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Louisville athletics fueled by women leaders

The unsung heroes of Cardinal athletics deserve some love.

Frankie Steele, The Voice-Tribune

A little over 45 years ago, one single sentence slipped into an education bill and signed into law by President Richard Nixon changed the landscape of American amateur athletics forever.

No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.

Title IX was supposed to give female athletes in high school and college as much of an opportunity to pursue their dreams as their male counterparts. While the landmark legislation banning sex discrimination in any educational program receiving federal funding has certainly cracked the door open wider for women looking to make a career in sports, the playing field is still anything but level.

Women now make up more than half of all college undergraduates, but they still don’t get their equal share of athletic opportunities. A 2010 study by the NCAA revealed that women composed almost 53 percent of the aggregate student body but were under 46 percent of the schools’ student athletes. Those female student athletes also received, on average, just 39.6 percent of their athletic departments’ overall spending, a national figure that has remained virtually unchanged for 15 years.

The idea that major college athletics is still very much a “boys club” gets its best support from the disparity between male and female professionals in the field. Even though Title IX has dramatically increased the number of female college athletes, it has not increased the number of women coaches. In fact, it’s done the opposite. In 1972, women coached about 90 percent of women’s college sports teams. Today, that number sits at 43 percent.

The numbers only tell half the story here. For many women, getting access to the college sports club was a struggle trumped only by their efforts to try and find equal treatment after their membership kicked in. Recent gender discrimination lawsuits involving the universities of Iowa and Tennessee have pulled back the curtain to show how some women who attained powerful positions at powerful athletic programs weren’t really in possession of the power their jobs ought to have wielded.

Both lawsuits detailed cultures where the ideas of female professionals were consistently ignored, and worse, where an environment that welcomed sexual discrimination and harassment was promoted. They also opened the door for women formerly or currently employed by other major athletic departments to speak out about their similar experiences. Despite attempting to convey a public image that would indicate otherwise, it’s clear that a number of high-profile athletic departments still have a fraternity mentality that they are in no hurry to part with.

This isn’t the case when it comes to Tom Jurich’s University of Louisville athletic department. It hasn’t been for two decades.

“Every sport is equally important here at Louisville,” said Amy Calabrese, a former Cardinal athlete and UofL’s current Assistant Athletic Director for Student-Athlete Development. “Being a former women’s soccer student-athlete for the Cardinals, my experience was second to none and that’s still the case today. Tom has always advocated for each and every sport to have a first class experience regardless of if it was a male or female team. Coaches are coaches. Athletes are athletes. Cardinals are Cardinals. It’s that simple.”

Since Jurich arrived in 1997, UofL has added four women’s sports—rowing, lacrosse, golf and softball-—taking the total number of women’s sports at Louisville from nine to 13. Over that same time span, he has helped increase the number of female athletes at UofL by a whopping 166 percent (147 in 1997 to 391 now), and increased the scholarship and financial aid devoted to women’s sports by more than 600 percent ($767,000 in 1997 to $5.5 million now).

The investments have paid off for Jurich when it comes to the teams’ performances. The UofL women’s basketball program has gone from one which had never been to a Sweet 16 to a perennial top 10 squad that has played in two national championship games. The Cardinal swimming and diving program have produced a pair of national champions and world record holders in the last two years with Kelsi Worrell and Mallory Comerford. Louisville softball has been a mainstay in the NCAA Tournament since the advent of the program, and the lacrosse and field hockey teams have thrived in the ACC, spending considerable portions of each of the past three seasons ranked somewhere in the top 10.

When talking with the coaches of these programs who have enjoyed such a remarkable rise to prominence in recent years about the reasons for that success, there is always one constant.

“Tom is an incredible leader,” said UofL women’s golf coach Courtney Trimble. “He has the ability to make you feel as though your program is one of the most important in the department no matter how big or small your team is. He is always asking ‘what do you need to help grow your program?’ Because of these things, you want to achieve great things for Tom and the University of Louisville. I have never worked for another leader that has truly made you feel that they believe in your ability to lead and he empowers you to be able to get the job done.”

In addition to his commitment to women’s sports, Jurich has also made equal opportunity a priority when it comes to his own staff.

A large number of Jurich’s top administration posts are currently filled by women, a trend that has been around since his first days as Louisville’s athletic director. It’s a tendency that has resulted in UofL ranking among the nation’s leaders at both the college and professional level when it comes to employing women in senior administrative roles.

