If you're a young woman looking for a coaching job, dreaming of winning a college championship, be sure to talk first with Dena Evans. Her stint as coach of Stanford's top-flight women's cross-country team was anything but glamorous. During meets, she would roam the sidelines of cold Midwestern towns and between races breast-feed her baby beneath a tree. She spent team van rides stressed out, wondering if her child's wails were ruining her runners' concentration. Because her husband traveled frequently for work, she often couldn't leave the kids with him. "We're not like Posh and Becks with the nanny and the private jet," she says. Two years ago, despite having won a national championship, Evans left the field.
Too many women are following Evans out the locker-room door. Lost in the recent tidal wave of praise surrounding the 35th anniversary of Title IX, the federal legislation that spawned an explosion in the number of women and girls participating in interscholastic sports, is a disturbing statistic: only 42% of women's college teams are led by a female head coach--the lowest level ever, according to a recent study by two retired Brooklyn College professors. In 1972, the year Title IX outlawed gender discrimination in school sports and any other federally funded education program, that proportion was higher than 90%. The trend has even carried over to the pros. When the WNBA started in 1997, seven of its eight head coaches were women. Now nine of its 13 coaches are men. "Just as opportunities are opening up for women coaches, [these jobs] seem to be escaping them," says NCAA president Myles Brand. "It's ironic, even a bit cruel."
What's driving the decline? Evans' work-life dilemma is a good place to start. As a result of Title IX's success, women coaches are expected to win as much as the men. With those expectations come crippling hours, including weekends spent on the road recruiting. That puts unique pressure on women with families, who, since they are less likely to find a spouse ready to back-burner a career to raise the kids, may have more trouble than their male counterparts in making child-care arrangements.
To stay in the game, some coaches have to take desperate steps. Karen Tessmer, women's basketball head coach at Massachusetts' Worcester State College, a Division III program, ran practices while her infant daughter was strapped on her back. "I couldn't go out and demonstrate a jump shot like I used to, but I could still walk through plays," she says of coaching with a backpack baby. Tessmer insists the arrangement was more hazardous to her than to her daughter. "She pulled my whistle back a bunch of times and almost choked me," she says.
High-profile, time-consuming coaching jobs can also strain marital relationships. "It takes a remarkable man in this day and age to be married to a successful female coach," says University of Georgia gymnastics coach Suzanne Yoculan, whose championship drive (she has won eight national titles) contributed to a divorce. "The expectations are so much higher for women now," she says. "We wanted this. You have to watch what you wish for."
Men also have more incentive now to go after women's coaching positions. "With the addition of funding and notoriety in women's sports, these jobs are very appealing for men," says University of Arizona softball coach Mike Candrea, who has won eight national titles with the Wildcats. For men seeking these spots, it doesn't hurt that 80% of college athletic directors are male. Says Brand: "Breaking the old-boys'-club bias is very difficult."
Although it's easy to minimize the impact of the women's coaching shortage--for example, fathers often introduce young girls to sports and remain active in their athletic development, so many female college players say they prefer playing for a male coach--here's why we shouldn't: most student athletes spend more time with their coach than with any other adult at school. Many coaches wield enormous influence on campus and in their communities. So what message is being sent to young women when men fill most of these leadership roles? "Their own expectations, their own aspirations are limited and distorted as a result," says Marcia Greenberger, a co-president of the National Women's Law Center.
Addressing the shortfall won't be easy. Ultimately, it will be up to individual schools to provide family-friendly benefits like off-season flex time. But will the athletic directors spend that last dollar on day care for a female coach or a shiny new locker for the football team? Will they actively recruit a woman coach as hard as they do a man? "The most important thing to my athletic director is the Directors' Cup," Yoculan says of the award given to the school with the best overall athletic performance in both men's and women's sports. "You win that by winning national titles. You don't win it by how many women coaches you have." Thanks to Title IX, women have a bigger stake in college athletics. Just don't count on them to call the plays.