In the shadows of the Rocky Mountains, the Big Sky Conference is becoming a bastion for female leaders in collegiate athletics.
Terry Gawlik was named the University of Idaho director of athletics in early August, becoming the Big Sky Conference’s fifth female athletic director – the most of any conference in the NCAA. The other female athletic directors in the Big Sky are Pauline Thiros at Idaho State; Debbie Corum at Southern Utah; Lynn Hickey at Eastern Washington; and Valerie Cleary at Portland State.
Gawlik has settled in at Idaho’s campus in Moscow, Idaho, the past two weeks and has been feeling out athletic department. Before this role, she was a senior associate athletic director at the University of Wisconsin.
“There’s a lot of moving parts. You try to do your homework the best you can, but it’s hard without being there and gathering the department’s thoughts,” Gawlik said. “It’s fun to come in with a new president and trying to go out in the community together and be seen together.
“It’s a challenge, you don’t know what you don’t know. But I want to get to a point where instead of reactive, I want to be proactive,” she said.
Cleary admits the region Big Sky schools call home might not seem the most progressive, which she said only further speaks to conference and school leadership. The demographic shift in athletic directors is a reflection of the fact that these positions are so much more than Xs and Os, focusing more on academics, crisis management and financials.
“Give all the credit to the presidents, it does not pencil out,” Cleary said. “We’re some sort of outlier. But we’re all ADs, we all speak the same language. It’s a testament to the presidents for looking past the status quo of how it’s been done and to different types of leaders.”
While Big Sky Commissioner Tom Wistrcill is proud of having two more women as athletic directors than the next closest conference but said it’s more so about how they’re great people and leaders with better experience.
He thinks more conferences are working toward embracing having the right candidate – regardless of gender or race.
“It’s about being around the best people,” Wistrcill said. “When you look at our 11 full-member institutions, five have women athletic directors and it provides great discussion, great viewpoints, and diverse backgrounds from across the country -it’s representative of the great balance of our male and female student-athletes.”
Having that deeper range of skill sets, ethnicities and genders is why it’s important to have a wide net and candidate pool, said Glenn Sugiyama, managing partner and global sports practice leader of DHR International.
Sugiyama said 76.9% of FBS-level schools employ white males in the athletic director position. The number decreases in the DII and DIII levels to 73.4% and 63.8%, respectively. Still, the lower levels of FBS are where the majority of female athletic directors are employed, but that should change in the future.
“Because of skill sets and experiential limitations, there are fewer candidates, both male and female, that can receive consideration for a Power 5 athletic director position,” Sugiyama said. “When we had the honor to assist in the hiring of Heather Lyke, the current AD at the University of Pittsburgh, she was already a sitting FBS athletic director with 21 years of previous collegiate athletics experience.
“The consideration set for a non-power 5 school is considerably larger and therefore allows for greater diversity.”
When Thiros became the interim athletic director in October, she was surprised she’d be the fourth woman in the Big Sky. However, she believes, like Cleary, the fact that there are five female athletic directors now says a lot about the schools’ leadership. She took the role over permanently in March.
“I thought it was very progressive,” said Thiros, who started in coaching before moving into fundraising. “I don’t know that it’s a focus or an initiative, it clearly shows the schools are serious about equity and inclusion and thinking about the best fit to take their programs forward.
“The FCS level seems to have more of a palate for it, but it seems the time has been right and the right candidates have presented themselves.”
Corum made her move to Southern Utah three years ago, following more than 25 years between the SEC, UConn, LSU and Stanford. She moved from senior associate athletic director to director of athletics in November 2017.
She’s recognized the changing trend in who’s hired in athletic director roles.
“Back when I got started in the 1980s, you could only be AD if you had previously coached or played football,” Corum said. “The idea was if you didn’t have that football connection, you weren’t qualified. That’s changed for both male and female candidates.
“Athletics has become a big business when you see the budgets these schools have – there’s a definite trend toward getting people who know how to handle the financial responsibility and manage people.”
When Hickey started her career, she was a basketball coach, taking her first head coaching role at Kansas State at 26. Five years later, she took a dual role as women’s basketball coach and associate athletic director for women’s sports at Texas A&M. She took the team to the Final Four in 1994 and was given the opportunity to focus on one position, choosing the administration route. She made the jump into an athletics director role at University of Texas-San Antonio.
“I went into it without thinking about being an athletic director,” Hickey said. “I was going to be a coach and doors kept opening.”
The door to Eastern Washington was opened by one of Hickey’s former players at Texas A&M, Andrea Williams, who was then the commissioner of the Big Sky and has since moved on to be chief operating officer of the College Football Playoff. Gawlik also credits Williams and Wistrcill for helping bring her to the conference. Likewise, Wistrcill gives credit to Williams for helping show the Big Sky presidents that women can confidently perform athletic leadership.
Corum said a commissioner spends a lot of time with presidents when hiring athletic directors, so Williams likely had a big influence even in future discussions.
“When you have a female that can present herself to a group of presidents in a professional manner, it opens up the minds of the presidents,” she said. “They might consider, ‘Well, she was able to do a good job leading the conference, maybe a woman can lead the athletic department just as well.”
Where female athletic directors might run into the most issues are with men’s basketball and football coaches. Corum said Barbara Hedges, a pioneer female athletic director at the University of Washington in the 1990s, once told her it’s important those two coaches have confidence in the athletic director.
“I’ve found that to be true,” Corum said. “I feel like those two sports are sports people pay attention to and having the right relationship with those two coaches can make or break a tenure, whereas sometimes as a male, they can have rocky relationships and still go out and play golf with the donors just fine.”
Big-time college basketball and football might still be a hurdle in the way for female athletic directors. Hickey said as smaller conferences like the Big Sky seemingly have most of their doors open, the next step is breaking further into the Group of Five and Power Five conferences.
“The doors have been opened and there’s a lot more opportunity, but there’s a little more difficulty getting a foot in the door at the next level,” she said. “We’ve got a ways to go and largely it’s on the plate of the people who are making the decisions at the highest levels to take the time to look and give very inclusive looks at who they’re hiring.”
Still, she said we’re nearing a time when it’s no longer, “Oh my gosh, it’s a female administrator.”
“I’m proud to know I have a responsibility to do a good job, but I don’t think it’s such a special thing anymore,” she said. “We’re in these roles because we’re good at what we do and earned it through years of service.”