To say that Karen Dennis has been successful is an understatement.
The director of both the Ohio State men’s and women’s track and field and cross country teams, Dennis was named Big Ten Coach of the Year eight times, leading the teams to six combined Big Ten Conference titles.
This winter, she was the first female coach to win the men’s indoor championship. In December, she will be inducted into the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
The trail Dennis blazed began when her track and field coach at Michigan State, Nell Jackson, asked her to stay on as an assistant coach after she graduated. Dennis never planned to coach, but Jackson had preached there were too few women in coaching.
That was in 1977.
Today, female athletes are far less likely to have female mentors like Dennis had in Jackson.
“Just like Nell Jackson encouraged me to go into coaching, I’m trying to encourage other women to be leaders,” Dennis said. “Whether it’s in coaching or administration, look at it, because there’s just not enough and we’ve got to get some younger ones in the pipeline.”
After being enacted in 1972, Title IX worked to prohibit sex-based discrimination in education, causing the size and scope of women’s athletics to grow dramatically, but a Lantern analysis of coaching records showed the share of women in coaching has reduced to a fraction of its size since then.
Eight of the nine women’s teams at Ohio State were coached by women in 1972. In 2018, there are still eight teams coached by women. However, there are now 13 women’s teams.
The trend also holds true in the Big Ten Conference, where nearly 3 of 4 women’s teams were coached by women in 1972.
Now, more than half are coached by men, but only 3 percent of Big Ten men’s teams are coached by women.
Along with Dennis, Therese Hession, who was named director of Ohio State’s men’s and women’s golf programs in June after 27 seasons as the women’s head coach, is part of this minority.
To Nicole LaVoi, author of “Women in Sports Coaching” and a leading scholar on female coaches, this is a problem that transcends sports.
“Who we see and who we don’t see in the most powerful positions in sports matters because it tells us who is valued and who is not and who is competent and who is not,” LaVoi said. “At a place like a Ohio State that is one of our premier flagship sports programs of the country, who the heck coaches at Ohio State matters.”
Ohio State athletic administrators said they favor female coaching candidates for women’s teams. The university does, in fact, have a higher percentage of female coaches than schools such as Purdue and Indiana, where only about one-third of teams are coached by women.
“We want to hire the best person, the most qualified, for our student athletes, of course, but we certainly lean heavy to making sure we have a pool where women have an opportunity to interview and hopefully win the job,” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said.
However, a Lantern analysis of recent coaching employment applications shows that this commitment does not always translate to a female hire.
Where did the women go?
The most rapid decline in the coaching of Big Ten women’s teams occurred throughout the 1970s. In 1973, the number of female coaches fell from 74 percent to 51 percent in 1981. Then, in 1990, the share of women in coaching increased slightly, reaching 59 percent before hitting an all-time low of 46 percent in 2008.
For the past five years, the proportion of women in coaching has stagnated at 49 percent.
Ohio State has seen similar trends. In 1973, the university had 90 percent of women’s teams being coached by females, but then hit a low of 43 percent in both 1997 and 2002.
“The men who were athletic directors just kind of weeded out the female administrators … That’s it. That’s what happened.” —Karen Dennis, director of both the Ohio State men’s and women’s track and field and cross country teams
Since 2006, the percentage of women in coaching positions has fluctuated between 64 and 57 percent — a difference of one coach.
Title IX was supposed to ensure a lack of representation wouldn’t happen. Though central to cases of sexual harassment and assault in recent years, it served primarily to create equal opportunities in education and sports at its onset.
In many ways, it did.
Big Ten schools added more than 100 teams in six years. But while the number of teams continued to rise, the number of female coaches did not. Four years after Title IX was established, there was just one fewer female coach in the conference than there is today. There are now 49 more teams.
“I think the stagnation in the percentage of women coaching women and the stagnation of the percentage of women coaching men, which has remained very low for 40 years, really speaks to the fact that men have a legitimate dual pathway into coaching and women don’t,” LaVoi said.
