By Emalee Nelson
Within the past few weeks, Becky Hammon has become a hot topic in the sporting community first as a candidate for the Milwaukee Bucks head coaching job and more recently for being promoted to the San Antonio Spurs top assistant coach. As an assistant coach for a successful head coach in Gregg Popovich, Hammon has proved herself to be a knowledgeable, dedicated fount of basketball knowledge, earning the respect of her peers and her players. When she was hired in 2014 by the Spurs, she became the first female assistant coach in any of the United States’ four major professional sports. In addition to helping lead the Spurs to numerous playoff runs, she also served as their head coach, winning the Summer League in 2015.
It is obvious Hammon can coach; yet, so many looming questions regarding her tenure remain, from skeptical fans, analysts and homemade experts who claim to know what’s best for the league and the future of basketball. Even as big names have come out to publicly support Hammon, as Pau Gasol so ardently expressed in his recent letter to The Players Tribune this ongoing discussion raises important questions on the dynamics of women coaching men.
I have been interested in this topic since I began studying sport history as an undergraduate at Texas Tech in 2013. At that point, there were no women as assistant coaches on any staff in professional sports. There were a handful of women who had shattered glass ceilings, but in rooms with a less illuminating spotlight. With a fascination in the topic, and a warranted interest in lack of recognition for their stories, I have followed these stories over the past few years. As Hammon’s name emerged for an NBA head coaching job, the experiences of other female coaches in big-time men’s sport helps us understand the culture and expectations of fans, administrators, and other coaches.
Through their stories, their experiences have helped give answers to the following important questions. Why have we become so accustomed to men coaching women, but not women coaching men? Do coaching tactics and philosophies vary between males and females? Do basic stereotypes associated with each gender channel through to their coaching? Today, our society is working to break down barriers, whether it is gender, racial, sexual orientation, or virtually any issue. These hot topics have led to an increasing awareness of gender roles associated with coaches at secondary, collegiate, and professional levels. We have made major strides within recent years to overcome these obstacles; however, we still have a handful of problems to tackle until we can ultimately reach gender equality in the gymnasium and on the field.
Contrary to common historical patterns, female teams were traditionally coached by women. It has been within the last few decades that men have broken their way into the world of female athletics. However, it is important to we raise a serious question to why this trend has not been as apparent in men’s secondary, collegiate, and professional sports. In 1990, Bernadette Locke-Mattox received a call from Tubby Smith (then an assistant coach at the University of Kentucky) asking if she would be interested in joining the coaching staff . . . under Rick Pitino, head coach for men’s basketball team. In an unprecedented move, Locke-Mattox flew to Lexington to interview for an assistant coach position with one of the most historic and successful men’s basketball teams in the entire country. Smith recalls, “You have to give credit to Rick Pitino for having that type of vision. At that time, no one dreamed of having a female coach on their staff, much less at Kentucky.” After receiving approval from athletic director, C.M. Newton, Bernadette Locke-Mattox became the first female assistant coach in Division I men’s basketball. After remaining in this position for four years, she then became the head coach for the University of Kentucky women’s basketball team, a position which she held for eight years.
In 2016, I sat down with Smith to talk about this experience:
On his initial thoughts when Pitino was considering hiring a woman for his staff at the University of Kentucky.
Every advancement in society, whether it’s with women’s suffrage and voting rights, it’s because the time is right and there’s a need and pressure. At the time, I think there was a lot of things going on in society that women were stepping up and fighting for equal rights—and they still are fighting for equal rights and pay. So my whole mantra and challenge was for them was to find the right fit. Bernadette, because of her resume, her background having been a college player, an All-American…She was just a perfect fit.
On how she fit in with the staff and players.
She was accepted readily. She knew the game. She had been an assistant at Georgia, she understood basketball and what a coaching staff was all about, what teamwork was all about. Because the same things that were demanded of us were demanded of her, we would play pickup basketball at 5:30 in the morning, and Bernadette was playing. She would compete as hard as she could … And the players, they saw that. Here she is out here playing pickup basketball with the men. Look how fiery she is. You gotta respect that.
EN: “Would you consider hiring a female for your coaching staff today?”
Oh absolutely. If I thought there was someone out there, if there was female who could help us win basketball games and recruit, then we would certainly entertain the thought of having her on our staff.
Not all barriers have been defined on the gymnasium floor. At the University of Connecticut, Andrea Hudy worked closely with the Huskies’ national championship men’s and women’s basketball teams as a strength and conditioning coach. In September of 2004, after nine and a half years at UConn, Hudy joined the University of Kansas’ staff as the associate director of strength and conditioning. Men’s basketball head coach, Bill Self expressed his concern when hiring Hudy amidst her success with Jim Calhoun’s team. “ . . . I don’t want to hire a woman to be a men’s strength coach. Who does that?”
Fast forward fourteen years, and the fourteen Big XII regular season championships, three Final Fours and numerous testimonies from former and current players speak for themselves. Former Jayhawk center, Jeff Withey claimed Hudy was Kansas’ secret weapon during the 2012 season’s Final Four run. All-American Marcus Morris said she was the main reason he became an NBA lottery pick, eventually being picked up by the Houston Rockets and remaining a playmaker for the Boston Celtics 2018 playoff run.
