With Jennifer Cohen at UW and Shaney Fink at SU, Seattle is the only one of the 32 metro markets nationwide with multiple Division I colleges to have women running its athletic departments.

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Growing up in Southern California, and playing baseball with the boys on a team coached by her father, one of Shaney Fink’s earliest childhood ambitions was to one day be the manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

A thousand miles north, just outside the city where she would eventually make her name, young Huskies fan Jennifer Cohen once wrote legendary UW coach Don James a letter telling him she would someday succeed him as head football coach.

Both women ultimately made their marks in an industry where women are still under-represented: college sports administration.

Cohen was named UW’s athletic director in May 2016 and at the time, she was one of only three female athletic directors at the Power Five level.

Then, last September, Seattle University announced Fink as its new athletic director, making Seattle the only one of the 32 metro markets nationwide with multiple Division I colleges to have all women running its athletic departments.

Cohen and Fink are two of 38 female athletic directors among all 352 member institutions at the NCAA Division I level – about 10.5 percent. In contrast, women made up 46.7 percent of NCAA Division I student-athletes in 2016-17.

Friday marks the 45th anniversary of Title IX being signed into law by President Nixon. The groundbreaking anti-discrimination law was passed in 1972 to ensure protection against gender discrimination in education but has also revolutionized the demographics of sports in the U.S.

It has yet to truly transform the top ranks of athletic administration, but there are signs the tide is turning. The number of female Division I athletic directors today has doubled since the 19 who held those jobs in the 1995-96 academic year, per NCAA statistics. Of the 38 current female Division I athletic directors, 23 were hired within the last five years.

“There’s definitely been an upward trend,” says Fink, who played volleyball at the University of California from 1990 to 1994. “It wasn’t that long ago that you had only one woman in each athletic department, so you wanted to be that one.”

“It really feels like it’s changed, and I think the men have evolved, too. They recognize that more than half of our student-athletes are women, so it makes sense that we’re all represented.”

From participation to leadership

Cohen and Fink have benefited from programs installed in the aftermath of Title IX to help women advance in sports administration careers.

Cohen was 27 years old, newly married, and working an athletic compliance job at then-Division III University of Puget Sound when she saw an advertisement in an NCAA publication that she says “changed my life.”

Texas Tech had just started an internship program for women who wanted to work in athletic administration. Cohen applied and was the first person to earn the Jeannine McHaney internship, which was named after the Red Raiders administrator largely responsible for the growth of women’s sports at Texas Tech.

Cohen “stood out,” says Judi Henry, Texas Tech’s senior associate athletic director who oversaw the internship program. “I remember the first day she walked in, she had a high level of energy and was excited to be here and learn and be part of everything. You got the feel that she had the ‘it’ factor. There was something special about her.”

Henry, a 1975 Texas Tech graduate, grew up in the pre-Title IX era and started out as a physical education teacher before transitioning into athletic administration. She witnessed firsthand the battles McHaney, her own mentor, fought over two decades as Texas Tech’s first director of women’s sports.

So Cohen’s hire as UW athletic director almost 20 years after she left Texas Tech was a proud moment for Henry, the only person Cohen called for advice the night before her big job interview with the Huskies.

“Title IX wasn’t so popular because people didn’t want money taken away from football, and didn’t want women involved in athletics,” Henry says. “It took a lot of time for us to get traction in any area.”

Cohen, 47, is now the first McHaney internship alum to become a college athletic director.

“To be able to see that and know what girls have now, and see people like Jen in positions of leadership is incredible,” Henry says.

When Fink played volleyball at Cal in the early ’90s, the Golden Bears still had separate women’s athletics and men’s athletics departments, and there were few women at the highest levels of athletic administration.

“There were some women (administrators at Cal) but not very many,” says the 44-year-old Fink, adding, “Until I got this job, I didn’t know if it was going to be open to me.”

Upon graduating in 1994, Fink played pro volleyball for three years while coaching high school volleyball on the side. Coaching ultimately steered her into athletic administration. In 2000, after her first season as assistant volleyball coach at the University of San Diego, Fink accepted an academic support job that put her on track for a career in athletic administration.

By 2016, when Fink left for Seattle U, she was the senior associate athletic director and senior women’s administrator at USD.

