Volleyball stereotype: Women play, men coach

Volleyball stereotype: Women play, men coach

Scan any recent top 25 list in women's volleyball, and you'll notice something about the coaches.

All but a handful are male.

In December's NCAA tournament, fewer than a third of the 64 teams were coached by women, and only one — Kirsten Booth's Creighton squad — advanced beyond the Sweet 16.

More than 40 years after Title IX ushered in a new era for women's college sports, just 36 percent of Division I women's volleyball programs are led by a female head coach, according to the University of Minnesota's Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport. Its latest report card gives the sport a "D."

The University of Illinois volleyball program just hired its fourth consecutive male coach, Nebraska assistant Chris Tamas, to replace Kevin Hambly, who left to coach at Stanford. The last female head coach was Chris Accornero, in 1979.

The UI isn't alone.

The Big Ten has just two women — Michigan State's Cathy George and Sherry Dunbar-Kruzan at Indiana — in one of the conference's strongest sports, with the top 3 teams in the country this season. The other Power Five conferences — the ACC, Big 12, Pac 12 and SEC — have a handful of women apiece.

This in a sport where women's Division I collegiate teams outnumber men's programs 7-to-1.

"We talk about it all the time," said Kathy DeBoer, executive director of the American Volleyball Coaches Association.

There's not a huge outcry about the disparity, and DeBoer and others say that's because the reasons are complex. In their view, it has more to do with the jobs available and the demands of coaching at the highest levels than widespread discrimination.

It's a sport that's rivaling NCAA basketball and football in terms of high stakes, pressure to win and the year-round grind of recruiting.

"Frankly, I get a little impatient when we talk about it and the only thing we talk about is discrimination," said DeBoer, who played at Michigan State, led Kentucky to three SEC championships and was named 1987 National Coach of the Year. "I'm not saying that that's not a factor, but my experience is that it is a very limited factor. That's much easier to address than these large structural issues."

A numbers game

Because more women play college volleyball, that's also where the best jobs are, DeBoer said.

Men who want to coach basketball, by contrast, have lots of options — hundreds of men's college teams, women's college teams, pro teams.

In volleyball, the jobs are heavily weighted on the women's side. There are 334 NCAA Division I head coaching jobs for women's volleyball, and just 22 Division I men's teams. And nothing on the professional end.

"We see elite coaches in men's college volleyball taking jobs on the women's side because the jobs are better," DeBoer said.

The men's coach at USC, Bill Ferguson, took a job last summer as the women's coach at Wake Forest. Shane Davis, who had won two straight national championships as the men's coach at Loyola of Chicago, took over Northwestern's women's program a year ago. And Hugh McCutcheon, who led the U.S. men's Olympic team to gold at the Beijing Olympics, later coached the women's team at the London Games and is now the head women's coach at Minnesota.

"There's just more opportunity for them to coach on the women's side than there are on the men's side," said Michigan State's George. "If you want to go into coaching, that's where you have to go."

And much like other high-profile sports or demanding careers, Division I coaching is a 24-7, year-round pressure cooker that tends to attract fewer women, particularly in elite conferences like the Big Ten, according to men and women who have worked as head coaches.

"It is and continues to be less and less family-friendly," DeBoer said. "Not only is the coaching part of it exceedingly demanding, but the amount of your time you spend on recruiting talent is incredible. It's gone up dramatically in the last 15 years."

It used to be that fall weekends would be set aside for official visits by small groups of high school juniors or seniors. Now coaches field unofficial visits throughout the year as families come to campus on their own. And it starts much earlier, with girls as young as 14.

All of that takes a toll on any coach hoping to have some semblance of normal family life.

"You've got to be a certain type of person for it," said Unity High School varsity coach Kylie McCulley, a former Illini player who worked as a college assistant for two years. "It's a lot of traveling, a lot of time. If you ever want a family or a life, then it's tough. It was a blast, but it just wasn't something I saw myself doing forever."

'I can't do this'

It's not exclusively a women's issue. George — who played at Illinois State — said she hears from both men and women in coaching about the increasing demands of the job, and the impact on their families.

But biologically, men can postpone child rearing longer, said former Illini head Coach Don Hardin.

And women may have more of a "guilt factor," said George, who speaks often to women's groups about the challenges of raising a family as a coach.

"You're taking phone calls at all hours, in the evenings, all weekend. You're giving up some of your personal freedom. If you truly enjoy it, and you're passionate about it, you can make that work," she said.

