Women make progress in filling Division I AD jobs

March 27, 2017 | Sports Business Daily

Since the start of 2016, 52 NCAA Division I athletic director jobs have been filled. Eight of the 52 hires have been women. Believe it or not, that represents progress.

The University of Pittsburgh last week hired Heather Lyke to be its athletic director, making her just the fourth AD in a power five conference and the second in the ACC. Never before has there been more than one female AD in a power five conference.

“I hope people will look at the trends and know that there’s not a ceiling,” Lyke said.

North Carolina State’s Debbie Yow, the longest-tenured female AD in the power five, said she can’t wait for the ACC spring meetings in May, when she won’t be the only female in the room.

“I’m so happy to no longer be the only female AD in the ACC,” said Yow, who has spent 23 years at Maryland and N.C. State. “Now instead of saying I’m the only female AD in the ACC, I can just say I was the first. I like that much better. It’s just that it’s taken a long time.”

The week before Lyke’s hiring, William & Mary tabbed Samantha Huge to be its AD. And before that, there was Chrissi Rawak at Delaware, Shaney Fink at Seattle, Marianne Reilly at Manhattan, Valerie Cleary at Portland State, Susan Robinson Fruchtl at St. Francis (Penn.) and Jennifer Cohen at Washington, all D-I schools that made hires since the start of 2016.

Those eight hires in the last 15 months represent 15.4 percent of the total AD hires in Division I, a higher rate than the national number overall, which is 35 women out of 351 total ADs, or 10 percent. In the two years prior (2014-15), 83 D-I ADs were hired and only six were female, a 7.2 percent clip, indicating that the increase in female AD hiring has been apparent just in the last year.

“Women have started to emerge as strong leaders in areas that haven’t traditionally fed into the AD chair,” Huge said. “I’m not surprised. This is a confirmation of what we thought was happening all along.


“It gives women a shot in the arm and lets us know that it can happen.”

So, what’s fueling the uptick in female hiring among D-I athletics directors? The answer is multi-faceted, say those in the business.

First, there is more turnover among ADs than there’s ever been. In the last 15 months, 52 out of 351 D-I jobs were filled. With that turnover comes more opportunity.

There also are more women than ever in senior leadership positions who are better positioned to take that next step, said Patti Phillips, chief executive of Women Leaders in College Sports, the trade association for female administrators. Often, administrators coming from revenue generation and fundraising backgrounds are the most attractive candidates, given the financial pressures universities face, and more women are working their way up through those channels, Phillips said.

She’s also seen an increased effort by search firms to include female administrators in the candidate pool. DHR International, the firm working with Pitt on its hire, first reached out to Lyke and identified her as a strong candidate.

Not only are women overseeing the day-to-day business in power five athletic departments, some, like Miami’s Jennifer Strawley and Virginia Tech’s Desiree Reed-Francois, are the primary administrators for football on their campus.

“Women can never say, ‘We played football.’ But that doesn’t mean women can’t lead a program,” Phillips said, pointing to Cohen at Washington and Sandy Barbour at Penn State.

Barbour, a veteran administrator who was AD at California for 10 years prior to Penn State, gained even more credibility last season when she publicly backed embattled football coach James Franklin in the face of a messy 2-2 start. The Nittany Lions went on to win the Big Ten and go to the Rose Bowl.

“A lot of the male donors who are on these AD search committees haven’t seen women leaders,” Phillips said. “They just can’t picture it. You see the same thing in the corporate world.”

Of the eight women most recently hired as ADs, only one — Lyke — was previously an AD. The others were in senior leadership positions and had broad-based résumés, but they weren’t previously ADs. That means search committees and university presidents appear more likely to give a qualified woman a chance.

“I’m in the position I’m in because there were many men who saw me as being qualified,” Delaware’s Rawak said. “Our universities are paying attention to the need for diversity in ways maybe they hadn’t before. The fact that we’re putting more women in position to have this kind of experience is important.”

Rawak was a swimmer at the University of Michigan in the early 1990s when she met Lyke, who played softball for the Wolverines. She’s not at all surprised that Lyke has moved up the ladder from longtime senior administrator at Ohio State to AD at Eastern Michigan to the top job at Pitt.

“What I’d say about Heather is ‘Rock Star.’ I knew that when I first met her,” Rawak said. “She was captain of the softball team two years and you could tell she was a natural-born leader. Smart, funny, thoughtful, kind, team-oriented. She had the qualities to lead.”

While Rawak and Lyke came from similar backgrounds as student athletes at Michigan, they took different approaches to the AD chair. Rawak, who spent 17 years in administration at her alma mater, said she never set a goal of becoming an AD. Lyke, on the other hand, was much more intentional about becoming an AD.

“You have to have the courage and the confidence to say your goals out loud,” Lyke said, referring to advice she received from her old boss and mentor at Ohio State, AD Gene Smith. “If you don’t tell other people, how will they ever know that’s something you aspire to do.”

Those words came back to her when she met last week with the Pitt football team. The days of Tony Dorsett and Dan Marino, former Pitt stars from 40 years ago, still represent the school’s glory days, but Lyke challenged the current Panthers to produce their own story and establish new glory days.

“If that’s what you want to do — if you want to be ACC champs and national champs — then say it out loud, make it your goal,” Lyke told the team. “Never let others put limits on you.”

It’s the same advice she followed into a power five AD chair.


Glenn Sugiyama, managing partner of the sports practice at DHR International, shared his thoughts on the role of search firms in the hiring of more female athletic directors:

SBJ: What trends do you see in AD hiring as it pertains to women?
SUGIYAMA: I think the biggest trend is the increased role women are playing in fundraising because this is looked at as a desirable skill set for athletic directors. We are seeing more women seeking and being given the opportunity to fundraise at institutions across the country.

SBJ: Are there simply more qualified women?
SUGIYAMA: Yes. Title IX opened the door for females in athletics and the cycle is filtering through as female candidates are emerging at all levels of athletics leadership.

SBJ: Are the males who are predominantly in position to make these hires more open-minded?
SUGIYAMA: Research shows that most of the young women entering the job market learn through modeling. If they see women in leadership roles, there is a higher probability that they will follow that path, knowing a career in athletics is attainable. It is important for athletic departments to provide training and support for females as well as exposing student-athletes to diverse leadership.

SBJ: Do search firms play a role in advancing diversity in leadership roles?
SUGIYAMA: Search firms do play a role in finding and presenting the credentials of talented diverse candidates that the institution would not be aware of otherwise.