“Tom is the finest leader I’ve ever had the pleasure to work for,” said Julianne Waldron, UofL’s associate athletic director for marketing and external relations. “He is a servant leader, a feminist and treats his staff with not just great respect but as his family. He guides me when I need him as great mentors should. But similarly, great mentors also let their students rise and fall on their own. He is a liberating manager, empowering me to solve challenges on my own, to lead and develop a talented team and to be ever-innovative in my work. It is that secret ingredient that sets him apart and makes this department the speed train that everyone wants to get on.”

A consistent theme when talking to the women who help make the UofL athletics train go is the notion that they never feel as though their voice is unheard. Even when ideas are met with resistance or disagreement, Jurich has fostered an environment at UofL where all employees feel comfortable to say their peace and receive an honest and well thought-out response. It’s a deserved freedom that the women have wholeheartedly embraced for years.

“There’s not a shrinking violet in the bunch-nor should there be,” UofL assistant athletic director, brand marketing and licensing Lottie Stockwell said of Louisville’s female administrators. “College athletics runs at a breakneck pace, even in the offseason, and you have to have a strong personality to succeed. As you would imagine, all these strong personalities bring a lot of lively, healthy discourse. We challenge each other, we support each other and there’s no other group I’d rather work side by side with every day.”

Alyssa Murphy, UofL’s director of student athlete leadership and development, echoed Stockwell’s sentiment.

“Having the freedom to come up with ideas, reach out directly to coaches and student athletes, and figure out what works best, is an atmosphere that I don’t take for granted. When I was hired for my job, Mr. Jurich said to me that he wanted me to make sure I made a difference in the lives of our student athletes, but in particular he wanted to be sure our female student athletes were ready for the careers that they would begin after earning their degree. It is something that has stuck with me everyday and motivation for me to be the best female mentor that I can be.

“Coming to work every day gives me so much joy. My passion is helping our student athletes to not only be successful at the University of Louisville, but to uncover their leadership strengths and realize their potential in the careers that they are interested in pursuing.”

One of the most common explanations for the lack of women coaches and high-level administrators in American sports is the same one that’s used to justify why just 24 of Fortune 500 companies employ female CEOs. Despite the strides our society has made in the last 100 years or so, there’s still a wide gap in the way we view men and women after both become parents.

While the male role in the workplace is expected to be minimally affected by becoming a father, everything is supposed to change for women. The mother is still seen as the primary caregiver, a role which makes it impossible for her professional existence to pick back up without a hitch once she returns from maternity leave. The result of this phenomenon for professionals across the country is that they feel pressured into accepting a diminished role in the workplace after becoming a mother, or worse, they feel pressured into walking away from their professional life entirely.

Again, this isn’t the case at the University of Louisville. All eight of UofL’s high-ranking female administrators interviewed for this story have families and school-age children, and all eight said that they hadn’t felt any pressure to prioritize their professional role over their role as a mother. In fact, all eight said that the “family first” environment at UofL had resulted in a situation where their roles as parents and professionals have been able to co-exist as harmoniously as possible.

“I came back to work at UofL after having three children because of the family atmosphere,” said Christine Simatacolos, UofL associate athletic director for student life. “My kids come to games with me, participate in UofL sports camps and get to know the coaches and student-athletes. Tom Jurich allows me to be the mother I want to be. That was important to me when I decided to come back to work here. He trusts that I will get the work done, while my kids are still my priority.”

For years, mothers have been hammered over and over with the idea that they “can’t do it all.” Christine Herring, UofL’s associate athletic director and senior women’s administrator, says that long-standing idea is simply not true. It just takes the right environment and being surrounded by the right people.

“Being a mom is the best job I have ever been blessed with,” Herring said. “I have found over the last two and a half years, that my life is about balance. There are times I feel like I am failing in one direction at home or another direction at work because I’m still learning how to do it all, well. However, the things that I’ve learned through both being a mom and a strong female leader in sports have been invaluable. Learning to say ‘no’ to doing everything is ok. Learning to be vulnerable and honest is admirable. I have learned that being strong and demonstrating resilience is necessary to earning respect from others. As a mother, you can do it all, but prioritizing is critical. Hearing my boss tell me that being a mom comes first is validation that I work for someone who not only cares about me professionally, but personally as well. In turn, it motivates me to give myself 100 percent to the advancement of this department and university.”

In the last 20 years, Louisville athletics has enjoyed an unprecedented period of success. State of the art facilities have been erected, a move to perhaps the country’s premier conference has been made, and numerous championships have been won. None of it would have been possible without the women leaders of Louisville Athletics.

A version of this story runs in the current issue of The Voice-Tribune