George met her husband in college and they later got engaged when she was coaching at North Dakota State. They moved together to the University of Texas-Arlington, where he could find a job in athletic marketing and development. She got pregnant with the first of two sons while coaching at Western Michigan.

"I was a tomboy growing up. I wasn't that person who wanted to be a mom all my life. I was so career-oriented," she said. "Then these two guys come into my life."

Like many working moms, she found herself trying to be the perfect mother, wife and coach, but "I felt like I was doing everything halfway."

She felt disconnected from her kids' activities, her house was always in "disarray," and she spent precious free time trying to keep things organized.

One night, she told her husband, "Something's gotta give. I can't do this. I will not sacrifice our children, the way we want to raise our family, for coaching."

Her oldest son, who was about 8 at the time, came running into the kitchen and said, 'Mommy, mommy, we love that you're the coach. We know all the football and basketball players. Don't stop being a coach,'" George said.

It was a turning point, "knowing I could do it because I had their support." Though money was tight then, she decided to hire outside help for the house so she could stay on top of things without giving up her time with the boys. She couldn't be a "normal mom," going to Valentine's parties at school, but her boys went to bowl games and Final Four championships.

And in 1989, George became the first female coach to take a women's volleyball team to the Final Four, with Texas-Arlington.

"I was so young, I didn't realize what a minority I was in, even back then," she said.

'Thinking like a man'

DeBoer and others don't see overt discrimination in coaching hires. In fact, a lot of "very, very sincere and well-intentioned" athletic directors frequently call DeBoer's office looking for recommendations for women candidates.

But she said unintentional bias can play a role.

When the top 25 teams, year after year, are predominantly coached by men, it's easy for administrators — and even players — to say, "Wow, it sure looks like men are better coaches," DeBoer said.

"It's not uncommon to hear that the women on the team, if asked, would say, 'No, we'd rather have a guy.' I hear it from administrators because generally they're shocked when they hear it."

It's not that women can't get to the Final Four, George said, but few are in a position to do it because they're under-represented in the sport's highest levels.

The vast pool of women college players produces plenty of female assistant coaches. And women are better represented in the head coaching ranks of Division II and III or two-year colleges, DeBoer said.

But it takes a long time — perhaps 10 to 12 years — to get a coveted coaching position in a top conference, DeBoer said. And in the meantime, women are getting married and making decisions about whether to start a family.

"It's easier for women to get the young jobs, the early jobs. But it's harder for women to get the top jobs," said former Louisville head coach Anne Kordes, who stepped down in November to raise her young daughter.

Kordes said she never felt like being a woman was a disadvantage when competing for a job, and she was flooded with offers after showing early success at St. Louis University.

But she never bit, even passing up a "dream job" at Colorado, because she wanted to stay close to family in Louisville.

"The only thing that was going to get me out of there was Louisville," she said.

She had taken her first job as an Indiana assistant while still in college. Hardin, who helped coach her as a youth, called a few months later and asked her to be his recruiting coordinator. She declined out of loyalty to Indiana.

But then another female coach told her: "You'd better start thinking like a man. No man would ever pass up a better opportunity, better pay, something that will put them to the next level faster."

She visited Illinois and was "blown away." She took the job, and stayed for six years.

"It really prepared me," she said.

UI Athletic Director Josh Whitman said he interviewed women for the Illinois job, though he wouldn't talk numbers.

"As a general principle, I love female leadership for women's sports. It's something I fully endorse and look for at every opportunity," said Whitman, who hired a woman volleyball coach when he was at Wisconsin-LaCrosse. "But it's always about finding the best person at the right moment, and when we met Chris it was obvious he was the right choice."

Male vs. female

Do men and women coach differently?

"I don't think you can say every male is like this or every female coach is like that. Personally, I think it's good to have balance on your staff," said ex-Illini star Mary Eggers Tendler, now head coach at North Carolina's Elon College.

"Each player just wants to get better, they want to improve and be part of a winning program with a culture that is going to be really positive," she said.

There are practical considerations, of course, like the postgame locker room. But those sorts of things are easily worked out, Hardin said. Women assistants would go in first to make sure the coast was clear, and most locker rooms have separate meeting areas.

"From my vantage point, there was never really any awkwardness over it," he said.

Most Top 25 male head coaches hire a younger female recruiting coordinator to relate to young girls, DeBoer said, though "there are a lot of older coaches who are really, really good at connecting with young players."

