UPDATE: This is Part Two in a series of posts that looks at the coaching profession in the current world of Division I athletics. The global pandemic has only highlighted the way Division I athletics has lost its way. The University of Iowa cuts four sports to deal with revenue losses. Power 5 football marches on in order to capture television revenue, and college basketball is plodding through their season. In the last week, Baylor women's basketball coach Kim Mulkey provided another soundbite. Baylor women's basketball returned to the sideline for the first time in nearly a month. Hall of Fame Head Coach Kim Mulkey was coaching in her first game since contracting COVID-19 on Christmas Day — and her team's first game since the program went on pause Jan. 5 due to a team member testing positive. As reported by USA Today, after losing to Iowa State, Mulkey said, "The season will continue on. It's called the almighty dollar. The NCAA has to have the almighty dollar from the men's tournament. The almighty dollar is more important than the health and welfare of me, the players or anybody else." So true, and it falls right in line with our series which asks if coaching Division I athletics is even desirable. Perhaps the best college coaching positions are in Division 3, where television revenue does not fuel the machine. Now, on with Part Two in our series which asks why we don't see more female head coaches in women's volleyball. Enjoy.
Who are young women being coached by? The New York Times asked that question heading into the 2019 NCAA Division I Volleyball Final Four. The article asked some good questions and shook up the volleyball world. All four teams at the Final Four were volleyball programs from the Power 5 Conferences with male head coaches. And the New York Times asked why? Who are young women being coached by and why don’t we see more female head coaches in volleyball? All four male head coaches at the Final Four are tremendous coaches, but why is Mary Wise the rare exception of the female head coach who has led her team to the Final Four. It's a numbers game. Fewer female head coaches means fewer opportunities for female head coaches to lead their team to a Final Four. Why do men dominate the head coaching positions of women’s volleyball, especially in the Power 5 Conferences? Women’s basketball can boast about Pat Summitt, C. Vivian Stringer, Kim Mulkey, Muffet McGraw, Dawn Staley, Tara VanDerveer, Brenda Freese, and so many more. Why is volleyball so far behind? Are there any indications that things are getting better?
Look at the standings of the last Big Ten volleyball season and the top eight teams in the conference standings were all led by male head coaches. Kathy George at Michigan State seems to be the Big Ten’s equivalent to Mary Wise. Look at the Pac 12 and they have three female head coaches to nine males. The New York Times article pointed out what they called systemic issues that begin at the youth level. Most club teams, where the most competitive volleyball is typically played, are run by men, who are in turn viewed as experts. The New York Times interviewed the athletic director at Penn State. She said, “Who are young women — pre-high-school — being coached by? What are they used to? We’re never going to build the pipeline if we don’t have role models.” Go to a national qualifier event for club volleyball and see who coaches the top teams for the top clubs. Look at who coaches the top teams in the 15, 16, 17, and 18-year-old divisions. Where are all the female head coaches?
Much of the club volleyball world is run by men. And it is big business. If you haven’t listened to Playing For Keeps by Michael Lewis, I recommend it. In this Audible exclusive, best-selling author Michael Lewis talks about the state of youth sports. Lewis wrote Moneyball, The Big Short, and The Blindside and now turns his focus to youth sports. But he talks about youth sports after years of walking the journey with his daughter who played on a highly competitive travel softball team in northern California. Once she moved on to play at the college level, Lewis wrote and narrated this entertaining look at youth sports from the time she was very young until she chose where to play college softball. While much of it is about softball, you will like what he has to say about volleyball, and all of youth sports really. In talking about the people who run youth sports, Lewis talked about the vast real estate that softball and soccer requires. Running large events for those sports becomes limited based on space- the amount of land available for multiple soccer fields or softball diamonds. Then Lewis discovered volleyball. He writes, “Volleyball. Now that’s where the money is.”
Youth sports is big business and everyone is profiting. People who sell volleyball equipment. People who make volleyball apparel. The companies that take photographs at tournaments. The people who run the elite volleyball clubs. Coaches who offer private lessons at $125 per hour. The companies that lease the sport court for major events. The tech companies that run the tournament websites. The other tech companies that live stream the matches and sell Netflix-like monthly subscriptions. The individuals or groups who host and run large tournaments. Do the math. With 1,442 teams entered in a national qualifier in Denver, and an entry fee of $825 per team, the entry fees alone bring in close to $1.2 million. Sure the referees need to be paid and convention center fees are high. But tournament profits will also come from tournament apparel and over 55,000 attendees paying $38 each to attend the three day event. That’s an additional $2 million in ticket sales for those keeping track at home.
What about coaching assignments? Like the New York Times article asked, “Who Are Young Women Being Coached By?” Let’s look at two of the top club programs in the country. Without making accusations or going on a witch hunt, I simply wanted to look at two high profile clubs with multiple national championships. It’s hardly a random sample. More like an itch I needed to scratch. Do female head coaches have the same opportunities as male head coaches to coach the top teams?
For Club A, I looked at the head coaches of their top teams in each age division. The 14-1s team: a male head coach. The 15-1s team: a male head coach. The 16-1s, the 17-1s, and the 18-1s all had male head coaches. Now, Club B. Male head coaches for the 18-1s, the 17-1s, the 16-1s, and the 15-1s. For Club B, the 14-1s team was led by a female head coach. For those curious, club B also fields four teams at the 18-year-old division. All four were led by male head coaches. In looking at many of the top clubs, they seem to send the message that female head coaches are good at the younger ages. It’s as if the message sent is that female head coaches are good with the middle school girls. After that, they need a male head coach.
