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Women's basketball's Mike McLaughlin has been one of the most successful coaches at Penn in his tenure as head coach.

Credit: Zach Sheldon

Penn Athletics lags behind the rest of the Ivy League in gender balance among coaches — but should the school be concerned? 

Conducted in line with the 45th anniversary of the U.S. government’s 1972 Title IX federal law, a study from the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida this summer had some alarming findings regarding the nationwide lack of female head coaches for college sports teams. 

But in the study, the Ivy League was the lone exception, earning the only “passing” score out of eight studied conferences, with 55 percent of its women’s varsity teams having female head coaches.

As such, the following natural question for Penn Athletics fans is: while the Ivy League’s “report card” was the best in the country, where does Penn itself fall on the spectrum?

If one looks strictly at the numbers, the Red and Blue come in last. Of Penn’s 15 varsity women’s sports teams, there are six active female head coaches — Colleen Fink (field hockey), Leslie King (softball), Karin Corbett (women’s lacrosse), Sanela Kunovac (women’s tennis), Nicole Van Dyke (women’s soccer) and Katie Schumacher-Cawley (women’s volleyball). With female head coaches running 40 percent of the school’s women’s teams, Penn is the only Ivy League school to fall below the national Division I average of 43.1 percent.

But both those who are currently and formerly associated with Penn don’t see a necessity to catch up, and a deeper analysis of the current numbers shows why.

To start, Athletic Director M. Grace Calhoun herself isn’t responsible for the majority of the current women’s teams coaches — having only started working at Penn in 2014, 12 of the 15 active coaches were already at Penn before her tenure. In fact, since Calhoun has arrived at Penn, two of the three newly hired women’s coaches have been female in Van Dyke and Schumacher-Cawley.

Because Van Dyke replaced now-Vanderbilt women’s soccer head coach Darren Ambrose, Calhoun has raised Penn’s proportion of female head coaches from 33 percent to its current 40. To Calhoun, though, the numbers are just numbers, and they pale in importance in comparison to fulfilling the methods of giving both men and women fair chances in the hiring process.

“I certainly am always mindful of ensuring that we have ample opportunity and that we’re very cognizant of having a gender balance in our coaching ranks. But I believe the first responsibility I always have is to find the best person for the job,” she told The DP in August. “And I think by and large there has been a great deal of satisfaction with the individuals that have been brought in.”

Going back to the tenure of Calhoun’s predecessor, Steven Bilsky, the 33 percent mark at the end of his career undeniably stood out compared to the rest of the league — but while numbers never lie, there were some lurking variables to suggest that they were at least deceptive.

At the end of Bilsky’s time, there were five sports in which the male and female teams were both coached by the same person — track and field, cross country, swimming, squash and fencing —  and these sports had male coaches in every case.

Thus, if only considering situations where women’s teams had their own head coach, Penn had a much more balanced look, with five of ten such teams having female coaches when Bilsky left Penn. Now that number stands at six out of eleven, closer to the rest of Penn’s Ivy foes.

“At Penn, we had a fundamental policy that in all coaching searches, the successful candidate would be the most qualified, regardless of gender,” Bilsky said in July. “Since we included student-athletes in the searches, they were all made aware of this position, and not once in 20 years did a single individual in any sport push back against this policy. In fact, they embraced it, and were glad that that was how we felt.”

Yet another factor to consider is the most obvious one in the sports world altogether — winning. Needless to say, if the University chose to retain male coaches who had particularly unsuccessful careers as opposed pursuing potential female candidates, this would be quite controversial, but the bodies of work for Penn’s coaches seem to justify their positions.

Penn’s most obvious outlier in terms of being a male coach is McLaughlin, being the only man out of eight Ivy League women’s basketball head coaches. But McLaughlin serves as the best example of why having such an outlier can prove to pay off — his Quakers have won the Ivy League title in three of the past four years, completing a remarkable turnaround from going 2-26 in his first season eight years ago.

Still, McLaughlin is far from the only male coach to see success running a Red and Blue women’s program. Jack Wyant has spearheaded women’s squash to back-to-back national runner-up finishes, not to mention a national title back in 2000. Mike Schnur led women’s swimming to a fourth-place finish in the Ivy League in 2017, tied for the best mark in the program’s 44-year history. Penn gymnastics, led by John Ceralde, has won four Ivy Classic titles in only 11 full seasons with the team. Andy Ma’s women’s fencing program ranks in the top 10 nationally year in and year out.

On the flip side, Penn’s female coaches are having no shortage of success themselves. Corbett’s dynasty is perhaps the best counterpart to McLaughlin’s, but even that praise doesn’t go far enough for women’s lacrosse — Corbett has won ten Ivy titles in the last 11 years, including three straight NCAA Final Four appearances in the late 2000s. Fink’s turnaround of field hockey has been well-documented. Van Dyke has seen women’s soccer increase its Ivy win total in each of her three seasons to date.

Ultimately, it seems Penn has due cause to be content with its balance of male and female coaches. Though off-the-field statistics may cause red flags at first glance, the results on the field is what matters most — and in this realm, it’s hard for University City to ask for much more.