In the summer of 2015, Fink was selected to attend the National Association of Collegiate Women’s Athletic Administrators’ Executive Institute – or “athletic directors boot camp,” as she calls it, that prepares high-level women in athletic administration for athletic director jobs.

NACWAA was founded in 1979 to help women in college sports advance and connect, and the group has since renamed itself Women Leaders in College Sports. Over the years, it has introduced numerous programs to train women for leadership roles in athletic administration, and Cohen and Fink credit Women Leaders in College Sports and its current executive director, Patti Phillips, for helping them in their careers.

A year after she did NACWAA’s Executive Institute, Fink was selected for a similar NCAA Pathways program that identifies and trains up-and-comers for athletic director positions.

Last September, two months into the NCAA Pathways program, Fink landed her first job as an athletic director.

The ‘Four F’s’

From March through May of this year, six women got Division I athletic director jobs: Samantha Huge at William & Mary, Heather Lyke at Pittsburgh, Desiree Reed-Francois at UNLV, Marie Tuite at San Jose State, Mary Ellen Gillespie at Hartford and Donna Woodruff at Loyola Maryland.

Phillips says she’s not surprised that more women are finally infiltrating the top ranks of college athletic administration because it’s something her group has been working on for a while.

Four years ago, Women Leaders in College Sports started an “advancement initiative” to increase the number of female athletic directors. As part of this initiative, Phillips met with many search firms to find out what they look for in candidates they recommend to university presidents, and to understand why more women weren’t being considered for the top jobs. She also speaks to university chancellors and presidents to recommend candidates and encourage them to make diverse hires.

It wasn’t that long ago that you had only one woman in each athletic department, so you wanted to be that one.” - Shaney Fink

“We do not advocate for women to receive jobs solely because they are women. We advocate for qualified women – and there are many – to get a fair shot,” Phillips says. “Our mission is to develop, connect and advance women at all levels (and) set them up to become the best candidate, no matter their gender.”

So what will it take for more women to get these jobs? Phillips has distilled it down to a simple list of experiences all candidates must possess: The Four F’s.

“Football, fundraising, facilities and finance,” Phillips says. “Traditionally, women have been in student services, compliance and academic areas. That’s great, too. … But if you want to be an athletic director, you have to have the Four F’s and the ability to hire and fire coaches.”

As Cohen’s and Fink’s paths show, there’s more than one way to check off those boxes.

Fink started in academic services but steadily broadened her portfolio. She was on the search committee that hired football coach Jim Harbaugh at USD in 2004, and eventually oversaw the department’s development and revenue generation efforts after her former boss, Ky Snyder, delegated those responsibilities to her.

In contrast, Cohen started in development and fundraising when she took an entry level development position at UW in 1998. Later, as UW’s head of major gifts, she oversaw fundraising for the $250 million renovation of Husky Stadium in 2013, and led development projects for numerous other athletic facilities on the UW campus.

Then, in 2013, Cohen got a golden opportunity when she was tasked with overseeing football.

“That was my opportunity to really knock out any questions I had of myself or that anyone had of me on whether I could really manage myself being a solid athletic director,” Cohen says.

Within three months of assuming oversight of football, Cohen was confronted with some tough situations: Steve Sarkisian left for USC, the Huskies found themselves embroiled in a compliance investigation, and Cohen had to run a search for a new head football coach.

“It was a confidence builder for me to be able to go through that process and look back on it and say, ‘If you can get through that, you can get through anything,’” Cohen says. “For women, I think we worry about that too much. We will figure it out.”

Cohen, Pitt’s Lyke, Penn State’s Sandy Barbour and N.C. State’s Deborah Yow are the only female athletic directors among the 65 Power Five schools.

At the top echelon of college sports where football is king, athletic directors are expected to be able to manage football coaches with multimillion dollar contracts and big personalities. Women still have to fight a stigma that they might not be up to the task, Phillips says.

“Unfortunately, there is bias,” Phillips says. “But that’s not going to stop us. Women aren’t getting out there and putting on shoulder pads and helmets. We have to keep highlighting our talents and telling the story. … What we’re teaching our younger women is that if you want these jobs, you have to get involved in external relationships and football. That’s not a gender bias. Guys who don’t have that aren’t getting these jobs either.”