Today, Self’s view on a female strength and conditioning coach starkly juxtaposes his skeptical attitude only a mere twelve years ago.
She’s been far more than what I ever thought a strength coach could be. Our guys’ bodies have changed. They look good. They enjoy stretching themselves as far as they can because of her. Maybe there’s a correlation between how she trains our guys and how few games our guys miss. Our flexibility, our core strength and our ability to stay on the court and not the training room has been escalated tremendously since she came on board.
What’s the Difference?
Pat Summit built a dynasty during her 38-year tenure as head women’s basketball coach at the University of Tennessee, she garnered eight NCAA Championships, 32 Southeastern Conference titles, and led the Lady Vols to a 1,028-208 overall record. After winning countless awards and becoming the all-time winning-est coach in the National Collegiate Athletic Association, she stepped down from her head-coaching role on April 18, 2012, after being diagnosed with early onset dementia. Immediately, she accepted the role of Head Coach Emeritus. Amidst her myriad of accomplishments, Summitt did not do one thing that defines Locke-Mattox, Hudy, and Hammon’s careers—coach men.
So how did this wildly successful woman dominate collegiate basketball, by only remaining on one side of the gender spectrum, while Geno Auriemma and other males have made the cross into women’s basketball? Rick Pitino stated that he never received an application or call from a female coach. Why are women refraining from applying?
Many stereotypes associated with females in sports do not always stop at the athlete. Sheila Robertson explained in an interview with SportsLetter these common misperceptions.
There’s a suspicion of women’s ability to coach, and the particular skills that women coaches bring beyond technical knowledge – like empathy and listening skills – are not necessarily recognized or understood. They’ve also had difficultly being taken seriously. Even in some traditional female sports, they haven’t fared that well.
When asked if female athletes need to learn from women coaches, she replied stating there’s no definite answer. Some feel very strongly that female athletes, especially teenagers, benefit from the nurturing ability of a woman coach while others feel the exact opposite.
Former UConn player, and current assistant coach, Shea Ralph, explained Auriemma’s coaching style in a recent article. “The problem is that Geno has a vision in his head of the perfect game, and we’re supposed to play it. If we’re ahead by 30 at the half, he’ll tell us how pitiful we are.” This demand for perfection is a stark contrast with Pat Summitt’s coaching philosophy, who never actually set a goal of winning a national title. Summitt stated,
We always make sure, that our plans for the season can be achieved. Setting goals is incredibly important to success. But if you set a goal that seems impossible to achieve—if you go into a year saying your goal is to win the national championship—then you risk losing morale, self-discipline and chemistry if you falter early… We might set a goal that we win 20 or so games, that we win a conference championship, that we make the NCAA tournament. If we do those things, the truth is we have a chance of winning the national championship. But I would never want that to be the only goal.
High School Sports
While most of the conversations about females coaching men revolved around big-time college and professional sport, it is also an issue at the high school level. I spoke with, Leslie Brown, my high school track and field coach to learn about her experience as the head coach of both the boys and girls track teams. “I faced many a challenge as a woman coach. First, you have to prove yourself as a source of knowledge to the men on your staff. You then have to prove yourself the athlete so the other men will listen to your knowledge. You are not given the chance to mess up or fail without losing almost all respect. Men can make mistakes and it is accepted more readily. As a female coach I had to be careful that when I have a complaint that it is not blown off as “griping” instead of just stating a fact.”
My former head softball coach, and also assistant baseball coach at the same high school, Jason Abner, worked side by side with many assistant female coaches. When asked if their philosophies are different, he replied, “Women tend to lead by example and men tend to lead with words.” Later, he was asked if he would have responded differently to a female coach when he was an athlete during the 1990s. His response,
I think so, but that is just because I was ignorant when I was younger. I played high school football and baseball and college baseball and I am sure that I would have had the opinion that women do not have a place coaching either one of those sports. For the record, this is not my opinion now and I would welcome female coaches in any sport I oversee.
Women coaching men at the secondary level is an important aspect to consider, given the age of influence on young athletes. Will Larkin, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, spotlighted a handful of women coaching varsity boys’ teams in the Chicago-area. Initially, an issue of legitimacy arose from the boys on the team. Hannah Puckorius, now head freshman basketball coach at Mount Carmel High School, recalls her early years coaching boys a few years younger than her current players. Before the season, the boys circulated a petition against her coaching the team. “They were like, ‘What the heck — we have a girl coaching us?’ Puckorius remembered. But I shut that down pretty quickly, and eventually they all came around.”
Another high school boy’s basketball coach, Marin Tesfamikael, had a similar encounter with her players at Woodlawn, a University of Chicago charter school. “Woodlawn point guard JaTaun Blakemore wasn’t as active in his initial disapproval toward his female coach, but he admitted to some conflicted feelings upon learning he would be taking orders from Tesfamikael. “A girl’s coaching us? Really?” Blakemore said. “I was a little nervous. People don’t think girls know sports.”
