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Macalester and Hamline are home to an increasingly rare sight: women coaching women’s sports

Courtesy of Macalester College
Kelly Roysland coaching her team against University of Northwestern–St. Paul in 2014.

 They keep meaning to meet for lunch. University of Minnesota grads Natalie Darwitz and Kelly Roysland work near each other, coaching at colleges a few blocks apart on St. Paul’s Snelling Avenue. But making time can be tricky for young coaches building programs, especially Darwitz, a first-time mom with a six-month-old baby at home.

“Life is busy, but it’s a good busy,” said Darwitz, a three-time U.S. Olympian in hockey and the first-year women’s hockey coach at Division III Hamline University. “Some days, I’m going to bed exhausted. But I’m doing things I love to do.” 

Darwitz and Roysland, in her second year as women’s basketball coach at Macalester College, represent what has become a rare commodity in college sports: Women coaching women. 

Though more women play scholastic and intercollegiate sports than ever, research by the University of Minnesota’s Tucker Center showed only about 40 percent of NCAA Division 1 women’s teams listed women as head coaches in 2014-15, down from more than 90 percent in 1974. The numbers are worse in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC), to which both Macalester and Hamline belong: 38.1 percent in 2013-14, the last academic year studied.

What’s the problem? Women’s sports coaching jobs pay well enough now that experienced men flood to apply. Most athletic directors are men, and they tend to hire men, according to Tucker Center co-director Nicole LaVoi. Conversely, LaVoi said, talented women coaches with young children are getting out because the demands of coaching, recruiting and motherhood overwhelm them.   

“There is a maternity bias in all professions, and coaching is no exception,” LaVoi said. “As soon as a woman has a child, she’s perceived as less committed, less competent. It’s like there’s a maternity penalty that doesn’t apply to men.”

That’s not the case at Macalester and Hamline. 

Seven of Macalester’s ten head coaches in women’s sports are women, as is the athletics director, Kim Chandler, who hired Roysland to replace Ellen Thompson in 2014. (Mac was the only MIAC school that received an “A” for women’s staffing in the Tucker Center report.)

Natalie Darwitz
Natalie Darwitz

Hamline athletics director Jason Verdugo was so eager to hire the eight-months-pregnant Darwitz that he told her she could telecommute and stay home with her baby when not at practice. That swayed Darwitz, who rebuffed earlier overtures from Division I Minnesota Duluth and Minnesota State. Hamline’s three previous head coaches were men.

“We wanted to be cognizant of why the NCAA is not figuring out a way to attract good female coaches and keep them,” Verdugo said. “They may be trying to start families, like Natalie’s situation. Why not offer them the flexibility to work from home? She can do the same things she does in the office. She’s so driven and organized, it took maybe five minutes for me to feel really comfortable about her getting her work done.

“I want her to be happy,” said Verdugo, who understands the need for parental flexibility because his 15-year-old son is autistic. Being home, she’ll be happy. For me, it was a no-brainer. I’m really surprised other athletic directors haven’t figured that one out.”

Darwitz and Roysland are just the kind of coaching prospects the NCAA should be attracting and nurturing.

Kelly Roysland
Kelly Roysland

Daughters of successful men’s coaches, both were terrific players at Minnesota. Darwitz held Minnesota’s all-time hockey scoring record until Hannah Brandt broke it this season, and Roysland scored more than 1,000 points in a basketball career that began with the Lindsay Whalen-led Final Four run in 2004.

Both had a taste of Division I coaching at Minnesota but left under different circumstances – Darwitz by choice in 2011, and Roysland when athletic director Norwood Teague fired Pam Borton and her staff in 2014. Teague kept Roysland briefly as interim head coach for recruiting continuity, but the newly-hired Marlene Stollings let her go within seconds of accepting the job. 

Engaged to Sun Country executive and college basketball referee Eric Curry, Roysland declined to pursue jobs out of state. “I didn’t want to live somewhere else half the year and try to make that work,” she said. “I didn’t want to start my marriage off on that foot.”

Then the Macalester job opened up. “I had a really good feeling about it,” Roysland said in her office earlier this week. “I had been over here before to do a few speaking things. I knew Kim, the athletic director. I thought the facilities were great. The league is great; a lot of Division 1 coaches have come back to this league. And it was in the Twin Cities, where I could still live with my husband and coach at a very high level.”

Roysland interviewed two days before her wedding in August 2014 (as if she didn’t have enough stress). Chandler offered the job the next day, calling as Roysland was changing to go to her wedding rehearsal.

Recruiting to a college with $60,000 annual tuition, no athletic scholarships (a Division III-wide practice) and rigorous academic standards has its challenges. For most of Roysland’s players, schoolwork, not basketball, takes priority. Macalester’s last winning season came in 2009-10, and Roysland inherited a 5-20 team that graduated seven seniors. Her debut season was a disaster. The Scots won their first two games, then collapsed, finishing 3-22 overall and 0-18 in the MIAC, with 10- and 12-game losing streaks.

