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Hiring Caitlin Lowe as head coach of Arizona softball is step in right direction for women in coaching

Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

When Caitlin Lowe was named the next head coach of Arizona softball this week, it was hailed as a step forward. In many ways, though, it was a step into the past of women’s sports. A past when almost all women and girls who played sports had a female coach to look up to.

“When I first got into the game...there were five head coaches that were men,” former head coach Mike Candrea said. “But that was back right when Title IX just started and it just wasn’t cool to be coaching softball. If you’re a guy you want to coach baseball, right? But then I think, when I had success, it opened up the doors for a lot of guys that wanted to get into the game.”

In 2014, Linda Carpenter and R. Vivian Acosta, a pair of professors emerita at Brooklyn College, produced a study called “Women in Intercollegiate Sport.” In it, they noted the drastic reduction of the percent of sports coached by women. They also noted that new coaching positions in women’s sports go to male coaches at a 2-to-1 clip.

“In 1972, when Title IX was enacted, more than 90% of women’s teams were coached by females,” the professors wrote.

By 2014, that number had fallen to about 40 percent. The only NCAA sport that has more female head coaches than male is women’s basketball. What’s more, the pair found that between 2000 and 2012, there were 2,080 new jobs created in women’s athletics. Men were given two-thirds of those new jobs.

While Title IX introduced the possibility of women and girls playing sports, in many ways it also introduced the reality of women losing their influence as coaches in their own games.

It may have been about being seen as an acceptable thing to do, as Candrea mentioned, but there was another reason men might have been interested in coaching women, as well. The paycheck. As opportunities, prestige and money grew in women’s athletics, men sought the jobs. They were given those jobs at a much greater rate than women were.

In the past, coaching women and girls meant doing so on a voluntary or part-time basis. My mother began high school in Arizona’s White Mountains area back in 1960, just over a decade before Title IX was passed. She tells of a high school experience that didn’t offer organized interscholastic sports for girls in her hometown. Instead, when they could get time on the court, the wife of the boys’ basketball coach would coach the girls in six-on-six basketball, sometimes referred to as “Iowa rules girls basketball.”

Title IX was supposed to end that sort of disparity in any school that accepted federal funds, but it hasn’t always been successful. Jackie Court, the mother of Arizona gymnastics head coach John Court, was only paid a part-time salary to run the gymnastics program she created at Brown University despite having the same full-time responsibilities of other head coaches. That bit of information came out when the athletes on the team filed a Title IX lawsuit against Brown in the early 1990s.

Not many universities were willing to go to the extremes Brown did and risk a lawsuit. So, for the first time, there were generally full-time, paid positions for head coaches in women’s sports. It may have required those coaches to teach classes, as both Candrea and Arizona head volleyball coach Dave Rubio did early in their careers, but there was a paycheck.

Huge financial sacrifices haven’t gone away for those trying to get into coaching, though. Even today, young women who want to get into coaching must often start out as volunteers. That means they must be able to work two jobs or they must have other avenues of supporting themselves.

Candrea had hoped some of that would be alleviated two years ago when a rule came up before the NCAA that would have allowed one more paid assistant coach for both baseball and softball. It was rejected as Cal and Oregon State joined the Big 12 and the Big Ten in voting down the proposition.

“It just doesn’t make sense to me,” Candrea said at the time. “If you’re going to have that position, not everyone has to choose to pay them. You can still have a volunteer. But on the other hand, I think it’s another part of that entry level for young females to get in the game and get into the coaching profession.”

Candrea and Lowe know the hardship well. Lowe originally joined the Arizona staff in 2013 as the director of operations, a paid position. She wasn’t allowed to get on the field and coach. In order to do that, she had to become a volunteer.

“So the next season he offered me the volunteer coaching position,” Lowe said. “And to be crystal clear what that means is he actually offered to take my salary completely away so that I could have some coaching responsibilities. Now, while that wasn’t the most financially responsible decision on my half, I just jumped at the chance.”

