Women Calling the Shots: Female Head Coaches in College Sports

Three of Manhattan College’s newest head coaches are women (women’s basketball, cross country and women’s lacrosse respectively) and all were hired by the college’s first female athletic director Marianne Reilly.

Although in a recent interview with The Quadrangle Reilly said that selecting female head coaches was not intentional, it still stands out when women fill less than 40 percent of head coaching positions available across all NCAA Division I sports.

Many point to Title IX as the reason for the discrepancy in the numbers of male and female coaches across college athletics. Yes, that same Title IX that mandated equal funding for male and female sports programs.

“Since Title IX kind of leveled the playing field financially, making the salaries better for the women teams’ coaches, more men got into coaching,” Heather Vulin, the college’s new women’s basketball head coach said.

Vulin became familiar with Title IX as part of her graduate studies thesis and is not alone in pointing to the law as paradoxically supporting female athletic programs while simultaneously leading to fewer female coaches in college sports—particularly for women’s teams.

When Title IX was first enacted in 1972, female head coaches led over 90 percent of women’s teams in collegiate sports. Today that number has shrank to 40 percent.

Simply put, as women’s team coaches were paid more because of mandated funding, men competed for the positions. Conversely, women did not begin taking jobs coaching men’s teams.  The most recent data from the NCAA shows women serving as the head coach for only 3 percent of Division I men’s teams.

New cross country coach Kerri Gallagher is one of those outliers, as her new position puts her in charge of both the men’s and women’s distance running programs at the college.

In fact, cross-country and track and field are the sports where it is most frequent for women to serve as the head coach for a men’s team—most likely because it is not uncommon for the men’s and women’s running programs at an institution to share a joint coaching staff.

Although, Gallagher is the first female head coach in sophomore Nick Matson’s running career, he feels it does not have an impact on his work as an athlete.

“To me it really doesn’t change anything. A coach is a coach regardless of gender, or race or anything like that,” Matson said. “Obviously when coaches change there is a difference in training, a difference in attitude, all of those things change. But the gender of the coach changes nothing.”

For other athletes, however, the gender of their coach makes a significant difference.

Amani Tatum, junior women’s basketball player, has transitioned from working with a male head coach to a women calling the plays with the departure of John Olenowski and hiring of Vulin at the end of last season.

Even before the team’s first regular season game, Tatum has seen an impact from having a woman now lead the program. Tatum’s entire coaching staff is comprised of females.

“Having someone as a mentor, being able to just relate to them, I love that. Especially with this coaching staff, they’re all about building relationships and open communication,” Tatum said. “That’s been the biggest difference from last year and this year. We can actually trust the coaching staff and are able to have open communication, back and forth with one another.”

Vulin agrees that being able to bond with her female players gives her an advantage as a coach.

“You have a lot of things in common,” Vulin said. “At the end of the day, it’s all about communication and making sure that you can make a connection with your players.”

With Vulin’s aforementioned graduate school thesis on the subject of encouraging female athletes to coach, Vulin feels that more women should be leading sports teams, and she strives to serve as an example for her own team.

“I always try to identify players that tell me that they’re interested in coaching and really try to be a mentor and role model right from the start,” Vulin said.

In Vulin’s opinion, one of the biggest barriers to more women working as head coaches is something non-unique to the world of sports—balancing motherhood and a professional career.

“Obviously, with the way society is set up, most women are in charge of rearing the kids. If you do have kids, and being a mom and coach is hard,” Vulin said. “But you can do it. I have two small children and I’ve got a great family support system. Plus, you just learn to balance your time.”

While one of the challenges for Vulin is being a mom and coach at the same time, it also provides a benefit, especially when it comes to recruiting potential players and convincing players to join her program.

“With me being a mom, when I am sitting in a kitchen or a living room doing a home a visit with the parents and the recruit, it’s more believable when I say that I want to provide balance and want to make sure that they have a healthy balance between their academics and athletics—because I am a mom and having a family is important to me,” Vulin said.

“So if I have balance, I’m going to give my players balance,” she said. “It’s a very believable and genuine product that I am selling.”

With significant travel requirements, recruitment in particular is one of the biggest challenges when it comes to balancing motherhood and a coach’s responsibility to find the best players for her team.

Vulin often meets this task by bringing her children along on her trips across the country—with another family member present to help when coaching duties call.

“My 5-year-old has been to over 30 states already,” Vulin said. “My 2-year-old has been to 24 states. So that’s how I make it work.”

Tatum, like the majority of athletes, never played for a female head coach prior to Vulin. Vulin recognizes that women may be reluctant to sign up to play for a female head coach after a lifetime of being coached by men.

“Sometimes I think it hurts us female coaches now at the college level because at the younger level they are only playing for males,” Vulin said. “They have a comfort level with that.”