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Female athletic directors slowly making inroads at big colleges

Last July, when Penn State finally replaced an interim athletic director who had endured 987 days in the turbulent wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, it hired a woman.

University of Pennsylvania athletic director Grace Calhoun. (Michael Bryant/Staff Photographer)
University of Pennsylvania athletic director Grace Calhoun. (Michael Bryant/Staff Photographer)Read more

Last July, when Penn State finally replaced an interim athletic director who had endured 987 days in the turbulent wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, it hired a woman.

A year earlier, when a videotaped tirade by the men's basketball coach surfaced and cost Rutgers' athletic director his job, the New Jersey school did the same. So did Arizona State in 2005 after a football player was charged with murder.

When other Division I schools, such as Penn and Eastern Michigan, have experienced sharp downturns in athletic fortunes, they too have turned to women to reinvigorate their slumping programs.

It's one of the more curious trends in college sports: While advancement in big-time athletic administration remains tricky for women, Division I schools requiring major makeovers seem eager to make them their ADs.

"That's the reality," said Patti Phillips, CEO of the National Association of Collegiate Women Athletic Administrators. "When bad things happen, that's when leadership looks at each other and says, 'OK, we need to go in a different direction.' And the easiest way to think about going in another direction is to hire a woman."

Not that Phillips is complaining. Her organization has long advocated for more female administrators. And even a job fraught with difficult challenges beats no job at all.

"If someone wants to say, 'Well, these women got their jobs because something bad happened,' that's fine," she said. "If there are opportunities to be had, we want them. Sure, this is a trend, especially at the big schools, but you know what? It's an opportunity as well."

In this region, the trend has resulted in a recent spate of Division I female ADs. Since Rutgers hired Julie Hermann in 2013, Penn State, Penn, and Princeton all have named women to the position.

Forty-three years after Title IX began reshaping the gender landscape, 200,000 women now participate in college sports. Meanwhile, their progress up the athletic-department ladder has been more halting.

A 2012 Smith College survey found that 36 percent of the nation's 4,100-plus athletic administrators were women, though nearly 10 percent of schools still had no females at all in those positions.

Across all divisions, there was an average of 1.4 female administrators per department, more than double the 1988 figure.

"Some of that progress is due to what you might call the pipeline," Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour said during a recent interview in her Bryce Jordan Center office. "Women got the opportunity to be student-athletes and then saw the possibilities of working in administration. Prior to the early '70s, women, for the most part, didn't have the opportunities. And if you can't see it, you can't imagine it."

But despite those modest strides, progress remains stubborn at the loftiest level of college sports, where football and its macho culture still dominate.

The football effect

While 20 percent of all colleges have female ADs, only 10 percent of Division I schools have one. And among the 120 programs that make up the elite Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), there are only seven, including Barbour and Hermann.

These women insist that's the result of football's persistent power. Since revenue from that sport is the financial backbone of big-time athletics, many colleges still want their ADs to possess a football background.

"You always hear, 'Women don't play football, so how could they know how to administer or support or help make successful a college football program?' " Barbour said.

"Well, I don't think success is attributable to one gender or another. It's about people and how you strategize," she said. "I feel like I know a little about how to handle a successful football program, how to make it thrive."

Barbour heard those criticisms when she was AD at Tulane and California. In her second year at Tulane, she fired the football coach after a 2-9 season and brought in Tommy Bowden. In 1998, Bowden's second season, the Green Wave went 12-0.

But 32 years after San Diego State made Mary Alice Hill the first woman athletic director at a football-playing Division I school, the idea of a female heading a department in which men's sports dominate still raises eyebrows.

A 2014 thesis by a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee doctoral candidate, Ashley Kies, cited significant research that has found women in athletic leadership to be "prisoners of their gender."

"Such masculine traits as being a heroic male," Kies wrote, "being task-oriented and being action-oriented are valued in athletics leadership. Women often cannot manufacture those traits . . . [and if women] are perceived as being too masculine or violating gender norms, they might experience consequences or backlash."

Before Barbour's July 25 welcoming news conference had ended, online critics were complaining about her $700,000 base salary, about California's recent football struggles, and about that university's athletic debt and dismal graduation rate during her decade-long tenure.

"You battle every day," Barbour said. "Sometimes those battles are about gender. I'm sure to some degree decisions have been made or opinions formed around my gender. I can't worry about that. If there are barriers in the way, I've got to figure out how to get around them, either knock them down or take detours around them."

