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Big-time college sports leadership still a man's world

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Forty years after the U.S. government’s Title IX law required equal athletic opportunities for men and women, just four women are in charge at the 120 sports departments in college football’s top tier.

Women haven’t been groomed for a top job that includes everything from overseeing fundraising and negotiating licensing deals to hiring and firing coaches. They still battle a perception they’ll struggle to manage an entrenched football program, two female athletic directors said.

As college football—the biggest revenue sport—begins its conference schedules at the end of the month, only the University of California-Berkeley, North Carolina State, Western Michigan University and the University of Nevada have female athletic directors in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s top football division. That’s about 3 percent.

“The numbers are really, really small,” says Sandy Barbour, athletic director since 2004 at Cal-Berkeley. “Frankly, we’ve actually gone backward. At one point, there were eight of us.”

Title IX took effect in 1972, a federal law forcing schools to provide roughly the same number of places on sports teams for women and men. For example, there should be 100 spots on women’s teams to offset a 100-man football roster.

Barbour, 52, said she’s given women at Cal a chance to show they can handle football and revenue-related jobs. Her men’s and women’s basketball supervisors, chief financial officer and director of development all are women. The department had $65.2 million in operating revenue in fiscal 2011, according to the university.

Of all the athletic programs in Division I, including those without football teams, women represent less than 10 percent of ADs, or 30 of 343 positions, according to an survey by the Indianapolis-based NCAA for the 2010-2011 school year. They make up about 30 percent of associate athletic directors, or 446 of 1,503 positions.

Patti Phillips, executive director of the National Association of Collegiate Women Athletics Administrators, said women are making progress, though slower than they might have imagined 40 years ago.

“The pipeline from top to bottom has to get bigger,” she said. “There are more women in the No. 2 positions working on football, operations and facilities, and that’s going to continue to grow.”

Among those who recruiters say may move into the top slot over time are University of Texas Women’s Athletic Director Chris Plonsky; University of Iowa Senior Associate Director of Athletics Jane Meyer; University of Georgia Executive Associate Athletic Director Carla Williams; NCAA Vice President of Women’s Basketball Championships Anucha Browne Sanders; and University of Louisville Executive Senior Associate Athletic Director Julie Hermann.

Decades ago, schools often promoted an aging football coach to athletic director. When television and sponsorships became a bigger part of the job, the role gravitated toward administrators who had experience with contracts and finding new sources of revenue. Women, often working in NCAA-rules compliance, athlete welfare or academic support, weren’t in the mix.

“You can become very cubby-holed in your responsibilities unless you come with a resume where you are allowed to do more than one certain thing,” Plonsky said.

“Are you going to be in compliance forever, or are you going to cross-pollinate into fundraising? Like in football, unless you get someone advanced to the coordinator position, how are you going to get them into a head coaching position? You have to be well-rounded.”

Broader skills development for men and women is now more of a focus at schools including the University of Michigan, where Athletic Director Dave Brandon, the former CEO of Domino’s Pizza Inc., took over in 2010. He’s applying business principles to staffing, he said.

“Succession planning is a huge part of a senior executive’s job in the corporate world,” said Brandon, 60. “In higher education, it’s something that isn’t emphasized. When you don’t have a plan driven by strategy, you become more of a victim of the marketplace.”

Brandon said he’s identifying members of his staff and people outside Michigan with leadership potential. He said he’s hired 39 women since his arrival, and that his leadership team is about 40-percent female. Michigan’s operating revenue for fiscal 2011 was $122.7 million, according to the university.

NCAA President Mark Emmert said the lack of succession planning and internal development in higher education isn’t just a problem in sports.

“Every time there is a search for a dean or provost there is almost always a fire drill about what’s next,” said Emmert, a former University of Washington president and Louisiana State University chancellor. “It’s as if we never anticipated this person would leave or grow old.”

Women still face preconceptions about what it takes to run a big-time sports program, according to Berkeley’s Barbour.

“These big programs are dominated by football,” she said. “And there is this thought that, in order to lead one of these programs, you have to have played football. You certainly have to address it.”

Jed Hughes, vice chairman at executive search firm Korn/Ferry International, said women need to work for athletic directors who can develop talent. Gathering the necessary experience can take 15 to 20 years, and may mean managing tickets and suite sales, events and operations, student athletes’ support services, and overseeing football or men’s basketball, he said. Plus, candidates need to understand fundraising.

“If you are going to be a successful athletic director, you have to have had the gamut of responsibilities,” he said.

The NCAA’s Emmert said preparing women to run athletic departments is about fairness. Even more important, it’s about becoming more competitive.

“When I have a more diverse leadership team in gender and race and perspective, I have better decision-making processes and more thoughtful voices at the table,” he said.

“There’s no doubt that they bring a different way to thinking about problems,” Emmert said. “It benefits all of us.”

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