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In the Game, But Rarely No. 1

Many women help run major athletic programs, but few have cracked the glass ceiling

Thirty years after women's sports programs joined the NCAA, women have made little headway in landing the top posts in athletic departments.

Women occupy five of 120 athletic-director positions in Division I-A. That means they lead 4 percent of the biggest departments at a time when female athletes make up nearly half of all Division I athletes. The numbers are not much better in the rest of Division I, where women hold about 8 percent of the top jobs.

Such a paucity at the top comes during a period of fiscal soul-searching for many athletic programs and has led some to wonder whether a more diverse group of people needs to be making the tough decisions.

The low number of female AD's in Division I-A, which has never surpassed single digits, is a source of frustration and surprise to many athletics officials.

The scarcity raises a host of questions—with few clear answers—about a glass ceiling over college athletics: Are qualified women being overlooked because they lack connections in an old-boy network that some say still dictates many hiring decisions? Have they been passed over so many times that they've stopped trying, in some cases, choosing to leave the profession altogether? Or are they simply content, with all the pressures bearing down on the top person, to be No. 2?

Some critics say women are often bypassed because of a belief, sometimes held by influential boosters, that they aren't up to the task of leading programs dominated by football. Others say a lack of experience on the business side, a crucial part of any major AD job, is sometimes to blame. But in many cases, it comes down to the willingness of those doing the hiring—presidents and chancellors—to break the mold and hire a woman.

"There are plenty of talented women that have all the skill sets," says Donna A. Lopiano, a sports-management consultant who is also a former women's athletic director and past chief of the Women's Sports Foundation. "It's that they're not being mentored and promoted by the people who can get them jobs."

Indeed, the pipeline of female administrators is far from empty: More women hold positions in the administrative ranks of athletic departments now than at any time since the mid-1970s, when women's athletic programs operated separately from men's. Across all three divisions of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, women have occupied at least a third of all administrator positions for the past 15 years, an era of growth for many programs as budgets have increased and staffs in such areas as compliance and marketing have expanded.

At many of the nation's premier programs—Texas, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Louisville, and Iowa, for example—the second or third in command is a woman. And several women who have held the top posts have, by all accounts, done it well: They have overseen major capital projects, increased fund raising, and, in some cases, presided over national-championship-winning teams.

Still, the number of women in the top seats has barely budged for decades. Since 1998 the proportion of female AD's in all of Division I has hovered between 8 and 10 percent. In I-A, only nine women have ever held the director's position. (By comparison, the number of female college presidents has grown considerably in recent years. In 1986, 10 percent of presidents were women, but by 2006, the most recent year for which data are available, 23 percent were.)

The five women who currently lead Division I-A programs—Sandy Barbour, at the University of California at Berkeley; Kathy Beauregard, at Western Michigan University; Cary Groth, at the University of Nevada at Reno; Lisa Love, at Arizona State University; and Deborah A. Yow, at North Carolina State University—have held senior positions for decades. Unlike the others, who landed their first AD spots in the 1990s, Ms. Love came to the post in 2005.

The persistent low numbers are a mystery to William E. (Brit) Kirwan, who tapped Ms. Yow to lead the athletic department at the University of Maryland at College Park in 1994.

"I'm both surprised and disappointed that this hasn't happened more often in intervening years," says Mr. Kirwan, who now leads the University System of Maryland. "It's pretty sad."

Getting in the Mix

DeLoss Dodds, athletic director on the University of Texas' flagship campus, came to Austin in the fall of 1981. He has been in the boss's chair ever since, taking the Longhorns from a $4-million operation 30 years ago to the $140-million juggernaut it is today. Sitting in his office of dark-paneled wood, with leather furniture and a bronze head of a longhorn steer on a meeting table, Mr. Dodds says he considers it his duty to help women interested in the top job to get there.

"We sat around here five years ago and looked at ourselves, and we said, 'You know, we're a bunch of old white men,'" he recalls. He and his colleagues agreed to do something about it. "We've got such bright people in this department. We said, 'Let's get those bright people and let's give them every advantage we can give them.'"

