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Lacrosse a Leader In Hiring Women to Coach Women

Before the 2019 Final Four, Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw used her press conference to issue a plea to the people — more accurately, the men — in charge of making hiring decisions.

"Men have the power. Men make the decisions. It's always the men that is the stronger one, and when these girls are coming out, who are they looking up to, to tell them that's not the way it has to be. And where better to do that than in sports?" said McGraw, who had announced her decision to stop hiring male assistants earlier in the week.

Both statements caused controversy. But McGraw had a point. The sports world commemorates the 50th anniversary of Title IX this month. There’s no doubt that women’s athletics has made tremendous strides under the law enacted to stop gender discrimination in sports. Before Title IX passed, just 1 in 27 girls played sports. Today, that number is 1 in 5, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation.

But who is coaching them? Often, a man. The percentage of women coaching women’s teams has declined from more than 90 percent in 1972 to 42 percent today, according to a 2019-20 study published by the University of Minnesota's Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport.

Lacrosse is a notable exception. The sport ranks behind only field hockey in representation on coaching staffs, with 80 percent of women’s lacrosse coaches being female. The reason may be rather boring, having more to do with Xs and Os than social justice.                                                                                                 

“Maybe it has been the historical differences between men’s and women’s lacrosse,” Northwestern head coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said.  “It’s not like soccer or basketball where it’s the same exact rules, the same exact game.”

“It’s really powerful to have a strong female role model.”

— Kelly Amonte Hiller

Regardless of the reason, Amonte Hiller thinks there’s something to be said about mainly having females running the show in the sport. Amonte Hiller played both lacrosse and soccer growing up. During her youth and high school days, she had all female coaches in lacrosse, but men mostly coached her in soccer. At Maryland, both of her coaches were female. In lacrosse, she played under Cindy Timchal, the dynasty-building coach and stalwart for women’s athletics.

“It’s really powerful to have a strong female role model,” Amonte Hiller said. “I’ve always appreciated the people that I have been around. I feel that connection has been huge for me in mentorship. I feel like it’s been a huge influence on me.”

Timchal’s influence on her continued long after she hung up her Terrapins uniform.

“She calls us and says, ‘Did you see that? We need to do that for our game,’” Amonte Hiller said. “And I’m like, ‘You’re absolutely right, Cindy.’ She mobilizes her people so we can help move our game forward. Having a female leader like that in our sport is huge.”

Huge, in part, because it inspires other females to lead and speak up. Cathy Reese, who played under Timchal and later took over for her at Maryland, fields similar calls. Most recently, she says Timchal has been focused on increasing media coverage for women’s lacrosse — something that happened this season, with all four quarterfinal games on ESPNU and the national championship on ESPN for the first time.

“To this day, when I talk to her, she’s always thinking forward, talking about television coverage,” Reese said. “She’s been so inspiring and creative [when thinking about] what we can do to make things better for our female athletes.”

Timchal gave Reese her first assistant coaching job. But Timchal never took a hard line like McGraw. In fact, she helped launch the coaching career of one of the sport’s biggest names: Gary Gait. Both Reese and Amonte Hiller played for Gait, who was an assistant at Maryland before taking the helm at Syracuse and leading the Orange to three national title games in 14 years. They both credit Gait for helping the team reach success and pushing the sport forward.

“Gary was always like, ‘Why can’t you do this, that or the other?’ Before he came in, people said, ‘It’s women’s lacrosse. You can’t do that,’” Amonte Hiller said. “That helped break down barriers for our game.”

Gait ushered in increased use of plastic sticks, for example. Amonte Hiller has a male assistant — her husband, Scott. And she thinks men have a place in women’s sports, but with one male assistant, she does look to hire females. But gender isn’t a dealbreaker.

“I want some balance there,” Amonte Hiller said. “With that said, I am going to look at a broad spectrum when hiring people, and if I feel the best possible opportunity is a male, I am going to consider that as well.”

Reese has an all-female staff. One of her assistants, Caitlyn Phipps, recently had a child. Reese knows what it’s like to balance work and family. She has tried to create a culture of flexibility and support similar to what she has experienced over the years. But she says that a potential reason for a decline in female coaches in other sports is the inability to find balance in a society that often still puts an invisible load on mothers.

“There is a lot to balance as a woman, being a mother, figuring out how to balance the lifestyle of college athletics where your hours are not normal, and you’re traveling a lot … it’s important to have a support system around them to allow them to be able to continue and thrive,” Reese said.

Reese can’t say exactly what that support system should look like — every person and family has different needs. For her, sometimes, each day as a working mom was survive and advance, even with a village cheering for her.

“It’s not always pretty or perfect, but I have a husband that loves Maryland lacrosse that is super understanding and knows what goes into what we do,” Reese said. “We’re in an athletic department that is supportive, understanding and gets the bigger picture of what we need to do, and I have assistants I work well with.”

All four coaches in the Division I Final Four were mothers. Reese may not know how to solve the issues for all working moms who want to coach — a problem that extends far beyond sports — but, for what it’s worth, just seeing moms and coaches like Reese and Amonte Hiller thrive at prominent Division I programs has inspired a new generation. One of them is Shannon Smith of Hofstra, an All-American under Amonte Hiller.

“You see Kelly, Kerstin Kimel, Cathy Reese, Acacia Walker out there being a female, being moms, having families and being badasses in their sport at the top of their game coaching is a tremendous inspiration to me and young female coaches out there,” Smith said.


But it wasn’t easy. Smith knows Amonte Hiller had nothing handed to her, and her advocacy for the women’s game has helped pave the way for coaches like her to demand more resources and higher salaries. Amonte Hiller recalls watching her brother, a professional hockey player, with a twinge of justified jealousy.

“It was frustrating because I was doing the same level of work and come from the same background and am just as athletic, and I am not getting the same level or respect and financial means,” she said.

But Amonte Hiller kept pushing forward, and she credits having strong female leaders in her corner for it, in addition to Timchal.

“I was lucky enough to have good mentors,” Amonte Hiller said. “My boss, Nancy Lyons, who brought me into Northwestern, was a great mentor to me. I subsequently had Noreen Morris and now Janna Blais. Being a coach is a hard thing, and you need a lot of sounding boards around you, especially at the university you are at.”

Amonte Hiller thinks support is needed at departments around the country to increase the rate of women coaching women. She says creating a culture where entire athletic departments feel comfortable picking one another’s brains about issues, like balancing family or coaching challenges with, can set coaches up for success on and off the field. Amonte Hiller tries to do the same for her former players who have become coaches. She hopes it motivates them to continue and preserves the sport’s high rate of women leading women.

“You have to believe that you can break barriers down,” Amonte Hiller said. “I try to teach my kids not to accept something because you are a girl. Fight for it. You deserve just as much.”

Reese tries to do the same for her players who have become coaches, including Taylor Cummings, now at the helm of the legendary McDonogh (Md.) girls’ program. Her advice: Remember that actions speak louder than words.

“You have a direct impact on people’s lives around you,” Reese said. “The way you treat people around you and approach your job is important.”

And that includes inspiring today’s female players to become tomorrow’s coaches.