The decision was easy for Tara Flugel. When the college basketball star graduated, she went straight to coaching.
“I didn’t want to stop being around the sport,” said Flugel, who graduated from Whitworth College four years ago. “All along, I thought, ‘I’m going to be a head coach.”’
She may be on her way. Flugel teaches at Shadle Park High School, where she helps out a veteran basketball coach who’s talking retirement.
If Flugel attains her goal, she’ll be a rare find in Spokane.
Most girls who play sports of any kind in Spokane School District 81 are coached by men. Women make up less than a third of coaches in the high schools. And in middle schools, only a quarter of coaches are women.
Some sports, such as volleyball and gymnastics, have more female coaches. But all five girls varsity track teams in District 81 are coached by men, as are five girls varsity soccer teams. Men are head coaches of all but one girls tennis team and all but one girls varsity basketball team.
The disparity isn’t unique to Spokane. Kootenai County’s four high schools employ eight women and dozens of men in head coaching jobs. And the most recent statewide statistics for Washington show only one in five head coaches of girls basketball teams was a woman.
That was in 1994, and school officials aren’t expecting a turnaround any time soon. If anything, the number of female coaches appears to be dropping.
The trend is attracting attention. A District 81 athletic equity committee looks over the numbers and makes the same recommendation for school after school, year after year: “Continue to encourage and support female coaches for all the girls sports teams.”
It isn’t imperative that only women coach girls and only men coach boys, said Randy Ryan, the district’s activities coordinator. But both boys and girls benefit from same-sex role models.
“We want that gender connection with the kids,” said Ryan.
Nancy Hobbs, athletic director at Liberty High School in Spangle, agrees. “Girls should be able to experience coaching from other women because it offers them rapport (and the notion) that they could be a coach, too.”
The shortage of women coaches hits home for Shadle Park boys basketball coach Darcy Weisner. Weisner’s fifth-grade daughter plays basketball at Woodridge Elementary School, where a man coaches the team.
“I’d love to have a real energetic female coach her,” he said, “for her to see a female who had an expertise in basketball and a passion for it.”
Yet, school officials say they have trouble attracting women to coaching.
“I would go out and say to the women in the building, ‘We need women to coach our girls,”’ said Ryan, who was Shadle Park’s athletic director until this school year. “Often, they didn’t (apply).”
That hasn’t always been the case.
“When I first started coaching in Spokane, there were lots of women,” said Linda Sheridan, 50, who is head coach of Shadle Park’s girls basketball team.
Sheridan and other veteran coaches describe the steep decline in women coaches partly as a byproduct of federal Title IX legislation, which was passed in 1975 to assure equity for female athletes.
As pay for female coaches rose and the girls began playing in prime time just like boys, more men applied for those jobs. And they got them. They had plenty in their favor - often more experience and much stronger networks.
“It’s tough,” said Sheridan. “Who’s doing the hiring?”
The result, she said, is a male-dominated system that doesn’t inspire female athletes to think, “Spokane is a great place to start a coaching career.”
Women who do coach can find the job alienating at times. Stories abound about competing coaches marching straight past female head coaches for their male assistants, the assumed leaders.
Susan Fahrni, who once coached in Colorado high schools, remembers the twinge of hurt when her male colleagues met at bars or hotel rooms after games to celebrate or commiserate.
“Sometimes, they’d say things that were off-color and they’d all turn and look at me and say, ‘We’re sorry,”’ Fahrni recalled. “There were a lot of things I didn’t get invited to.”
Some administrators suspect they also are losing female coaches because the job is becoming more timeconsuming.
“Seasons weren’t as long; there was no summer responsibility. Now there are summer leagues; there are tournaments. It’s gotten a little out of hand,” said Jeanne Helfer, who has coached girls basketball for 15 years.
In a society in which the bulk of housekeeping and child-rearing falls to women, taking time to coach can be difficult, said Helfer, head coach at Mount Spokane High School in the Mead School District.
Helfer kept at it, even after her daughter, Amanda, was born six years ago. Still, she believes the hectic schedules have driven away some potential coaches.
But Weisner said he doesn’t think that juggling act whittles down the list of female applicants. He has seven children, ages 2 to 14, and similar emotional battles.
He and his wife manage by bringing the children to practices and games, treating them like family outings. Sometimes, half of the kids are in bed by the time late practices end. But Weisner says he wouldn’t consider quitting.
A bigger roadblock, he said, is that women aren’t encouraged early on to make a commitment to coaching, beginning when they’re student athletes.
Hobbs drew the same conclusion after surveying 148 female athletes for her dissertation. About half of the freshmen and sophomores wanted to coach, but the numbers dropped sharply as girls neared graduation.
Why? Hobbs believes a survey question offers a hint. Most girls - even those who were good, organized leaders - said their coaches didn’t encourage them to coach.
“You think maybe you don’t have to do that,” said Hobbs. “But probably we should be.”
While educators and coaches debate why the gender imbalance exists, they agree it shouldn’t. Suggestions abound for recruiting and keeping female coaches.
Flexible bosses can help women stick with coaching, said Helfer, remembering her days of bed rest during pregnancy.
“When it was over, they let me come right back. We’re a helping profession. Sometimes, I think teachers and coaches need (help) as well.”
Middle school is a prime place to start recruiting, said Ivan Bush, District 81’s equal opportunity officer. He suggests urging female teachers there to coach - at a level where the kids are learning as much as the new coaches are and the competition isn’t so steep.
Bush wants the district to formalize its goal of recruiting female coaches by setting a time line, scheduling pep talks with head coaches and providing workshops and training for potential coaches.
“We will see more women coaches when we sound that clarion bell saying, ‘OK, we are in earnest encouraging women to apply for coaching positions,”’ Bush said.
Sheridan suggests spending money to find female coaches from outside the district. “If it’s a head male coach, we’re doing a nationwide search,” she said.
Once female athletes begin seeing women in positions of leadership and authority, they’ll start setting goals themselves to coach, Sheridan said.
When she started to think about retiring, Sheridan had no doubt she wanted to turn her team over to a woman.
That’s when she began watching the Whitworth College team closely. She soon was encouraging Flugel to do her student teaching at Shadle, and last year, her recruit was her co-coach.
Sheridan may be able to retire confident that she - and Flugel - made a difference for girls at Shadle.
But Sheridan sighs when she thinks about the changes she’s seen in her 30-year career.
“We started out in the right direction,” she said. “We’ve offered more opportunities for the athletes, but we’ve offered less for the coaches.
“I don’t feel incredibly confident we’ve turned it around.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo 2 Graphics: 1. Coaching equity 2. Women varsity basketball coaches decline
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: SERIES Women are well-represented in education, but can they reach the top rungs? Sunday, The Spokesman-Review showed women get about a third of the high paying jobs in school districts, though they make up two-thirds of the work force. Today’s story discusses a shortage of female coaches.