At least one of Mr. Dodds's longtime senior team isn't an old white man. Christine A. Plonsky, right down the hall, has been at Texas for 22 years, overseeing, among other things, media-rights negotiations that recently resulted in a $300-million deal with ESPN for a Longhorns-only TV network. But unlike some of the up-and-coming young administrators eager to race to the director's chair, Ms. Plonsky has stayed put, uninterested in leaving her job as women's AD for a top post anyplace else.

"I just happen to like where I work and where I live, and that has probably limited me somewhat," she says. "Maybe there will be something that could drag me away, but I love my job."

Amy Folan, however, has her sights set on the director's chair. After stints at the University of Georgia and the NCAA, she landed nearly nine years ago in an assistant AD position at Texas.

"I came in here with that goal of being an athletic director," says Ms. Folan, who is now associate athletic director for compliance services and sports programs. "I knew that was a long-term aspiration."

When she arrived in Austin, at age 28, Ms. Folan says she told Mr. Dodds, along with Ms. Plonsky, that she didn't want to do compliance work forever. Like anyone preparing for the top job, she needed exposure to much more than one narrow aspect of athletics administration.

"'We'll help you with your career goals,'" Ms. Folan recalls the two officials telling her.

And they have. In grooming Ms. Folan to one day assume a top post, they give her additional responsibilities whenever possible, have assigned her oversight for three of Texas' 20 sports, and include her in as many spontaneous meetings as possible. They also regularly send her to NCAA and Big 12 Conference gatherings, where she meets high-ranking athletics officials from other universities.

"Every time we travel, I have a chance to talk to them about how they got to where they are," she says. "I get to see daily when they have issues come at them."

The approach has worked, Mr. Dodds says. (At least, he thinks it will; Ms. Folan hasn't had any offers yet.) "She's ready to be an AD today," he says. "She just needs the opportunity."

But for many women, it's not as simple as being ready and getting noticed. And Mr. Dodds knows that. For one thing, the top job doesn't come open all that often: In the past 14 years, 174 athletic-director positions have been filled in Division I-A, and only four of them have gone to women.

"There is a good-old-boy system," Mr. Dodds says. "The women in the business need mentors. They need to find somebody to help them work the network. But there's no question they're ready for it—and in a lot of cases, are more ready than men."

The 'Silent Partner'

Until recently, many search firms were led by individuals whose contacts in athletic programs didn't always include women or minorities. As a result, their short lists very often were populated entirely by men.

On the flip side, many sitting AD's have not been as proactive as the Texas officials in identifying staff members who are ready for that next step. "There are women out there, but there hasn't been a pool developed," says Ms. Groth, of Nevada. "We've not done a very good job in identifying women that we can recommend."

It's hardly a simple process. Ms. Groth, for instance, also mentors some up-and-comers who happen to be male—and whom she wants to see succeed as well. "I have two guys right now that could be AD's tomorrow," she says. "That's a priority for me. Yet at the same time, I know I need to be a champion for women in this position."

She points to her own career path as an example of the importance of being noticed. Though she landed her first director's job as an internal candidate at Northern Illinois University, her alma mater, in 1994, she got a crack at her current job only after Dutch Baughman, executive director of the Division 1A Athletic Directors' Association, recommended her for it.

Todd Turner, a former athletic director at four Division I-A programs who started his own search firm last year, says he has found it surprisingly tough going when seeking out female candidates for AD searches. Coming up short in that regard, he says, isn't all that different from what he used to encounter as an athletic director looking to hire talented female coaches.

"I had a hard time getting them to move," he says of those women. "My perception is that they have far more balance in their lives than some of the guys. The guys are all about money and the position. The women are oftentimes about a lot more."

Ms. Plonsky, at Texas, is one of those blue-chip potential candidates who can't seem to be budged, Mr. Turner says. Her contentment is maddening for those who consider her one of the best in the business.

"Every single search, I call her," he says. One of those searches was for the athletic-director position at Kent State University, Ms. Plonsky's alma mater, which came open last year.

"She was the first call I made," Mr. Turner says. "I said, 'OK, Chris, they're going to change the name of the athletic department to your name if you go there.'"