McCulley, who played from 2006-09 under Hardin and Hambly, was hired as an assistant at Division II Wayne State, splitting the recruiting duties with the head coach. He was looking specifically for a woman.

"He felt he needed somebody on staff who could relate to the girls in a way that he couldn't," she said. "It was my job to meet with the girls weekly to talk about stuff that a male might not want to."

McCulley had men and women coaches growing up, and there was always a female assistant when she played at Illinois.

"I don't think being a male or female makes you a better coach. But I do think off the court when it comes to personnel and connecting with players, it's nice to have a woman available," she said. "There's always issues with girls and drama and emotions, and a lot of times the females were a little bit better at that."

Generally, her male coaches were "assertive and intense," but it depended on the coach, she said, noting that Hambly didn't fit the model. She never felt uncomfortable with a male coach, especially at the UI.

Hardin almost always had at least one female assistant coach, but said he was usually the empathetic one for players.

The assistants would play bad cop: "'You've got to suck it up, you've got to get tougher.' They could say it in a way I never could," he said.

Tamas, who has a newborn daughter, appears to be in the same mode as Hardin and Hambly. At Friday's press conference, he grew emotional talking about the players he grew close to at Nebraska and made clear he wants the Illini squad to be part of his family.

He told the players that he and his wife want to find a house big enough to have the team over to barbecue and "hang out with the kids and play with his dogs," said Illini junior Ali Bastianelli. "That family involvement is huge.

"Gender does not matter to us, if they're a good coach and understand the basic needs of a collegiate player," she said. "What matters to us is if they're going to care about us as people outside the gym."

Under pressure

The coaching disparity is an issue for all women's sports, not just volleyball, even though salaries have been improving, said UI Associate Athletic Director Paul Kowalchuk.

While there are more female head coaches than ever across women's collegiate sports — 4,154 — the percentage has dropped significantly since the passage of Title IX in 1972, from more than 90 percent to 43 percent today, according to "Women in Intercollegiate Sport," a study by two emeritus professors from Brooklyn College.

DeBoer said there's no one solution. But a number of sports — including softball, women's and men's lacrosse and soccer — are asking administrators to address the problem of early recruiting.

A survey of the association's Division I coaches found that 70 percent thought it was bad for a high school student to choose a college before her junior year.

"And yet they're all still doing it because they feel pressured into it," DeBoer said. Individual schools are reluctant to "disarm unilaterally" by refusing to recruit 14-year-olds.

The NCAA, conferences and other organizations could regulate how much time coaches spend on the recruiting trail, to help high school students and reinstate some work-life balance for coaches, both men and women, she said.

"It's looked at as if this is a female issue. It isn't; it's a quality of life issue," she said. But "women are leaving the profession over it at a higher percentage than men, just as with other occupations where you have to live your job."

Hardin said everyone in the sport would welcome more women in leadership roles: "I think people are looking for it," he said.

Gender gap

Just 21 of the 64 women’s volleyball teams that reached December’s NCAA tournament were coached by women, and several of those advanced by winning conferences outside the big-budget Power 5 (Alabama State, New Hampshire, James Madison). The number of female-coached teams fell considerably in each round:
➜ Nine reached the round of 32.
➜ Two made the Sweet 16.
➜ One (Creighton) advanced to the Elite Eight but no further.

Comments

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Florida Illini wrote on February 12, 2017 at 11:02 am

Really well-done analysis. I appreciate the effort to explain a situation that is confounding on the surface. I appreciate the paper giving the time and space for an article like this.

capt80 wrote on February 13, 2017 at 8:02 am

Waste of bandwidth.

increvable wrote on February 17, 2017 at 12:02 pm

Thank you for going into this subject. It's something I always meant to call into Saturday Sportsline and ask Coach Hambly about, but never got around to doing. Having both partners in a marriage coaching the team is an interesting way to try and manage the difficulties of balancing work and family and I wish them luck. Jennifer Tamas' background as a player, at least, certainly equals that of her husband. It does seem a little strange to me that she is working as a coach for no pay, though I understand why putting her on staff would invite problems with rules on nepotism. Could you imagine the reverse, a wife holding a college head coaching position with her husband as a volunteer assistant? Seeing that come to pass would be a good measure for knowing when women genuinely have the same opportunities as men.

formermi wrote on March 04, 2017 at 5:03 pm

Shouldn't be that hard for Illinois fans to imagine. When the Hamblys arrived, Kevin was a volunteer assistant and Mary was the paid assistant. The roles reversed when he stepped down from his USA Volleyball role.