In other words, as the number of coaching positions available increased, so did the opportunities for men and the competition for women.
“The changes that I’ve recognized have made it more difficult for a lot of women,” Smith said. “The financial gain is just as high on the women’s side. Before it wasn’t. Now it is. That increased the competition for women to get head jobs because there’s more men that have ventured into that space.”
Hession witnessed these changes firsthand.
As the first female golfer at Southern Methodist University in Texas, she watched the program transform in the course of her collegiate career.
It was rough at first. There were no tournaments, no coaches and no places to practice. She would walk down to a small plot of open land on campus and hit golf balls until the band came to practice.
Throughout her time at SMU, things started to change — the team won a national championship her senior year.
The changes continued throughout Hession’s 27 years as a coach at Ohio State. When she first started, she didn’t have an assistant and also served as the golf course manager.
Hession said everything from facilities to uniforms have improved since then, making coaching positions more appealing to men and increasing the competition in the pool of applicants.
“The money has gotten so much greater than when I first started coaching that I think that’s where a lot of the men are now thinking, ‘OK I could actually make a living, you know, coaching on the ladies’ side as well,’” Hession said.
Dennis attributes the diminishing share of women to something else.
During the first decade of Title IX, women’s athletics were governed by the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, which meant women’s sports had separate championships, athletic departments and leadership than men’s sports.
Dennis’ coach Nell Jackson, for example, was the director of women’s athletics at Michigan State.
Then, in 1982, women’s sports were included under the umbrella of the NCAA, a merging of men’s and women’s athletic departments that resulted in male athletic directors taking over programs.
Jackson, an Olympian with a Ph.D., was one such director who lost her leadership position to a man, causing her to leave Michigan State and her position with the track team. Dennis took over as the Spartans’ head coach.
“The men who were athletic directors just kind of weeded out the female administrators,” Dennis said. “That’s it. That’s what happened.”
Today, Sandy Barbour of Penn State is the only female athletic director in the Big Ten.
For this reason, Dennis said she often tells women interested in coaching to consider administration.
“We need more voices at the table that are making decisions,” Dennis said.
With an absence of female administrators, LaVoi said it is important for athletic directors to make an overt commitment to hiring women.
“When athletic directors are very explicit about valuing and supporting women, that is really at the fabric of the culture that they’re creating within their athletic department, then that’s probably a really high-level way of thinking about best practice,” she said.
This is especially important because athletic departments rarely have policies in place regarding female candidates.
Gene Smith said having a diverse administrative staff, which includes two female deputy athletic directors, and creating a diverse committee to make hiring decisions are necessary to bring in a wide array of candidates.
“It starts with being purposeful. You have to have an intent to make sure that you’re providing an opportunity for women to win the job and that’s in the interview process. So we’re very intentional about that,” Smith said.
This commitment likely translates to Ohio State’s above-average share of women in coaching. Of the 14 Big Ten schools, only two — Illinois and Minnesota — have a higher percentage of women in coaching than Ohio State. Michigan has the same percentage as Ohio State.
“Gene Smith, he hires women,” Dennis said. “He hires women. He promotes women, as well as minorities.”
Despite the diverse committee and apparent consideration of female candidates, the result is not always a female hire.
In 2016, Jarred Martin was hired as the first male Ohio State field hockey coach in program history. For Martin, a coach’s gender is less important than how a coach connects with his or her athletes.
“I think when you’re in the coaching world, I don’t think it’s necessarily a male-to-female difference,” Martin said. “I think the ones who are really successful know who they are as a person and know how they want to coach and relay that message.”
A Lantern analysis of 23 applications for the Ohio State field hockey head-coaching position showed more than half of applicants were women, and the only two applicants who had more years of collegiate coaching experience than Martin were women.
Smith said the gender distribution within these applications is not necessarily representative of other sports such as basketball and soccer, for which he would expect to see a greater number of male applicants.