For any woman in sport, this is a reoccurring statement we hear too often. Yet, fortunately for these boys, Puckorius and Tesfamikael are in a strategic position to change their perception on women in sport. After Tesfamikael had a shooting contest against her players, a few boys earned her respect. After Woodlawn started winning, everybody was on board. This trend echoes Brown’s earlier statements of women having to prove themselves. Though the stakes may be lower at the high school level, there is still a considerable amount of influence these women have on their team, community and the next generation’s mindset when dismantling gendered stereotypes.
Much like Abner’s changing view on female coaches, the awareness and acceptance of a female coach has evolved over the past few decades. Ignorance is not the key factor, but having a knowledgeable and willing leader to step up and try to defy the norm is what it must take to start a revolution for females in male sports.
Gender revolutions in professional sports have not been limited to just the NBA. Dr. Jennifer Welter served as a part-assistant inside linebacker coach for the Arizona Cardinals during the 2015 training camp and preseason. The following year, Rex Ryan, head coach for the Buffalo Bills, hired Kathryn Smith as a quality control-special teams, making her the first full-time female assistant coach in the NFL. Prior to this position, she worked closely with Ryan as a player personnel assistant for the past seven years, including his tenure with the New York Jets. Ryan stated her promotion to her new position was “based on her knowledge and strong commitment,” making her the most qualified candidate for the job.
A change in cultural perception and acceptance of new ideas, including women coaching men, only exist through the pioneering actions of these women. Coaching philosophies will always vary from coach to coach, regardless of gender. Candace Parker recently commented on the popularity and embracing of WNBA players. “Female ballers don’t get disrespected by NBA players . . . It’s usually dudes that don’t play basketball that disrespect the WNBA.” I believe the same concept is applicable with women coaching men. For these women breaking gender barriers in professional and collegiate sports, they have earned the respect of their peers and athletes through their skill, knowledge, professionalism and experience. As Gasol wrote, “We’ve come a long way, and we’ve shown a lot of growth… but there’s still a lot more growing left for us to do.” This growth is needed from fans and consumers of the sport who are adhering to societal expectations of females which are still lagging behind the curve. We know sport to be a place of systemic subjugation, but also a place for barriers to be broken by the brave who dare to challenge the status quo. Becky Hammon is on the verge of something remarkable for sport, but for our society as well.
Emalee Nelson is a PhD student in the Department of American Studies at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. She studies issues of race, gender and class in sport in American culture and history. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @emaleenelson.
 Pau Gasol, “An Open Letter About Female Coaches,” The Players Tribune, May 10, 2018, https://www.theplayerstribune.com/en-us/articles/pau-gasol-becky-hammon.
 Nicole Auerbach, “Glass ceiling: Why Women Aren’t Coaching Men’s D-I Hoops,” USA Today, November 12, 2013, accessed November 12, 2013, http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/ncaab/2013/11/12/women-coaching-men-bernadette-locke-mattox-stephanie-ready/3006139/.
 Tubby Smith, Interview by Emalee Nelson, Personal interview, Lubbock, February 2, 2016.
 Jason King, “Andrea Hudy: KU’s secret weapon,” ESPN, May 16, 2012, accessed November 16, 2013, http://espn.go.com/mens-college-basketball/story/_/id/7936919/strength-coach-andrea-hudy-plays-huge-role-success-kansas-jayhawks-program-men-college-basketball.
 “Pat Summit Bio,” http://www.utsports.com/sports/w-baskbl/mtt/summitt_pat00.html.
 Ibid., “Glass Ceiling”.
 David Davis, “SL Interview: Sheila Robertson explores the challenges for female coaches,” August 23, 2010, http://www.sportsletter.org/sportsletter/2010/08/sl-interview-sheila-robertson-explores-the-challenges-for-female-coaches.html.
 Pat Jordan, “Geno Auriemma, Mr. Women’s Basketball, March 22, 2013, accessed November 15, 2013, http://deadspin.com/5895516/geno-auriemma-mr-womens-basketball.
 Don Yaeger, “Lessons from Sports – Pat Summitt”, Success, http://www.success.com/article/lessons-from-sports-pat-summitt, accessed November 15, 2013.
 Leslie Brown, Interview by Emalee Nelson, Personal interview, October 11, 2013.
 Jason Abner, Interview by Emalee Nelson, Personal interview, October 21, 2013.
 Will Larkin, “Women who coach boys team strive to become bigger part of the game,” Chicago Tribune, February 10, 2017, http://www.chicagotribune.com/sports/highschool/ct-women-coaching-high-school-boys-spt-0212-20170211-story.html.
 Dan Hanzus, “Bills Hire Kathryn Smith, first full-time female coach,” National Football League, January 20, 2016, http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap3000000626344/article/bills-hire-kathryn-smith-first-fulltime-female-coach.
 Sarah Spain, “‘Area 21’ authentically embraces women athletes,” ESPN W, May 12, 2018, http://www.espn.com/espnw/culture/article/23435084/area-21-authentically-embraces-women-athletes.
 Gasol, “An Open Letter”.