The Women’s Basketball ‘Elite Eight’ Is Highlighting the Importance of Female Coaches

Head coach Dawn Staley of the South Carolina Gamecocks during practice before the 2023 NCAA Women’s Final Four semifinal game at American Airlines Center on March 30, 2023 in Dallas. (Tom Pennington / Getty Images)

Kim Mulkey, Katie Meier, Lisa Bluder, Dawn Staley and Brenda Frese. While most people would recognize these names as five coaches that led their teams to the 2023 Women’s March Madness Elite Eight, these women are more than that. These female coaches are demonstrating the importance of having women in leadership roles in collegiate athletics. 

Fifty-one years after the passage of Title IX, there is no doubt that girls and women now participate in sports in droves, from high school to college since the act was passed in 1972. However, participation is often where the conversation starts and stops when Title IX is discussed. Very little attention is paid to coaches.  

I am a beneficiary of Title IX, having played Division I softball many years ago. Also, I am a former collegiate coach for over a decade. As an athlete, for the most part, I had a great experience. However, as a coach, I quickly realized that I was part of a minority. 

As I progressed through my coaching career, I couldn’t help but wonder if the act that positively impacted my ability to play sports, may have also inadvertently negatively influenced females’ abilities to become head coaches and hold leadership roles at the collegiate level. At the Division I level across all sports, women hold less than 45 percent of head coaching positions. In contrast, only 3 percent of men’s teams are coached by women. 

To be clear, I am not saying that women should be hired to coach just because they are women. I’m also not saying that men aren’t advocates for women in sport. The three male Elite Eight coaches have demonstrated their advocacy of women in sport in unique ways. Jeff Walz, the head coach for Louisville women’s basketball, called out former Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin on his lack of acknowledgement of his team, compared to men’s basketball. Kevin McGuff was an assistant under the legendary Muffet McGraw at Notre Dame. And Kenny Brooks at Virginia Tech had two of his daughters play basketball for him there. 

There are good men that support women in sports. But the reality is men are more often being hired to coach women’s teams, than women are. Thus, qualified women can sometimes be left behind and the old boy’s network of sport can prevail, even amongst women’s programs.  

To put this into context, according to the NCAA demographics database, only 28 percent of women’s soccer teams at the Division I level are coached by women. In comparison, over 60 percent of Division I women’s basketball teams have female head coaches. Thus, the Elite Eight is a big deal not only for female basketball players who aspire to coach, but for future female coaches of other sports too, because they are seeing women represented on the biggest stage. 

The female coaches of the 2023 Elite Eight show that women’s basketball can be a model for coaching equity in Division I sports and when given the opportunity, women can thrive as coaches. Mulkey, Meier, Bluder, Staley and Frese not only demonstrate that women can be impactful and successful coaches, but that women can and should be considered the best of the best. South Carolina gave Dawn Staley a historic seven-year $22.4-million contract, demonstrating the university values their coach.  

While 2022 was historic, as it marked the first year that the women’s tournament also used the moniker “March Madness,” I often wonder when the conversation about women coaching will be discussed. Given the 50th anniversary of Title IX and that attendance and viewership of women’s basketball is breaking records, when will the focus be on who is leading our female athletes? When people think of historic coaches, will they think beyond Wooden and Coach K? While some may think of Pat Summitt, it is time that more female coaches are given opportunities to coach and are also recognized and included in those receiving highest praise. 

When we look at the impact of Title IX on opportunities for women in NCAA coaching and administrative leadership in the next 50 years, I am hopeful the conversation can be different, especially with female coaches of women’s basketball leading the way. 

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Elisa Van Kirk is visiting assistant professor of education at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y.