Lowe has been able to survive in coaching because of the support of her family. She married Paul Nagy, a former assistant soccer coach at Arizona, in 2015. Between him and her parents, she has been able to juggle the other major obstacle that so many female coaches face: motherhood.

As Arizona basketball coach Adia Barnes has spoken about, balancing the responsibilities of motherhood is something most women who work outside the home eventually have to face. Barnes has said that it’s a bit easier for her because, as the head coach, she gets to make the rules.

Still, there are times a coaching mother just can’t be there for her children. In the case of Barnes, her husband is on the sideline along with her during games. Their children are often seen in the care of Senior Associate Director of Athletics Suzy Mason or other close family friends during games.

For Lowe, she didn’t get to make the rules for herself. Her husband has also been a coach of another sport for most of her career. She had to know that her boss would be supportive and that she had people who were able to help her.

“The hardest part was when my firstborn was a baby,” Lowe said. “I walked into Coach’s office and I said, ‘I need to bring Harper with me.’ It just was going to be how it’s gonna be. And he said, ‘Absolutely. Family comes first.’ And so my mom or dad met us on every single stop, and I’m very lucky to have that support system, and I was able to travel with her the entire time, and it made life easy. I was also able to enjoy my family at the same time. But really it’s just balance and it’s having that support system to carry you through the tough times.”

Women can’t even get to the point of navigating the economic and family hurdles if they don’t have the opportunities to develop the skills they need, That keeps many from even applying.

Last year, Arizona volleyball associate head coach Rita Stubbs helped spearhead a Pac-12 initiative to get more women into coaching that sport. Few who applied had the skills necessary to do the job, Stubbs said. And no one was helping them get those skills. They needed mentors.

Stubbs had her mentor in Rubio, her former college coach. In the same way, Lowe and many of her fellow Arizona softball alumnae have had Candrea, who has spent much of his career mentoring coaches across the country. It was especially important to him that his own players get the opportunities to prepare for these big moments.

Lowe took that mentorship and ran with it. Candrea did what he could to see that she got the rewards.

“It was huge for me,” he said. “I mean, I’m blessed that Dave Heeke allowed me the opportunity to be very involved in selecting the next coach.”

Without the men who currently have the majority of the jobs in women’s college athletics championing the women who played those sports, it’s unlikely things will change. Women will be forced out of their sports soon after their college playing careers end. It’s up to more current coaches to take on the role of mentor in the same ways that Candrea and Rubio have.

The Pac-12 has made strides in college softball. With the hiring of Lowe at Arizona, all nine coaches are now women. Six of those coaches are running the programs that produced them.

There’s still a long way to go, though. At Arizona, Lowe becomes just the third female head coach of women’s sports. The other two, Barnes and head women’s golf coach Laura Ianello, both led their programs to the national semifinals (or beyond) this year.

There are no female head coaches of men’s sports at Arizona. Across the country, no more than 3.5 percent of head coaches of men’s college sports are women according to Acosta and Carpenter. When women don’t get jobs coaching women and girls, the reality is that they simply don’t get jobs coaching.

Lowe’s head coach helped her get here, but she also looks to her two female colleagues who have walked the path she’s now undertaking.

“One of the first people that walked into my office when I was on staff was Laura Ianello,” Lowe said. “She knew I was pregnant, having my first child and in a coaching role. A lot of people can relate to this across the country. That is a very hard thing to go through everything at once, and she was always there for support. And I watched Adia go through it now and she’s just phenomenal. She can be great at all aspects of her life. And Coach (Candrea) has taught us that, really. It’s about balance and making sure you’re where your feet are. When I go home I’m the best mom I can be, and when I’m here I’m the best coach that I can be.”

As for why she and the other women of the Pac-12 will the best coaches they can be, Candrea has his thoughts.

“I’m seeing a transition and the reason why the transition is occurring is because there’s a lot of these players like Caitlin that have played for people that have taught her the game the right way, and so...their information base is as good as any,” he said. “And that’s why you’re seeing a lot of these coaches that are being hired right now. The Pac-12 will be all female coaches. That’s the way it is. They’re the best and that’s the way it should be.”