Women Coaching Men's College Basketball Remains a Rarity

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November 12, 2013 Tuesday
1863 words
No crashing 'GLass Ceiling';
Women still boxed out of coaching in men's game
Nicole Auerbach, @NicoleAuerbach, USA TODAY Sports

Confused, Bernadette Mattox peered down at the note on her desk.

It said Tubby Smith had called from Kentucky. She thought he'd simply gotten her number by mistake; earlier, she had called the women's basketball office at Kentucky to confirm scheduling details on behalf of the Georgia women's basketball program. Somehow, she figured, her message had gone to the wrong staff.

But when she called Smith back later to apologize and clear up the confusion, he surprised her with a question first. Would she be interested in joining him on Rick Pitino's staff and becoming the first female assistant in Division I college men's basketball?

Mattox interviewed in Lexington, where Pitino outlined her responsibilities. She wouldn't be on the road recruiting, but the rest would be identical to what he asked of his other assistants. "I was very appreciative of the fact that he respected me enough -- or a female enough -- that he thought I could come in there and do what the guys did," Mattox says.

"You first have to give credit to Rick Pitino for having that type of vision," Smith says. "At that time, no one dreamed of having a female coach on their staff."

Pitino wanted to hire her. His athletics director, C.M. Newton, gave him the green light.

"Frankly," Newton says, "my only thought process was, 'If she's truly a coach and you're going to treat her as a coach, then you're free to hire whoever you want. If you are doing this as a token and she's not going to (have) coaching responsibilities, then don't do it.'"

This was 1990.

Since then, only two other women have become full-time assistants on Division I men's basketball staffs, according to USA TODAY Sports research: Stephanie Ready at Coppin State and Jennifer Johnston at Oakland University. Both times, like Mattox, the women were sought out for the jobs; they didn't apply. And both Ready and Johnston were out of the men's game by 2002.

Women work in the realm of college men's basketball in various ways -- some in administrative roles, some as athletic trainers, for example -- but so few as coaches. From 2003 to 2011, the Equity in Athletics Data Analysis database lists six full-time female assistants on Division I men's basketball staffs. But queries to the schools uncover the real number: 0.

There have been no female head coaches in Division I men's basketball, either.

"I remember Bernadette working for Rick and the incredible fanfare," Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman says. "That was thought to be the turning point. Many of us had a great sense of anticipation that it was going to create this new avenue. It's like it died on the vine."

It's particularly puzzling to those who coached with Mattox.

"There have been a lot of men who have crossed over into the women's game but not a lot of women who crossed over into the men's game," says Florida coach Billy Donovan, who coached alongside Mattox at Kentucky. "I really thought when Coach Pitino did that it would really open up a lot of doors."

Familiar reasons

So why hasn't it?

The most common answers might sound familiar.

Women don't actively seek coaching jobs in men's sports, so there is no pool of female applicants for men to hire from. Then, because there are no women coaching men's teams, there are no female role models encouraging others to cross gender lines. The cycle perpetuates itself.

Even Pitino, who received plenty of attention for hiring Mattox, says he's never received an application or call from a female coach.

"The pool is still relatively small," Atlantic 10 Commissioner Bernadette McGlade says. "(Women) are not only not in the men's game, but their numbers are dwindling in the women's side of the game. ... It's not like there's this great demand and they're just not getting hired."

When Title IX was passed in 1972, more than 90% of collegiate women's sports teams were coached by women, according to a study from Brooklyn College professors emerita R.Vivian Acosta and Linda Jean Carpenter. Acosta and Carpenter found that in 2012 42% of women's teams had female coaches. In women's basketball, 62% of the head coaches last season were women.

Much of these statistics can be linked back to Title IX. In the decade after its implementation, many schools merged their men's and women's programs. Most of the time, they made the man who ran the men's side the new athletics director overseeing the new athletics department. Women who had run the women's physical education or athletics departments were demoted or moved out altogether.

With fewer high-level female administrators, it became more difficult for women to get jobs as head coaches, a trend that has continued. A 2012 survey by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida revealed 8.2% of Division I athletics directors were female.

Stereotypes persist

There's no way to explain away this phenomenon without examining the stereotypes that lie beneath it.

Male players won't want to play for women. They won't respect them. They won't take orders from them. Women are too soft, too emotional, too fragile. Even if they played the sport, they can't possibly understand it as well as their male counterparts do. And, of course, women don't belong in the men's locker room.

Mattox, Ready and Johnston debunk all of those claims.

All three report having overwhelmingly positive experiences with players. They say their backgrounds helped (Mattox was Georgia's first All-American; Ready and Johnston played college ball, too), and they built relationships during individual workouts. Still, it took time to earn respect.