“The money changed things,” he said. “So what you had happen in women’s basketball, you had more men switching over to coaching women because of the salaries. So if we advertise that, again, you’ll see a lot more men than you will see women in a women’s basketball search … It’s really sport specific.”
“The lack of women is not the problem … The lack of women is a symptom of a culture in sports that doesn’t value and support women. Period.” —Nicole LaVoi, author of “Women in Sports Coaching”
These differences can be seen not only with applicants, but with current coaches in the Big Ten; 89 percent of women’s field hockey teams are coached by women, which compares with 50 percent of women’s soccer teams and 8 percent of women’s swim teams.
These discrepancies do not exist due to a shortage of qualified female candidates, LaVoi said.
“The lack of women is not the problem,” LaVoi said. “The lack of women is a symptom of a culture in sports that doesn’t value and support women. Period.”
One of the field hockey applicants in 2016 was Tracey Griesbaum, a former University of Iowa coach of 14 years who was fired in 2014 after a pattern of complaints of abusive behavior, according to a statement from the university.
Griesbaum denied this claim and filed a lawsuit for wrongful termination on the basis of gender discrimination. The university paid Griesbaum a settlement of $1.5 million, according to news reports. Griesbaum is now a volunteer coach at Duke.
Smith declined to comment on whether these allegations were a factor in his hiring decision.
Within a month of Martin’s hiring, Kevin Wilson was hired as Ohio State football’s offensive coordinator, despite resigning as Indiana’s head coach amid allegations of improper treatment of injured athletes.
LaVoi said the varying handling of athlete complaints against male and female coaches is common and athletic directors do not always use consistent processes when investigating player complaints against coaches. She called it one of the many double standards female coaches face.
Smith said he’s confident in his decision to hire Martin.
“Jarred was the best coach,” Smith said. “Keep in mind our priority is to find the best coach for our situation. We had a slight rebuilding situation, so compared to the other candidates in the pool, including the women, he was the best coach. We owe our student athletes, making sure we get the best coach.”
Martin’s record is one of success.
During Martin’s 10 years on Duke University’s coaching staff, beginning as an assistant coach in 2007 before being promoted to associate head coach in 2013, the team made seven NCAA tournament appearances and had a winning record of 124-79. In 2016, the team was the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament.
At Ohio State, Martin took the team from a 6-11 record in 2016 to 10-9 in 2017. Martin led the team to the Big Ten semifinals in 2018, finishing with a record of 12-8.
“If you’re a woman, you have to be better”
The challenges for women don’t end once they are hired.
Dennis said she feels pressured to walk a line between being aggressive and intimidating — a common difficulty for women, LaVoi said.
“Male coaches are permitted to use a wide range of coaching methods while female coaches are not,” LaVoi said. “A male and a female coach could have the same behavior, and the male is just coaching, and the female is being mean.”
Despite Dennis’ success, she said some people still question her aptitude.
“I mean sometimes I’ve heard people say, ‘She got that particular job because she’s a minority,’ and then that kind of rubs me wrong,” she said.
“I can’t help my gender or my race, but what I can do is prove to you from a competitive standpoint that I am as good as you,” Dennis added. “I have to negate some of those stereotypical attitudes that still prevail. That’s kind of been a challenge.”
Female coaches even face discrimination from recruits.
“I realized I was losing kids because there just weren’t enough visible females in a leadership coaching position,” Dennis said. “So then it just became personal to me and I’m just like, ‘This has got to stop.’”
Smith said he has met with teams to discuss what they’d like to see in their next coach and on a number of occasions, athletes told him they would prefer a male coach.
“Most of them had men all their lives, but that means they don’t know,” Smith said. “They just don’t know what they don’t know.”
In general, Dennis said women are held to higher standards.
“Look, if you’re a woman, you’re gonna learn this. You have to be better,” Dennis said. “Because there’s always gonna be a guy that wants your position. So the only way you’re gonna keep your position is you gotta be better than all the guys. You gotta be the best, and don’t be shy about it.”
