Female hockey coach firing was about more than money

When the University of Minnesota Duluth fired one of the most successful coaches in the history of women’s hockey, it suggested that it was about money. Shannon Miller made a lot of it, but she had offered to work for less. The university wasn’t interested in that discussion, prompting complaints that something more was involved.

“She established a winning program, raised it to the highest level of competition and sustained a national championship tradition over the last 15 years,” UMD Athletic Director Josh Berlo said last month. “Today’s decision about Shannon’s contract was an immensely difficult and financially driven decision. Unfortunately, UMD Athletics is not in a position to sustain the current salary levels of our women’s hockey coaching staff. However, we remain committed to supporting the Bulldog women’s hockey program.”

Now, the Duluth News Tribune reports that it was more than money. What more? Good question.

“Finances were a big part of this, but there were other considerations as well,” Chancellor Lendley Black told the News Tribune in his first public comments on the subject.

He declined to say what else was involved, saying it would be “inappropriate” to discuss it.

Black said the announcement that it was financially driven “was out of respect for Miller and the program.”

The university, believing it can control the message, has botched the situation badly.

In an article this week, Inside Higher Ed tackled the elephant in the room — men firing successful women.

“It has a potential to be a precedent-setter in that it communicates to women coaches that you can be really good and respected by your community and your peers, but that is not good enough,” Nicole LaVoi, associate director of the University of Minnesota’s Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women In Sport, said. “It says, ‘Not only will we not pay you what you’re worth, but your job might be in jeopardy.’ It’s a really dangerous precedent.”

A spokesman for the university only deepened the mystery.

Chuck Tombarge, a spokesman for the University of Minnesota at Duluth, said that while Miller’s salary was a key consideration, there were other factors that went into the decision not to renew the coach’s contract, including “the direction of the program.” Miller was not offered a pay cut, Tombarge said, because “a pay cut alone would not have addressed all of the considerations” involved in the decision. Miller’s team won 12 of its last 13 games, but it hasn’t made the NCAA tournament since 2011.

“Per UMD’s current practice, when any coach’s current contract is up, the athletic director closely evaluates overall program and quality success,” he said. “This will include the UMD men’s hockey coach’s contract when it is up in 2017. UMD values diversity in coaching and will work to recruit qualified and diverse candidates for this position.”

That doesn’t make sense either, Miller told the News Tribune yesterday.

“What’s even more disturbing is if you don’t like the direction the program was going… It’s back on its way up to being a dynasty,” Miller said. “So when I read that, I thought, ‘What does that mean?’ We don’t have resources that other schools have. We have slipped a little bit because of resources, not coaching. We arguably have one of the greatest coaching staffs in the country and people know that. I thought to myself, ‘You don’t like the direction the program is going?’ Well we are back on our way up. When we got fired, we had won 12 of our last 13 games and were ranked No. 6 in the country.”

In the last four decades, the percentage of college women’s teams being coached by women has fallen from 90 percent to 40, according to Inside Higher Ed.