going to care more about her home life than work life, assuming that she's too emotional, or assuming that she can't communicate with boys because she's a woman would all be forbidden. And this all applies in the other direction, too. You can't stereotype about men in the workplace, either."

Coaches as Role Models

Over the past decade, many administrators have been alarmed at the decrease of females coaching girls' and women's teams. And the pervasive argument has been that female athletes need female role models. But, if women coaches are hired for boys' and men's teams, are we depriving the male athletes of role models?

"I think there is a misunderstanding,"explains Donna Lopiano, Executive Director of the Women's Sports Foundation. "Nobody is saying girls should have only women coaches. What people are saying is that the majority of coaches of women's teams are male (54.4 percent according to the latest Acosta-Carpenter study), and 98 percent of coaches of boys' teams are male. So, the question is, where are the women coaches?

"If you're running a non-discriminatory employment pool, you should be able to look at both men's and women's programs and see a 50/50 male-to-female ratio, and you're not seeing that,"she continues. "So when we talk of girls needing female role models, we're really talking about career models."

"The role model argument is being put out there because we need young girls to be thinking about coaching as a viable career opportunity for them,"adds Marty Ewing, Associate Professor of Sport Psychology at Michigan State University. "If they never see women doing it, often they think they can't do it. It's the same things we've gone through over whether women should be doctors and men should be nurses. When people don't have examples of people like themselves serving in those roles, that domain appears forbidden."