What comes next?

With women making up almost 43.5 percent of all NCAA student-athletes, Fink sees today’s athletes as a valuable talent pool from which to cull future athletic directors.

“It’s a matter of opening up to our current student-athletes and letting them know these jobs exist and it can all be done. You can have a family and you can still make it happen,” Fink says.

Like any other industry, change often begets change. With more women now holding athletic director jobs, that opens a pipeline for younger women working their way up the chain.

“The model is changing,” says Texas Tech’s Henry. “It used to be that a men’s coach who was successful moved into the athletic director position and it was hard for women to break into that. But now, the typical athletic director has business experience or a law degree, and there’s a greater understanding of how diversity is important in your leadership, and around the table.

“The more we see women in those positions, it’s not out of the box any more, it’s expected.”

We do not advocate for women to receive jobs solely because they are women. We advocate for qualified women – and there are many – to get a fair shot.” - Patti Phillips, Women Leaders in College Sports director

Someday soon, Cohen hopes we’ll get to a point where having a woman in charge of athletics will cease to be newsworthy.

“I don’t like talking about the fact that I’m female,” Cohen says. “I get that we have to talk about it because there’s not enough diversity of women leading college athletic departments. But that’s not how I identify myself because I think it creates a stereotype of it. I’m proud that I can be a role model for people, but that’s not my identity.”

By the time Title IX’s 50th anniversary comes along in five years, Phillips’ goal is to ensure that the demographic makeup of leaders in college athletics more accurately represents the student-athletes in their care.

“We need an equitable (gender) split. The number of leaders at that level needs to reflect the student population and we’re gonna do our part to make sure women know the skill sets required to get there,” Phillips says. “There is still sexism, racism and homophobia in this male-dominated industry. For true equity, we need a cultural shift.”

Female athletic directors at Division I schools
There are 38 female athletic directors at the 352 NCAA Division I schools. Of those 38, 23 have been hired in the last five years. Ten, including Jennifer Cohen at UW, are AD’s at an FBS school. The complete list below:
School Athletic director Start date
Charlotte Judy Rose July 1990
Colgate Victoria Chun Jan. 2013
Delaware Christine Rawak May 2016
Denver Peg Bradley-Doppes July 2006
DePaul Jean Lenti-Ponsetto July 2002
Drake Sandy Hatfield-Clubb May 2006
Eastern Michigan Erin Kido* May 2017
Fort Wayne (Ind.) Kelley Hartley-Hutton March 2017
Hartford Mary Ellen-Gillespie May 2017
Loyola (Md.) Donna Woodruff July 2017
Manhattan College Marianne Reilly April 2016
Milwaukee Amanda Braun March 2013
Mississippi Valley State Dianthia Ford-Kee Nov. 2013
Monmouth Marilyn McNeil April 1994
Mount St. Mary’s Lynne Phelan Robinson Oct. 2007
N.C. State Deborah Yow June 2010
North Carolina Central Ingrid Wicker-McCree April 2008
Northern Arizona Lisa Campos April 2012
Penn State Sandy Barbour July 2014
Pittsburgh Heather Lyke-Vice March 2017
Portland State Valerie Cleary Dec. 2016
Penn Grace Calhoun July 2014
Princeton Mollie Marcoux Samaan April 2014
St. Francis (NY) Irma Garcia July 2007
Saint Francis (Pa.) Susan Robinson Fruchtl July 2016
San Jose State Marie Tuite May 2017
Santa Clara Renee Baumgartner July 2015
Seattle U Shaney Fink Sept. 2016
Tennessee State Teresa Phillips April 2002
UC Riverside Tamica Smith-Jones June 2015
UM Kansas City Carla Wilson Dec. 2013
UNC Asheville Janet Cone April 2004
UNC Greensboro Kim Record Sept. 2009
UNLV Desiree Reed-Francois April 2017
UT San Antonio Lynn Hickey 2000
Washington Jennifer Cohen May 2016
Western Michigan Kathy Beauregard 1996
William & Mary Samantha K. Huge May 2017
Bold, italicized name indicates AD at an FBS school; *Kido was named interim AD last month.