For women who have families, coaching can pose further challenges, especially with growing expectations of time commitment for coaches.
“I probably do four times more than what I did at the beginning,” Hession said. “If I had kids — it’s hard enough with two dogs — I can’t imagine I would be able to do the job the way that I do it living without a family. And I admire a lot of the ladies’ coaches that have children.”
Smith said creating an environment that supports women with families is an important part of retaining coaches.
“It’s slightly different for a mother,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of environments still today that aren’t sensitive to that. We need to continue to try to nationally get people, athletic directors, my colleagues and others to understand that.”
Regardless of these challenges, hiring and retaining female coaches is important for both athletic departments and athletes.
“Really, it becomes a business imperative for schools that want to be competitive and they want the best talent,” LaVoi said. “If they’re not recruiting women, they’re missing half the talent pool.”
Furthermore, LaVoi said coaches can be essential leaders for their athletes.
“We know same-sex role models matter,” LaVoi said. “We want a workforce that reflects the student athletes so if you’re thinking about women’s teams and you have mostly male coaches, what message is that sending to our young women?”
Coaches such as Martin have found creative ways to provide these same-sex role models to his players.
“We bring in people that can help mentor in other ways,” Martin said. “We’ll bring in a successful CEO, maybe a woman who’s a CEO of a bank. It’s something they can relate to and it’s something that they can see that these ideas that you have for life are completely obtainable and that you have a lot of people around you that are gonna help you get it.”
“That’s not to diminish who you are … But at the same time, get used to high-achievement women.” —Karen Dennis
It’s not to say that men cannot be good mentors for women; male mentors played important roles in both Dennis’ and Hession’s careers. Hession’s coach, Earl Stewart Jr., became a father figure to her after her father passed away. She still speaks of him with tears in her eyes.
“The things I learned from that guy, still, I often think about what he told me. Even now,” Hession said.
Men such as Jim Bibbs, who coached Dennis during her high school years and was the men’s track coach at Michigan State when she began coaching, served as important mentors for Dennis. This is one reason Dennis thinks athletic departments should strive for a diversity of perspectives.
“You know you can’t have just all women,” Dennis said. “Most of the major movements in the country have also been assisted by men. There’s some great brothers out there who want to see women do some amazing things.”
In an ideal world, LaVoi said more than 50 percent of women’s teams, as well as at least 25 percent of men’s teams, would be coached by women.
“At the current rate it’s pinching up, I’ll be dead before that happens,” she said.
Half of the Big Ten teams, including Ohio State, meet LaVoi’s standard for women’s teams, but none meet the standard for men’s teams.
Dennis and Hession are the anomaly; there are two other women leading men’s teams in the Big Ten. These coaches are evidence that progress is happening, if ever so slowly.
Had Hession been told that she would be director of both the men’s and women’s programs at the beginning of her career she would have said, “Not possible.”
Are the barriers for women in coaching beginning to break down?
“No doubt about it,” she said.
For Dennis, women in roles such as hers is a big part of continuing this breakdown.
“I think me being here in this position and having more women in this position helps the guys because first of all they realize, you know what, there can be women bosses,” she said.
“That’s not to diminish who you are,” she added. “But at the same time, get used to high-achievement women.”
How the analysis was done
All calculations were based on available data in the Big Ten Conference Book 2017-18 and include all teams currently in the Big Ten Conference.
Coaches for the current season were determined by listings on university’s athletics websites. There might be small inconsistencies due to overlap in years of coaching.
Where the Big Ten records listed overlap, the newer coach was listed for that year unless The Lantern could confirm otherwise.
Directors of programs were counted as head coaches as they were in Big Ten records. Coaches who coached multiple teams were counted for each team.
Rutgers’ diving program has been excluded from 1972-1992, although a program existed, because The Lantern was not able to confirm the gender of coaches during this time. Coaches for Rutgers’ rowing were also unavailable prior to 1993.