The top woman at the nation's biggest program chuckled at the proposition. But she wasn't interested.

Julie Hermann, who is second in command at the University of Louisville, has a name for Mr. Turner's predicament. She calls herself—and others like her, male and female, who occupy the No. 2 spot—the "silent partner."

The idea of holding the top job, especially now, at a time when the AD's chair is a pressure-laden, often lonely place to be, has never held any appeal for her, she says. Instead, Ms. Hermann, who played volleyball for the University of Nebraska and was head coach at the University of Tennessee before coming to Louisville 14 years ago, says she relishes the responsibilities she has as the Cardinals' No. 2. In addition to supervising 20 of Louisville's 23 sports, she directs the program's marketing efforts as well as its fund raising. But many of the pressures and demands that define the modern AD position—at Louisville, running a $61-million operation while answering to the demands of donors, boards, athletes, parents, corporate sponsors, and on and on—are not hers to bear.

"I've never thrown my hat in the ring," says Ms. Hermann, whose official title is executive senior associate athletic director. "I'm not interested in being a candidate."

Many women say family considerations are often part of the equation. Kimberly S. Record, who became athletic director at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 2009, spent 13 years in the deputy's chair at Florida State University. Her two children were younger then, she had "a great situation" at Florida State, and she didn't feel the need to move, she says. Still, she did try for several AD jobs and was a finalist for about five of them before winning the Greensboro post. Accepting that job required a great personal sacrifice, though: A single mother, she left her younger son in Florida so he could finish high school there.

It's a decision that some women decide they never want to make. So says Ms. Yow, who, in her 21 years as an AD at Saint Louis University, at Maryland, and now at N.C. State, has seen women make that call many times. "You have a number of women who have predetermined that they're close enough to the real action of the AD to look at it in the same way some men do and say, 'I don't want that for my life.'"

But Ms. Yow cautions against reading too much into gender. And she's not dwelling on whether there will be another member of her exclusive club anytime soon.

"This is not something I think about," she says. "I'm not the female AD. I'm just the AD. I think it's really important, when women do get the opportunity, that that's how they think about themselves. You're the AD who happens to be female. No big deal."

Next Steps

The dearth of women in top athletic positions hasn't triggered the same kind of public concern, as, for instance, the similarly sparse numbers of African-Americans in the head-coaching ranks of football. That's partly because athletic departments haven't faced much pressure to diversify their leadership teams, says Ms. Lopiano, the consultant. An uptick in the numbers can happen only if college presidents, conference commissioners, and athletic directors take it upon themselves to identify talented women, prepare them for advancement, and, whenever possible, hire them, she says.

There are models that work. Several years ago, Mr. Baughman, of the Division 1A Athletic Directors' Association, and other power brokers in college sports puzzled over how to increase the numbers of African-American football coaches interviewing for head-coaching positions. After energetic advocacy and scrutiny of the hiring process, the number of minority coaches who interviewed for such positions has risen. Now there are 16 black head coaches, up from two just a few years ago.

The approach has not gone unnoticed: Officials at the National Association of Collegiate Women Athletics Administrators say they have considered adopting similar tactics to increase the number of women considered for top posts.

Other groups, like the NCAA and the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics, are paying attention to the issue, too. Mr. Baughman, who runs a prestigious summer institute for administrators who aspire to be athletic directors, says he is committed to getting more women into the interview process. Every year since the institute began, 11 years ago, women and minorities have represented half of the its participants, he says. (For now, though, their presence there hasn't had much of an impact on the AD ranks: In addition to being largely male, AD's in Division I-A are also roughly 90 percent white.)

Amy Folan, for her part, is determined to do everything right to get to the director's chair. She's taking on additional responsibilities, is open about her ambitions, and considers herself plugged into a network of fellow administrators, at Texas and beyond. Having already bounced from Georgia to Indianapolis to Austin in her 15-year career, she says she's willing to move anywhere for the next opportunity.

Still, Ms. Folan is choosy. After nearly a decade at Texas, she says, "It's going to have to be a good job for me to go."