From Camp to Sowers: A Needed History of Women Football Coaches

By Katie Taylor

In 2015, the Arizona Cardinals broke new ground in the NFL by hiring Jen Welter as a training camp assistant coach, the first woman to hold such a position. Less than a year later the Buffalo Bills hired Kathryn Smith as a full-time, quality control-special teams coach, though she unfortunately lost this job when the team underwent a coaching change during the offseason. This summer has once again seen more women given coaching internships during training camps. Eight women have been working across the league with the Buffalo Bills, Atlanta Falcons, New York Jets, San Francisco 49ers, and the Minnesota Vikings. 49ers intern Katie Sowers looks set to remain on the coaching staff at the 49ers for the forthcoming season and in the process will become the league’s first openly LGBT coach. The teams are also looking further afield for talented female coaches and it was great to see Great Britain’s captain, Phoebe Schecter, working with the Bills.

While this marks fantastic progress for women within the sport, little to no research exists about the female football coaches that have preceded them. Histories of the sport barely acknowledge women’s participation as players but even less about their role as coaches. However, it does not take much searching to discover that women have been significantly involved in this role almost from the birth of the sport. My own research has uncovered nearly 30 examples of female coaches in the period 1908 up until 1960. There are examples in every decade and from all across the country. This post simply represents a starting point for uncovering more about the role of women as football coaches and is information I have simply stumbled upon while looking for evidence of women players. It is by no means comprehensive, but suggests that if this is what I can discover without looking, imagine what else may be out there!

Perhaps the best known of the female coaches is Alice Camp, whose role a number of historians acknowledge. When her husband, the famed coach Walter Camp, was at work, she discussed plays with the team, made notes on training—later discussing them with her husband. On the twenty-fifth anniversary of the 1888 team, a celebratory event was dedicated to the “co-coaches” of Walter and Alice Camp such was the esteem in which she was held.

However, it is Lillian Merrell, from Walla Walla, Washington, in 1908 who is perhaps one of the earliest examples of a female football coach in her own right, rather than as an assistant. An article in the Evening Statesman explains that she coached athletics, basketball and, eventually, football in the Kalama high school where she taught. The article also states that she refereed a game and knows the rules by heart.[1] Estelle Sherwin in San Pedro, California, and Annie Bragdon in Boston, Massachusetts, swiftly follow her in 1910.[2] In none of these reports is there any sign of discontent or impression that a female coach was inappropriate.

Much like Alice Camp, Stella Stagg was highly regarded as a football scout, statistician, and adviser for her husband. Articles mention that when the team from the College of the Pacific was away, she would scout future opponents and we are told “her diagrams of plays are models of clarity and denote an expert’s touch.” However, as with many articles relating to female coaches, there is a need to emphasise her femininity and one article finishes with a reminder of her domestic life and duties. In 1941, she received an honour from the University of Chicago Alumni Association where the citation was quick to mention she was a “home-maker and mother to a thousand men.”[3]

It is common to find that articles relating to women coaches highlight their femininity. In 1913, Carrie Burckhardt was described as “about the most attractive, most feminine little woman ever.”[4]  Mrs. Joe Ward, in 1943, was said to be a pretty, five-foot brunette with brown eyes, while Mary McMichael is described as a “sweet-faced superwoman” and a “buxom blonde” in another.[5] Articles frequently highlighted Mrs. Earl Brannon’s weight in 1916, even in a headline in one piece.[6] In addition to highlighting the physical attributes of these women we, as readers, are assured of their femininity in the roles that they have, or returned to after their role finished. In a 1955 article, we are told that Jean Delurme also washes the teams’ kit and in a 1946, readers are informed that Madeline Bell goes back to knitting once the regular coach is back from war.[7] Whether this is true or simply a stereotype is unclear. It is perhaps through emphasising their femininity that readers are assured of the appropriateness of female coaches and that there is nothing to be concerned with. With the exception of Jean Delurme, all of the other women coached in the South. Therefore, it could be a regional issue though far more research is required in order to confirm this.

