During his two decades working for ESPN, Jimmy Dykes served primarily as a color commentator on men's college basketball. On several occasions, however, he worked women's games as well. One of those games was historic: When Stanford women snapped UConn's 90-game win streak. Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer enjoyed her interactions with Dykes over the years, and like millions of viewers, she appreciated the intellect and passion he brought to his TV work. "He's a great guy," VanDerveer says. "I've met him and talked to him when he has done our games. I think he does an excellent job as an announcer and he's really enthusiastic."
Yet, when VanDerveer heard in March that Dykes' alma mater, the University of Arkansas, had hired him to be its women's basketball coach, she was, shall we say, less than enthusiastic. "It was very depressing," VanDerveer says. "To me, it just showed where we're at. Would they do something like that in men's basketball? I'm not believing it."
VanDerveer was not alone in her disbelief. On the day of the announcement, Beth Bass, who was then the head of the Women's Basketball Coaches Association, issued a statement calling the decision "disappointing to the multitude of more-than-qualified coaches who are members of our association." Yale coach Chris Gobrecht tweeted that Arkansas was "not showing respect for our game and our athletes by making that hire." Brenda Paul, a former coach at Mississippi State who now works at Young Harris (Ga.) College, wrote a newspaper column calling the Dykes hire a "slap in the face to all in the profession." Judy Sweet, a trailblazer in women's athletics who once presided as the NCAA's president when that position served under an executive director, says it's "disappointing that a qualified, experienced current coach wasn't given the opportunity, particularly because I know there are so many women that could step into that position and do well."
Dykes has heard all of it, and then some. He says he "had a few cold shoulders thrown" at him when he attended his first big recruiting event. Dykes is not unsympathetic to VanDerveer's point of view, but he is unapologetic. "I'm not blind to the fact that my hire has sparked a great deal of criticism," he says. "What was I supposed to do, not take the job when it was offered to me after I went through the same interview process as everybody else? I'm confident that Arkansas hired who they feel like was the best person for Arkansas based on what they feel the needs are for the job right now."
The blowback stems partly from the fact that Dykes, who worked as a men's assistant for six schools and spent several years as an NBA scout, has never held a position in the women's game. Mostly, though, it's because Dykes is a man. His hiring raised alarms because it came at a time when men are being hired at an increasing rate in women's college athletics -- which, naturally, has created declining opportunities for women.
This trend has been an unintended consequence of Title IX, the federal law that was passed in 1972 as an amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title IX is hailed for having created opportunities for women to play sports, but a recent study completed by two professors at Brooklyn College found that in 1972, the year Title IX was signed into law, more than 90 percent of women's college teams were coached by women. Six years later, that number had shrunk to 58.2 percent. Moreover, the trend appears to be accelerating: Between 2000 and 2012, there were more than 2,000 coaching jobs created in women's athletics. Nearly two-thirds were filled by men.
This dynamic is pronounced in basketball, the most lucrative of all the women's sports. In 1977, women coached nearly 80 percent of women's college teams. The number has since dwindled to 59.2 percent. In Division I, the percentage of women head coaches has gone from 72.2 in 1992 to 62.9 in 2014, the lowest percentage ever recorded. The numbers come as no surprise to VanDerveer, who made $13,000 in her first job when she was hired at Idaho in 1978. "When there was no money in it," VanDerveer says, "there were no men in it."
Not surprisingly, the data also reveals that male athletic directors are more likely to hire men than their female counterparts. Considering that the vast majority of ADs are men, there is no indication the problem will correct itself anytime soon. "We have a crisis in our game, and it's a crisis that no one is willing to address for fear of being seen as anti-male," Gobrecht says. "We're turning out a generation of women basketball players with no place to go should they choose to stay in the game they love. I'm shocked that people are not more disturbed by this. If we were talking race instead of gender, can you imagine the uproar?"
The influx of men coaching women would be more tolerable if there were a commensurate rise of women coaching men, but that hasn't happened. Men coach approximately 97 percent of men's teams, which is similar to where that number was prior to Title IX. Even Dykes agrees that is unfortunate. "I'm hopeful the day will come that we do see that pendulum swinging," he says. "If a men's job opens up and the person in charge feels like a female is the best person for that job, I hope she gets hired. Do you know why? Because I don't want her to be discriminated against because she's a female just like I didn't want to be discriminated against because I was a male."
That argument rings hollow for someone like VanDerveer, who despite winning two NCAA championships and coaching the 1996 U.S. Olympics team to a gold medal has never received a phone call from an athletic director expressing interest in hiring her to coach a men's team. "When I hear someone say 'We're going to hire the best person,' to me that's such bullshit," she says. "I've had guys say to me flat out it's just easier to get into women's basketball than men's basketball. Truth be told, they'd like to have the men's jobs, but it's too competitive."
Dykes' hire is problematic given Arkansas' track record in this area. A 2012 study commissioned by the NCAA found that of all the schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision, Arkansas had the second-worst female hiring rate for its women's teams, at 16.7 percent. (Only Oklahoma State's 12.5 percent clip was worse.) The current athletic director, Jeff Long, who came to Arkansas in the fall of 2007, has hired six head coaches for women's sports. Five were men. (During that same period, Long's department has added five female assistants.) Long says that he began his search for a women's basketball coach hoping to hire a female, but after interviewing more than a half-dozen candidates, the school's four-person search committee, which included two men and two women, unanimously chose Dykes.
"We had a priority to find a woman coach for women's basketball, but we didn't get the kind of pool of candidates we wanted. So I have frustrations on my side as well," Long says. "For whatever reason, we haven't been able to attract a higher quality of female applicants for jobs at Arkansas. We also need more women who coach women's basketball advocating for their assistants. I'll be candid and say I didn't have that in my search."
It also does not help VanDerveer's cause that the person currently lording over the sport is a man. UConn coach Geno Auriemma, who just secured his ninth NCAA championship, agrees with Long that the pool of female candidates is limited, which he sees as a reflection of the growing opportunities women now have in all walks of professional life. "Back in the '70s, if a woman wanted to have a career, what were her options? There weren't many, unfortunately," he says. "Every athletic director that I know, including mine, will tell you that if he had two applicants who were equally qualified, he would hire the woman. I just think that the pool to choose from is shrinking."
One of the reasons Auriemma is held in high regard by VanDerveer and others in their profession is because, unlike many of his peers, he has traditionally maintained all-female staffs. "Every young woman that gets a head coaching job, one of the first things they do is hire a guy to be their assistant," he says. "So what message are we sending out? Listen, guys, you're well-qualified to be my assistant, but I do not endorse you ever being a head coach?"
Auriemma also disdains the sense of entitlement he believes has become pervasive in the sport. "There are a lot of women's basketball coaches whose teams don't win a lot of games who feel like they're entitled to that job because of Title IX," he says. "I don't think the track coach feels that way. I don't think the baseball coach feels that way." Dykes, for one, is determined not to fall into that trap. "I've gotten lots of praise and I've gotten lots of criticism. Both of those are poison to me," he says. "The only thing I can do is control what I can control, because ultimately I'm going to judged four or five years from now on, did I get the job done or did I not?"
Indeed, even those who don't like the hire concede that Dykes has the skill to get the job done. But that is not their point. The question is not whether Dykes can help his players win, it's whether those players will have the same opportunities he has after they are through playing for him. "The world we live in still has a long way to go in terms of sexism," VanDerveer says. "Hardly anyone will talk about it. It's like the elephant in the room. It's nothing personal, but until the door starts swinging both ways, I'm going to feel territorial."