Tufts ahead of the game with commitment to coaching equality

Ten of the 21 head coaches at Tufts are female. That’s refreshingly a far cry from the national norm, for which only one in five head coaches is female. A look at the head of Tufts Athletics Department, Athletics Director (AD) Bill Gehling, could shed light on why Tufts is ahead of the game. While programs headed by male ADs compared to female ADs tend to have a lower percentage of female coaches (44.8 percent compared to 49.1 percent), few other programs are led by an AD that was as invested as Gehling was in the promotion of women’s collegiate sports in the 1970s and 1980s.

Following an all-star soccer career at Tufts, Gehling accepted the offer to head up the women’s soccer program in 1979, around the time that Title IX was becoming a prominent issue in Tufts athletics. Despite two subsequent offers to become the head coach of the men’s team on which he once starred, Gehling remained the head coach of the women’s soccer team for 20 years. He also formerly served as the chair of the NCAA Women’s Soccer Championship Committee, and as the president of the New England Women’s Intercollegiate Soccer Association, further evidence of his career-long efforts to develop women’s athletics programs across the board.

Gehling, following in the footsteps of Rocky Carzo, the AD before him, had the foresight to hire Branwen Smith-King as the first head coach of the women’s track and field team, before promoting her to the assistant athletic director (AAD) position in 2000. Smith-King would imbue Gehling’s early efforts with her own philosophy and agenda, and the pair set the tone for an athletics department that could serve as a model for gender equality in coaching.

“At Tufts, when we have a position open, anybody can apply,” Smith-King said. “We are very cautious and careful about the people we approve, and we’ve been lucky to attract some wonderful women to coach here. Tufts is progressive, and I’m proud of how well we’ve done — not just in terms of attracting female coaches, but that they’ve been extremely successful.”

Smith-King’s affirmations are bolstered by the Athletic Department’s strong female head coaches: former UConn Husky Carla Berube (women’s basketball) led her team to its first NCAA Final Four appearance this past season; Harvard alum Kate Bayard (women’s tennis) received First Team All-Ivy honors four times as a player and coached three Div. III national champions in her first six seasons; and Cheryl Milligan‘s (softball) team just won its second straight national championship.

At the same time, Tufts, with an undergraduate population of just over 5,000 students, benefits from the larger context in which it is set. The conference that Tufts plays in, the NESCAC, has long played a role in setting the groundwork for more women to enter the field of coaching and athletics.

In 2004, Tufts hosted the first-ever NESCAC Coaching Symposium for Women, a conference that brought together lead female administrators from all the NESCAC schools, including Trinity’s AAD Robin Sheppard, Conn. College’s AAD Eva Kovach, Bates’ AAD Marsha Graef and many more.

“Each school [in the NESCAC] was allowed to send two participants, and we brought in all the heavy-hitters,” Smith-King said. “We had Christine Grant [the first women’s athletics director in Iowa] and Charlotte West … women who had been leaders in women’s athletics [and] intercollegiate athletics at the highest level.”

The conference addressed the need for establishing a collective goal of increasing female representation in collegiate coaching. With female coaches still facing strong barriers in coaching men’s teams, they are mostly limited to just 50 percent of all coaching jobs — jobs coaching the women’s teams. Yet barriers still exist for female coaches in women’s sports, with females making up just 42.6 percent of head coaches of women’s teams.

Once again, Tufts seems to be an outlier in this national statistic. All of the women’s sports teams at Tufts have female coaches at the helm — with the exclusion of sailing, crew and squash, for which the men’s and women’s teams share the same coach. Tufts’ ability to construct an accommodating environment for coaches, particularly for female coaches with families, by providing maternity leave and post-pregnancy work flexibility, ensures that coaches stay for years, or even decades, in some cases.

Nancy Bigelow, head coach of the women’s swimming and diving team, has held her position for 31 seasons. Carol Rappoli, former women’s lacrosse head coach, retired last year after 28 seasons at Tufts. Of the 10 head coaches of women’s teams at Tufts, seven have coached for 10 or more seasons and one more is mid-way through her ninth season at Tufts.

In addition to creating an environment that makes coaches reluctant to leave, the coupling of athletics’ policies and Smith-King’s visible presence have begun to influence how young women embrace the idea of coaching as a profession.

“The model of the female coach has changed,” Smith-King said. “When Nancy [Bigelow] and I started, we were physical education majors, teachers and coaches. Now a lot of women don’t go to college to become a coach, they play at a high level, and more of them are starting to think ‘maybe I’ll be a coach’ before deciding to go into coaching afterward. At Tufts, for some of our grad assistants (GAs), they’re not only getting masters degrees, they’re also getting experience as coaches. Several of our GAs went on to become coaches at a college level.”

And while actions may speak louder than words, sometimes it’s the underlying philosophy that really makes the difference.

“I’m a feminist, I guess, we’re all feminists,” Smith-King. “Some people think it’s a bad word, it’s not a bad word. I always feel committed to making sure young women have opportunities in sport. The problem [now] is that we still don’t have many women of color [in athletics], and that’s really the next frontier. I’m very committed to these causes and discussions, but quite honestly I wish there was more I could do to promote diversity. Right now when I see potential in people, especially females, I try and ask ‘Have you ever thought about getting into coaching?’ just to get them to start thinking about it.”