“That was hard, especially when got to January and February,” Roysland said. “They worked very hard and continued to get better, but it wasn’t quite enough.”

Kelly Roysland in the division one Women's Basketball Championship game
REUTERS/Eric Miller
Kelly Roysland driving to the basket against University of Virginia forward Tiffany Sardin during the NCAA second round division one Women’s Basketball Championship game in Williams Arena in 2005.

This season the Scots started 5-2 before hitting a rough patch, losing five of six, the latest 70-36 at St. Olaf. Still, the 6-7 Scots (2-5 in conference) already have more victories than the past three seasons, with improved scoring, shooting and defense.

“Last year was a big building year, everyone getting used to a new system, the coaches getting used to us as players,” said senior guard Katelyn Kack of Minneota, one of only two Scots from Minnesota. “This year we’ve kind of gotten a flow together. We understand what each person brings to the team, and what our roles are. We’ve kind of jelled together.”

Natalie Darwitz holding the trophy after winning the gold medal game
REUTERS/Andy Clark
Natalie Darwitz holding the trophy after winning the gold medal game at the Hockey Canada Cup in 2009.

For Darwitz, two years as Minnesota’s assistant coach and recruiting coordinator soured her on Division I hockey. Too many days in airports and nights in hotels, not enough time for the lake and family. So she walked away and coached four years at Lakeville South High, leading the Cougars last season to a 24-6-1 mark and their first Class 2A state tournament. 

Soon after, Darwitz found herself in demand. Like Roysland, Darwitz abhorred leaving the Twin Cities. Darwitz’s husband Chris Arseneau works as a respiratory therapist at Abbott Northwestern Hospital. 

Natalie Darwitz coaching her team.
Courtesy of Hamline University
Natalie Darwitz coaching her team.

“The D1 schedule, relocation, wasn’t in my future,” Darwitz said. “People think I’m crazy, but the balance of home and the passion of hockey has to even out. It’s non-negotiable for me. I’m all in because I can’t stand not doing my best. In that situation, I wouldn’t be doing my best on the rink or at home. That doesn’t jive with me.”

Verdugo’s work-at-home offer intrigued her. So did the opportunity to breath life into a dead program. While Gustavus and St. Thomas dominated MIAC women’s hockey, Hamline posted two winning seasons out of 15, none since in 2007-08. Last season’s finish: 6-17-2.

Already, things are turning. The 6-5-2 Pipers matched last season’s victory total and sit tied for fifth in the MIAC (3-2-1, seven points). The top five teams make the conference tournament. Darwitz’s practices are demanding but fun; she usually brings her dog, Oakley, a cheerful brown-and-white English springer spaniel who can’t chase a tennis ball enough.

“I’m loving my time here,” Darwitz said after practice earlier this week, in the trailer that serves as Hamline’s locker room (the men have one too). “It allows me that freedom to find what so many people are craving – that balance between work and home life. I’m able to do both.” 

It shouldn’t be that hard.

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Sheila Ehrich on 01/15/2016 - 03:31 pm.

    work/home balance

    Finally, an athletic director who truly understands the need for a work/home balance. Congrats!! I’m sure with these two coaches, winning will become something that happens more often than not.

  2. Submitted by Ken Wedding on 01/18/2016 - 11:47 am.

    women coaching women

    Happy to report that my niece’s daughter is playing for Keitha Adams at UTEP (14-1, so far this season). A great coach.

    “The numbers are worse in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC), to which both Macalester and Hamline belong: 38.1 percent in 2013-14, the last academic year studied.”

    My quick research shows that Ruth Sinn coaches St. Thomas women’s bball; Cassie Kosiba coaches the Carleton women’s team; Laurie Kelley coaches the women’s team at Gustavus; Stacy Deadrick coaches the women at St. Scholastica; and Amanda Behnke coaches the women at Concordia.

    By my count that makes 7 women coaching women’s basketball at the 12 MIAC colleges (58%).

    • Submitted by Pat Borzi on 01/19/2016 - 04:24 pm.

      Maybe a little too quick…

      Kenneth: Glad to hear your niece’s daughter is enjoying her time at UTEP. Two things regarding your comment: The 38.1 percentage refers to women head coaches in all women’s sports, not just basketball. And neither St. Scholastica nor Concordia St. Paul, where Behnke coaches, is in the MIAC.

  3. Submitted by Greg Smith on 01/20/2016 - 01:11 pm.

    Another hire of note

    St. Olaf recently hired University of St. Thomas alum Emily Foster to take over its women’s volleyball team, which had been coached by Cindy Book, who had 30 years in the MIAC.

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