Women coaching in times of war is also common to the narrative. Nearly a third of the articles I found state specifically that women were coaching due to a lack of male coaches. For example, a Miss Iker in Washington D.C. takes on the position of football coach in the absence of any male coaches. The article describes her role as “the unique war service of women.”[8]  Anna Hurd (Oregon) takes on the role of football coach and athletic director. It seems that this was an unusual situation at the time as the Washington Herald stated that “it is rather hard to picture a woman demonstrating to husky football players” and one of the school directors from Anna Hurd’s high school mentioned “no woman can coach football” though she wins the majority of her games.[9]  In Boston, there was a particularly positive response to women coaches where an article in the Sun explained that “Boston now has its women football coaches and referees and is proud of them.”[10]  Even after the war was over in Philadelphia there was still a significant enough shortage of men applying for coaching positions that the high schools were “facing the alternative of women football coaches or no professional coach at all.”[11]

A similar situation was evident during World War II where, amongst others, Pauline Foster in California coached the Corning High school team and won their first game.[12] Pauline Rugh in Pennsylvania, who the article referred to as a “young, blonde and much easier to look at than a masculine instructor,” was to coach the Bell Township High School team, much to her surprise. She even took a three-day trip to Penn State University to help learn more about coaching the sport from the Nittany Lions coach Bob Higgins, according to reports.[13] In 1943, the Superior State Teachers College Athletic Director wanted to start teaching women to coach football to deal with the crisis and NYU began to train women with a class of 70.[14]

More women coached during the war years though articles do not always explicitly state if it was due to reasons of war. While female coaches were clearly accepted in times of war, they found themselves frequently replaced when the male coaches returned. Madeline Bell from Pennsylvania had to move aside after four seasons in 1946 when Guy Wensell returned from the war.[15] Barbara Stevens, who won eleven out of twelve games, was replaced when “tradition-minded officials . . . found a man for the job.”[16]

It is interesting that in reports of women coaches, there appears little discontent by the players at having a female coach; in fact, Mary McMichael’s players were happy to state that they “have the swellest coach in the world” following one win and one loss.[17] However, it is not always true of others, whether it were journalists or administrators involved in sport or education, or other coaches. An article in the Daily Boston Globe in 1943, for instance, sounds almost resigned to women coaches when they commented, “well it’s finally happened . . . men’s last private reserve, the rough and tumble sports, has been invaded by the ladies.”[18] This perception of invasion was also evident in an article about Mrs. Earl Brannon at Jonesboro Agricultural College where women were perceived to be “invading” every field by the author.[19] The coach beaten by Pauline Foster in 1942 declared he would never live it down that a woman beat him.[20]

Administrators in three cases seemed to disagree with having women coaches. In 1942 in Brownsville, Texas, the superintendent of schools says no to female coaches even when the school was desperate. The superintendent claims, “maybe I couldn’t handle her” though it is not clear in what manner he felt he may not be able to handle her.[21] Similarly, in 1947, Ruth Fretwell earned the job of football coach, which the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association approved but a second article explained that they changed their mind with no reason given.[22] Even highly successful women found themselves replaced as we saw with Barbara Stevens who won eleven of twelve games. It is unclear from these articles why there was resentment towards these women; this warrants further academic attention. However, what is clear is that these cases were in the minority and women were largely accepted as coaches.

These women also had varying levels of success. Barbara Stevens, as just mentioned, was clearly successful. Carrie Burckhardt’s team won all six games the previous season by a total of 161 points.[23] Anna Hurd, in 1917, is said to have won the majority of her games.[24]  Mrs. William McMullen (1927) went undefeated scoring 170-19 over the course of the games.[25] Mrs. Joe Ward not only won a 1940 and 1941 Junior conference title in San Antonio, Texas, but also beat her husband’s team and conceded only 13 points in her tenure as coach.[26]

However, others are less successful. We are told that Pauline Rugh lost her first game 47-0, though it was acknowledged that her team was playing a far better team and that it had been “like pitting Sewanee against Notre Dame.”[27] She failed to win a game all season. Dorothy Lambert, who coached in Columbus, Ohio, lost three games in a row, but had only recently formed this team from her Sunday school class.[28] Therefore, where women have not had great success the press tend to be fairly accepting of this frequently citing reasons for why this may have occurred. This may be due to there being lower levels of expectation of female coaches or simply that they are aware that without women coaches the boys would not be able to play the sport.

It also seems that women as football coaches was a form of sensationalism. An article, in 1939, introduced Miriam Kreinson as a football coach; however, she was a dance teacher who taught backfield players ballet. It is clear from the article that a variety of newspapers had advertised her as a coach but she was keen to put the story right.[29] That the headline of this article opened with the phrase “It Made a Good Story” may explain why it was published in the first place. Women coaching football was clearly a good story and was, perhaps, a method of selling more newspapers.

In general, it seems that many in society largely accepted female coaches, especially in times of war. They frequently received compliments when they did a good job and some coaches received high levels of coverage. For instance, reports on Pauline Rugh exist in papers in New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Iowa and Massachusetts. They were clearly a topic of interest and frequently accepted with very little hostility or judgment. In many instances, this was perhaps because they were a part of the war effort. However, just allowing boys the chance to be able to play football when they may not have been able to do so was evidently a good thing.