At schools such as Penn State, whose budget exceeds $140 million, athletic directors are CEOs. With money so central to success, they must have fund-raising skills, sound business principles, and a good relationship with coaches, students, alumni, and the presidents to whom they report. They make the decisions on coaches and facilities. They are the faces of their departments.

With all those responsibilities, a knowledge of X's and O's has become increasingly less important. And that, experts insist, should level the playing field for AD candidates.

"Running a successful athletic department isn't about the game of football anymore," Phillips said. "It's about the business of football."

Penn's Grace Calhoun, for example, was a track and field star at Brown, where she earned an engineering degree. But while working toward a master's at Florida, she discovered sports administration. Since then, at Dartmouth, Indiana, and Loyola-Chicago, she has developed a resume rich in subjects such as fund-raising and facilities management.

"Gone are the days when the ex-football coach became the AD," Calhoun said. "It's become such a diverse job there's no one background that prepares you for everything. You need enough of a foundation to appreciate all the other jobs in the department."

Princeton's new athletic director, Mollie Marcoux, was a soccer and ice hockey star for the Tigers. But it was her most recent job, as an executive with Chelsea Piers, the Manhattan sports and entertainment complex, that helped her land the job in 2014.

Hermann had been an associate athletic director at Louisville when Rutgers named her to replace Tom Pernetti in May 2013. Like Barbour, she too came under some early fire, especially when it was reported that she had verbally abused athletes when she was Tennessee's women's volleyball coach.

The Title IX effect

Whatever progress has been made, Title IX gets much of the credit. Ironically, though, that law designed to ensure women's participation initially had the opposite effect in athletic departments.

Until its passage, women's programs tended to be segregated from men's, and in 1972 better than 90 percent were headed by females, according to that Smith survey. After Title IX, many female administrators were demoted or fired as sports for both genders were consolidated, typically under male ADs.

The big-school model used to be that successful football coaches such as Penn State's Joe Paterno and Alabama's Bear Bryant also served as ADs. It wasn't until 1983 that Hill broke through that glass ceiling.

Five years earlier, Hill said, the school's president had told her she was ready for the job.

" 'I would like to put you in this position,' " Hill, now a motivational speaker, said she was told then. " 'But I can't. I feel the community wouldn't be able to handle a woman in this position.' "

Progress came slowly and by 1990 only six of the then-295 Division I programs had a women AD. Six years later, Barbour, a 36-year-old associate AD at Notre Dame, became a pioneer at Tulane.

"Early on, there were a lot of battles and perceptions to overcome," she said. "I was young, female, and in the Deep South. But even then I took a lot of joy and satisfaction from breaking down barriers and perceptions."

There were 188 women ADs by 1998, but 110 were in Division III. By 2012, their numbers in Divisions I and II had actually declined slightly while the Division I total crept up, from 30 to 36.

Calhoun took over from Steve Bilsky in March 2014, just as Penn's signature basketball program was ending an 8-20 season and four months after the football Quakers finished 4-6. Last month, in her first major personnel decision, she fired basketball coach Jerome Allen after the Quakers went 8-20 again.

"Certainly we have our challenges," she said. "But anytime you've got the history and tradition Penn has, it makes it easier to build on that. It's tougher to build when you don't have that."

She has emphasized fund-raising as the quickest way to restore Penn's programs and historic facilities.

"There was a time when Penn and Princeton basketball were up here and the rest of our league was down here," Calhoun said. "Well, others have decided they wanted to invest and there's a lot more parity. We're looking at some big reinvestment and we believe it will result in more competitive teams."

As difficult as that might be, Calhoun's job looks easy compared with Barbour's. When the Maryland native took over for interim AD Dave Joyner, Penn State was to a notable extent still divided by the Sandusky scandal, still reeling from its aftershocks.

"I think unfortunately through the Sandusky scandal much has been represented about who we are that's just not correct," Barbour said. "As someone who came from the outside, I think I have a valuable perspective to add to that, mainly as a voice to the outside world."

Should she be heard, should Calhoun engineer a Penn revival and Hermann smooth Rutgers' difficult Big Ten transition, the last stereotypes could fall away and the number of Division I women athletic directors explode.

"Women have made strides," Phillips said. "But there's still an old-boys club. It's still a struggle to get women hired and sometimes they have a tougher road when they get in. We're talking about a cultural shift. And those take time."