Oakland coach Greg Kampe says Johnston "did a heck of a job" for him and, if he'd had to do it all over, he'd hire her again.

"I thought our players -- after it took a little while to get used to it -- I think they really appreciated that she was on the staff," Kampe says. "She brought a different perspective, especially with off-court situations. They would go to her with social issues, from girlfriends to everything."

Concerns about locker room access were overblown, Mattox says. "Why should I be in there?" she says. "A head coach of women's team who is male wouldn't be in there." Pitino himself wouldn't go in until it was time to speak to the team, she says.

Fellow coaches on staff soon admired their female colleagues for their coaching competence and temperament in difficult situations. Donovan remembers Mattox's grace when dealing with all of the media attention. Kampe recalls a game against Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) in which a man heckled Johnston, screaming sexually charged commentary.

"I stopped the game, went to the referees and asked for the guy to be removed and told them what he was saying," Kampe says. "I've never done anything like that in my life. It was really bad, and those are the things that are out there."

Competence not question

Many of the male coaches and athletics officials interviewed for this story said a female coach could win Division I men's basketball games.

"If you took any of the women's coaches and you put them on the court in between the lines, they would be very, very competent," Donovan says.

Hall of Famer Pat Summitt, who won eight NCAA women's basketball championships at Tennessee, has been mentioned over the years as someone who could have broken barriers on the men's side. Newton, who hired Pitino at Kentucky in 1989, acknowledges that he thought about hiring Summitt instead.

On Feb. 13, 2003, Tennessee State athletics director and former women's coach Teresa Phillips became the first woman to coach a Division I men's basketball team, filling in for her coach who had to serve a one-game suspension. The Phillips-led Tigers lost 71-56 at Austin Peay. At the time, Phillips downplayed the significance of what she did, telling reporters that women wouldn't truly make history until one was hired to run a men's team. She called herself a pinch-hitter.

If the question is not, Can women do it? it must be, Why aren't they doing it?

Start with the so-called "good ol' boys" club, Newton says, an explanation echoed by many others. Male coaches know and work with other male coaches. When they become head coaches and hire assistant coaches, they hire those with whom they're familiar. The same goes for male athletics directors.

"People just don't like to take that gamble," says Coppin State head coach Fang Mitchell, who hired Ready. "Men are men. A lot of times, they feel comfortable around men. It's the same (thought) I've had where there aren't a lot of African-American coaches. People feel comfortable with certain types of people."

Other forms of networking matter in coaching, too. Mainly in recruiting. Though men have jumped into the women's game from scratch, some coaches think that would be too risky to hire a female assistant who had no experience recruiting men.

"If I were to go and take a women's head coaching job, I wouldn't know the AAU coaches, the high school coaches," Donovan says. "When you talk about bringing a woman over onto the men's side, a lot of times it has nothing to do with their knowledge or their ability to coach and teach and do those things.

"It's relationship-based, and it takes a long time to build those relationships."

Mattox and Johnston ended up coaching women's basketball after they left the men's game, illustrating what Kampe calls a "glass ceiling." There is no upward mobility for female assistants in the men's game; they have no shot at becoming head coaches unless they coach women, he and other administrators think.

After four seasons on Pitino's staff, Mattox stepped away from coaching to start a family. She became an assistant athletics director for a year, then accepted a head coaching job -- with the Kentucky women's basketball program, a position she held until 2003. She spent the next decade as an assistant coach with the WNBA's Connecticut Sun.

Ready left Coppin State in 2001 and took an assistant coaching gig with the Greenville (S.C.) Groove, an NBA Developmental League team that folded two years later after giving her the distinction of being the first female to coach in men's pro sports in the USA. Ready now works as a TV host and sideline reporter for the NBA Charlotte Bobcats.

Johnston left Oakland in 2002 to take a job on the women's staff at the University of Toledo, a big pay increase. Four years later, she helped found Rauner College Prep, a charter school in Chicago, and launch its athletics department. These days, she remains its athletics director and a physical education teacher. But Johnston still says her dream job was the one she got when she was 23.

The reminders near her desk at Rauner are subtle -- a couple of photos from her Oakland days, a copy of an article from her hometown newspaper. When her students first noticed them a couple of years ago, they couldn't believe what their teacher had done a decade before.

"I tell them, but you know teenagers don't listen so well," Johnston says, laughing. "They really are interested in it. My students who are really into basketball will pick my brain, make me play with them, stuff like that."

She pauses.

"I don't think they realize how unique of a situation I was in."

November 12, 2013

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