Patty Gasso has spent her last 24 years in the dugout, coaching Oklahoma’s softball team to 12 Women’s College World Series appearances.
But she’s an anomaly in the Big 12 Conference: one of only three women heading a softball team. Among the Power 5 conferences (Big 12, SEC, Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12), the Big 12 is the only one to have more men running softball teams than women.
Despite young women raising the standard of play on the field, fewer are turning to the dugout — or the court — to coach, or aren't being chosen for the positions by the overwhelmingly male athletic directors. And women in athletics say that brings about both a loss of strong female mentors and coaching role models and a loss of opportunity in a field where women once were pervasive.
“I think it’s important that women are role models for these young people coming through the ranks. I think it’s important,” said Gasso, who even groomed another top NCAA softball coach, Florida’s Tim Walton. “Not that men can’t be great role models because they are, but I just think that women understand young females a little bit different.”
The NCAA first held the Women’s College World Series (which starts this week) in 1982, when about 20 percent of softball coaches were men. All eight coaches in the championship round that year were women.
It hasn’t happened since, despite the fact that the number of Division I softball programs has expanded to 296. As of May 1, men held close to 35 percent of the head coaching positions. (Missouri announced late last week that their new coach is Hofstra's Larissa Anderson; the interim coach also was a woman, taking over for a man.)
The influx of more men in women’s sports holds true in women’s basketball and volleyball. No woman has ever coached her team to a Division I volleyball title; in the Sweet 16 last December, women were at the head of only four teams.
Those numbers don’t sit well with Florida coach Mary Wise, whose team lost in the national title game to John Cook’s Nebraska squad.
“It is disappointing. It is the trend,” she said.
Behind the trend
There isn’t one sure thing holding women back from filling more of the coaching positions. But two themes kept recurring — ones that aren’t just an issue in athletics.
“I think for women today, what we know, is that it’s very difficult to have a family and be a mother and be a wife and be a coach at a Division I let alone any level,” Oklahoma’s Gasso said.
She almost stepped away from coaching Oklahoma’s softball team six years into the job due to family obligations, noting, “I went through a very difficult time of being ready to surrender and say, ‘I can’t do this anymore. It’s not fair to my team, it’s not fair to my kids.’”
Encouraged by her family and her team, Gasso stuck it out.
“They would help babysit when I had to do something. It was a village raising the kids and I’m so appreciative. As long as you’re open to letting people help you, it can be done,” she said.
But former Iowa State softball coach Ruth Crowe, who won a wrongful termination suit against the school 10 years ago, said something else is happening: There are not enough women administrators doing the hiring.
“Men athletic directors are networking among themselves to find candidates,” said Crowe, who changed careers after winning her lawsuit. “That just perpetuates the system over and over and over.”
Only five of the 65 athletic directors of the Power 5 conferences are women, according to recent research from the University of Central Florida.
And that’s why there’s work to do, said Patti Phillips, the CEO of Kansas City-based Women Leaders in College Sports, which pushes colleges to hire more women as administrators.
“We need to get more momentum at that level and we’ll get that when we have more of these women at the FBS level (D-I schools with football in conferences outside Power 5) where they can then go up,” she said, pointing to Ball State introducing Beth Goetz as its new AD on May 21.
UMKC athletics director Carla Wilson is a rarity: A woman who’s the boss at an NCAA D-I athletics department and hires women’s coaches for women’s sports.
“If you have a candidate who has just as much experience, if it’s male or female, for me if it’s a female coach, then I’m going to go more on the female side if they’re equal,” she said.
And there is more hope, in college and the pros. The Milwaukee Bucks considered making Becky Hammon, a former Colorado State and WNBA standout, the first woman to be an NBA head coach.
The Big 12 Pitcher of the Year, Truman High alum Paige Parker, said she wants to buck the trend and plans to coach after graduating from Oklahoma.
“A good majority of our team actually aspires to be coaches one day because we love the sport so much and we want to give back,” she said.
The next step is sticking a foot in the door.
Greg Echlin is a freelance sports reporter for KCUR 89.3.