A deeper look at Club B showed a disproportionate number of female assistant coaches overall versus male. From the 18-year-old level to the 14-year-old level, the club had 26 female assistant coaches to six males. I encourage former players to coach volleyball. Some of those females would make excellent head coaches. Give them an opportunity to serve as a head coach. The numbers send a message that females are great assistants, but they cannot lead. Hire the former players to hit balls during practice and mentor the girls, but hire the male to lead practice and motivate the players and coach the matches. A horrible signal to send to the younger generation. How will volleyball find its own version of Pat Summitt if we don’t give women equal opportunities to serve as a head coach?
Pat Summitt will forever be one of the icons of the coaching profession. When I think about everything that is good about college athletics, I think of two people: Chris Petersen and Pat Summitt. I have no loyalty towards Connecticut or Tennessee. But as a coach, I have a tremendous amount of appreciation and respect for both Geno Auriemma and Pat Summitt. I love both coaches; I love different things about both coaches. But I think there is something very special about Pat Summitt. Something, I see in my club volleyball-coaching wife.
I have read more coaching books then I can even remember. Pat Summitt’s final book called, “Sum It Up” might be my favorite coaching book of all-time. The coaching world lost Pat Summitt too soon, but she will forever stand as an example of greatness. Any coach can study Summitt and learn from her, regardless of the sport or the level of play. Pat Summitt was simply one of the absolute best to ever be called “Coach”. In her book, she writes, “People often ask what I’m proudest of in my career. The answer is easy: I’m proudest of them. I’m proud that our former players get teased like they’re in a cult, because you can recognize them from the way they carry themselves and walk, with their heads high, their shoulders back. I’m proud that so many shy, nonaggressive girls left our program assertive women, with an air of confidence and self-respect.”
I want my daughter to play for someone like Pat Summitt. “Feel bullied? Do something about it,” she said. “Suffer a setback? Handle it. The one thing I hated, the one thing I couldn’t stand, was when they acted weak, or hurt, or intimidated. Don’t wilt! Be assertive!” I don’t want my daughter to be coddled. I want her to grow to be an assertive young woman. If I had a son who played college football, I would have wanted him to play for Chris Petersen. I would want my daughter to play college basketball for Pat Summitt. To play for someone like Pat Summitt for four years is to be forever changed. That's why I think it’s a tragedy that so many top club volleyball players, never get the chance to be coached by a strong, successful, female head coach. That's why I want Division I volleyball to have more female head coaches.
As a husband, I have sat courtside for years and watched the impact my wife can have in the life of a 14- or 15-year-old club volleyball player. The impact and the relationship often extends through high school and into her college playing days and beyond. It’s been rewarding to watch Kari connect with parents and players over the course of 18 years at the same club. Mom and dad see that their daughter’s life is better because she had Kari Raymond as her club volleyball coach. Do you remember the NFL player who said Coach Saban was exactly what he needed when he was 18-years-old? I see that in my wife and the players who play for her. She is exactly what they needed as a 15-year-old. I’ll never forget hearing Oklahoma Women’s Basketball Coach Sherri Coale say, "It’s really hard to be a young person today." It’s really hard dealing with the negativity of social media. It’s really hard dealing with the pressure of an elite club volleyball team. It’s really hard walking the halls of a large suburban high school and trying to find your place in that world. It’s really hard to find your way down the right path at such a young age. It's really hard to be a young person today.
Regardless of whether they are 14-year-old club volleyball players or college student-athletes, your players all have different needs. Pat Summitt said, “It seemed like every kid on that team needed something more from me than just basketball coaching, a different kind of caring. They were a project, all of them interesting characters with their own issues. Some of them needed love- and some of them needed tough love… Sometimes I almost wanted to say to a kid, ‘I’m going to save you from yourself, and you don’t even realize you need it. It’s going to be tough love and you’re going to get it in heavy doses, and you won’t like me at first, but at the end of the day you will love me. I’m going to show you how to live.’”
When you spend eight months coaching a player on your club volleyball team, you realize the impact one year can have. Never make light of the impact a great teacher or coach can have in one year of a young person’s life. John Calipari gets too much criticism for his one-and-done players at Kentucky. But he realizes the impact he can make in that short time. Calipari said, “A year in a young man’s life is not forgotten by him or his family, and it may set the trajectory for the rest of his life.”
Whether it's the 8 months of a club volleyball season or four years in Division I volleyball, we need more female head coaches. Not more female assistant coaches. We are too quick to funnel our outstanding female coaches into assistant roles. Let them lead. I want my daughter to have the opportunity to play for a Pat Summitt or a Mary Wise. How will this happen when men run club volleyball programs and coach the top club volleyball teams and hold the top positions in the world of Division I volleyball? In 2021, why is volleyball still so far behind? It's time for a change.
Thanks for reading. This is Part Two of a multi-part series on the landscape of coaching college athletics in 2021. It's a story of D3, it's a story of club volleyball, it's a story of men coaching women, it's a look at all that's good about college athletics and warning against the greed and hubris threatening college athletics. If you enjoyed this post, read Part Three called "Ambitious Beyond Belief."