Countable on One Hand: The Women Leading Power Five Athletic Departments

PITTSBURGH — The first three games of Pittsburgh’s football season wouldn’t seem like an exhibit of social change: a conference game again...

PITTSBURGH — The first three games of Pittsburgh’s football season wouldn’t seem like an exhibit of social change: a conference game against Virginia, a home matchup with Ohio and the 100th round of a rivalry with Penn State.

But when Heather Lyke, Pitt’s athletic director, scrutinized the schedule, she noticed something beyond big matchups: The Panthers’ first three opponents were Division I universities where women were in charge of sports.

“That will probably never happen again in my career,” Lyke said in her office last month, her tone at once elated and a little longing.

The coincidental scheduling streak is a sign of the begrudging progress made in elevating women into the executive suites of American sports. Its rarity is also a reminder of a sustained disparity: Of the 65 colleges in the nation’s five wealthiest and most powerful sports conferences, only four have women leading the athletic department.

It happens so rarely that when Pitt hired Lyke as its athletic director in 2017, a university official had to edit the statements she had prepared because they used masculine pronouns. She had assumed — reasonably so — that a man would fill the job, as had been the case for 106 years.

At the same time, with the country approaching the 50th anniversary of Title IX and women making up nearly half of college athletes, women are increasingly filling other athletic administrative posts, especially outside the Power Five conferences. And there is a growing, if guarded, sense that the next decade could yield a dramatic shift in the gender dynamics at the top ranks of college sports.

“Leadership is beginning to look different than it has for decades,” said Julie Cromer, Ohio’s recently appointed athletic director. “We have communities and leadership on campuses and within the sports world who are becoming more comfortable with seeing leaders who may not visually look as they have in the past.

Sixty-eight women were hired as athletic directors or conference commissioners across the college sports landscape in 2018, up from 19 in 2012, according to Women Leaders in College Sports, an advocacy and professional development group. Most of the recent hires were in Division II or Division III, which include colleges and universities that can be training grounds for aspiring athletic administrators.

Those colleges are also without lucrative, high-powered football programs, perhaps offering a greater shield from how the sport — and a legacy of opinions about whether a woman can oversee it — has explicitly and implicitly shaped searches for athletic directors across decades.

That has partly been because of the absence of women on football fields, and also because top programs like Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma and Texas sometimes had 20th century football coaches double as athletic directors. (Modern athletic directors spend little, if any, time coaching and are instead focused on matters like budgets, fund-raising, marketing, personnel, and legal and compliance issues.)

“It’s outdated thinking,” said Pat Narduzzi, the Pitt football coach and a member of the search committee that interviewed Lyke. “She has been the best at trying to build a relationship with our players.”

But experts said that biases, sexist misperceptions and past hiring practices can linger, especially if an elite university starts a search with the premise that it must recruit an athletic director from another sports powerhouse.

“If you’re going to have that mentality of ‘I can only hire an A.D. who comes from the Power Five,’ you’re going to have the never-ending cycle of not adding diversity to the mix,” said Daniel Parker, vice president and managing director at Parker Executive Search, an Atlanta firm that has worked with university athletic programs to recruit top leaders.

Parker this year helped draw Cromer to Ohio, of the Mid-American Conference, and Terry Gawlik to Idaho, of the Big Sky Conference. He said higher education power brokers were increasingly willing to drop criteria, like experience as a Power Five athletic director, that effectively limited women or candidates of color. Two of the four finalists for the Ohio job were women.

Still, with Debbie Yow’s retirement this year from North Carolina State, which replaced her with a man, the number of female athletic directors in the Power Five has fallen. In addition to Lyke, who leads Pitt in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the limited list consists of Sandy Barbour at Penn State (Big Ten), Jennifer Cohen at Washington (Pac-12) and Carla Williams at Virginia (A.C.C.).

Barbour, previously the athletic director at California and Tulane, is the only one of the women known to make at least $1 million per year; at least 17 male athletic directors earned that much or more in the 2017-18 academic year, according to a database maintained by the law firm Spencer Fane.

“We’re trying to make a cultural shift — that’s the big piece — and those things don’t happen overnight,” said Patti Phillips, the chief executive of Women Leaders in College Sports, who has a list of about 300 women who have expressed interested in becoming executives on the level of an athletic director or a conference commissioner.

“The Power Five level is the most male dominated, obviously, part of college athletics,” she said, “because of the money and because of big-time football and basketball, which have traditionally been sort of the male, boys’ club things. It’s much harder for women to break into these roles because of that.”

Less visible universities and conferences have also installed women in sports leadership posts. William & Mary, where Samantha Huge oversees athletics, is also starting its football season with three games against colleges with women at the top of their sports programs: Lafayette, Virginia and Colgate.

And at all levels of college sports, women are increasingly in jobs that can lead to promotions to athletic director posts.

“There are more women in middle management, in the pipeline, so I’m hopeful that that will translate into more women in those roles,” said Williams, the first black woman hired as a Power Five athletic director. “I think women have proven that we are fully capable and competent and hard-working — maybe even more in some cases — and willing to learn and do the work to advance.”

And while football failings have upended the career of more than one athletic director, regardless of sex or employer, the sport and its gendered history loom especially large over top women in conferences like the A.C.C. and the Big Ten.

In an interview last month, Barbour recalled that in the mid-1990s, around the start of her time in Tulane’s ranking sports job, she asked her host at a speech if there were any subjects she should discuss. He replied that she should address how she would lead a football program when she had never played herself.

Reflecting on the episode more than 20 years later, just before a season when her football team was expected to be a Big Ten title contender, Barbour said: “Being a C.E.O., being a great leader, does not have a gender label on it. I don’t tell my football coach who to play, who to recruit or what to do on third-and-short.”

While the links between gender, football and leadership hiring may be fading, it is a slow process. Lyke and Williams said that influential male athletic directors were helping progress by mentoring women in a treacherous industry.

Lyke, who was captain of the softball team at Michigan and later earned a law degree, credited Gene Smith of Ohio State for helping fuel her rise to Pitt, where she was hired after a stint at Eastern Michigan.

“I kind of went in with an open mind,” Narduzzi, the football coach, said. “The lady thing, I didn’t have a problem. Age didn’t matter. Had she been at a Power Five and leading the show, it didn’t matter.”

Narduzzi said Lyke had “the right energy.”

Patrick D. Gallagher, Pitt’s chancellor, said the university did not weigh how donors or the wider public would respond to the selection of a woman in 2017. There was no polling, he said, no check-ins with boosters to gauge their views on gender.

“There’s no gender basis for competency here,” Gallagher said. “We’re talking about sports programs that are balanced by gender, roughly, so I don’t see any reason why, in a world where we’re half women and half men, we shouldn’t see similar parity.”

When the balance might arrive is less clear. Some people said they expected substantive progress, but not parity, within the next five to eight years. Many predicted a far longer arc.

“There are certainly donors or women who come up and say, ‘I’m just proud to see a woman in your role, and it’s been great,’” Lyke said. “And there’s people who say, ‘How do you do this job as a woman?’”

She laughed.

“Same way a guy does it.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: Countable on One Hand: The Women Leading Power Five Athletic Departments
Countable on One Hand: The Women Leading Power Five Athletic Departments
Newsrust - US Top News
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