This short piece demonstrates that women have had a rich and varied background as coaches of football and certainly far more deserves to be discovered about these pioneering women. It has not been possible to mention all of the women coaches and articles I found in short post but if this is what can be discovered without really looking, one can only imagine how much more is out there. Perhaps as women gain a greater foothold as coaches in the NFL, and in other levels of the sport, people will look back to understand more about the women who came before them.

Katie Taylor is a lecturer at Peter Symonds College in Winchester in the UK and is currently pursuing her doctoral studies with De Montfort University. She is the former team manager for the Great Britain men’s Flag Football team and is a qualified full-contact coach. She can be reached at katietaylor1968@yahoo.co.uk and followed on Twitter at @katietaylor1968.


Notes:

[1] “Whitman Girl Football Coach,” Evening Statesman, November 21, 1908, p. 3.

[2] “Woman as Football Coach,” Indianapolis News, January 3, 1910, p. 18; “Woman Teacher and Athletic Coach,” Boston Daily Globe, March 13, 1910, p. 49.

[3] “Football’s First Lady Title Goes to Stella Stagg,” Cumberland Evening Times, December 8, 1942, p. 21.

[4] “Listen Fellows, These Boys Had Lady Football Coach,” Tacoma Times, December 23, 1913, page unknown.

[5] “Feminine Coach Compiles Great Football Record,” Hartford Courant, November 2, 1943, p. 14; “Girl Coaches Football Players on High School Gridiron Team,” Hartford Courant, December 17, 1944, p. 3.

[6] “Woman Football Coach Weighs 115,” Ogden Standard, October 14, 1916, p. 2.

[7] “Girl Coaches Football, Washes Team Uniform,” De Kalb Daily Chronicle, June 9, 1955, p. 8; “Woman Football Coach Returns to Knitting,” Oelwein Daily Register, October 15, 1946, p. 4.

[8] “A Woman Football Coach,” Washington Herald, September 16, 1917, p. 6.

[9] “Wichita Girls As Football Coach Makes Big Hit,” Wichita Daily Eagle, November 11, 1917, p. 25.

[10] “Boston Has Women Coaches,” Sun, October 30, 1918, p. 7.

[11] “Women May Coach Football Teams in Philadelphia,” Grand Forks Herald, October 6, 1920, p. 2.

[12] “Woman Football Coach Wins First Contest,” Logan Daily News, October 22, 1942, p. 6.

[13] “Girl Football Coach to Study at Penn State,” Shamokin News-Dispatch, August 24, 1943, p. 6.

[14] “Football Next Fall To See Debut of Women As Coaches,” Daily Boston Globe, June 28, 1943, p. 5; “Woman Football Coaches in Future Not Unlikely Says Athletic Director,”  Hartford Courant, February 10, 1943, p. 13.

[15] “Woman Football Coach Returns to Knitting,” Oelwein Daily Register, October 15, 1946, p. 4.

[16] “Girl-Coached Football Team Wins 11 Out Of 12 Contests,” Anniston Star, December 22, 1946, p. 16.

[17] “Girl Coaches Football Players on High School Gridiron Team,” Hartford Courant, December 17, 1944, p. 3.

[18] “Football Next Fall To See Debut of Women As Coaches,” Daily Boston Globe, June 28, 1943, p. 5.

[19] “Arkansas College Boasts of First Woman Football Coach,” Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, September 24, 1916, p. 23.

[20] “Woman Football Coach Wins First Contest,” Logan Daily News, October 22, 1942, p. 6.

[21] “Women Coach For Football Here? Nix!” Brownsville Herald, August 2, 1942, p. 7.

[22] “PIAA Rejects School With Women Coaches,” Times-Leader, November 4, 1947, p. 17.

[23] “Listen Fellows, These Boys Had Lady Football Coach,” Tacoma Times, December 23, 1913, page unknown.

[24] “Wichita Girls As Football Coach Makes Big Hit,”Wichita Daily Eagle, November 11, 1917, p. 25.

[25] “Weaker Sex,” Reading Times, December 20, 1927, p. 20.

[26] “Feminine Coach Compiles Great Football Record,” Hartford Courant, November 2, 1943, p. 14.

[27]“Girl Football Coach Is Not Discouraged By Her Defeat,” Times-Mirror, September 14, 1943, p. 16.

[28] “Widow of Grid Official Is Coach Of Boy’s Team,” The Registe – Sandusky, October 26, 1933, p. 8.

[29] “It Made a Good Story, But Woman Dancing Teacher Not Grid Coach,” Hartford Courant, December 30, 1939, p. 11.

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