After winning five national championships in 16 years, University of Minnesota-Duluth's women's hockey coach Shannon Miller expected a pat on the back when she was called to a December meeting about her next contract.
Instead, she was fired, effective in June, when her current contract ends.
"I said well, why? They said financial. 'We've been telling you, the university is having budget difficulties. It's strictly financial,'" Miller recalled.
"When someone comes in and builds a program, and makes it an international powerhouse ... you would expect to be treated with some level of respect in your athletic department," Miller said. "That hasn't happened for quite some time."
University officials aren't saying much, but Miller is. She's speaking out about what she sees as a double standard. She plans to fight her firing and has retained an attorney specializing in lawsuits involving Title IX, the federal law requiring gender equity in university sports programs.
The controversy has grown far beyond campus and has sparked a national conversation over gender equity in college sports.
"To me this really is a game changer, for women in the coaching profession," said Nicole LaVoi, associate director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota.
"From all the research I've read, and conducted, I've never in the history of women in coaching, heard of any coach being fired because she was paid too much," she said. "I also have not heard this for any male coach, for any coach. Period."
In an interview with Duluth TV station Northland's News Center, university athletic director Josh Berlo repeatedly called Miller's dismissal a tough business decision. The university is facing a severe budget crunch, caused in part by declining enrollment. Administrators are working to cut $6 million in expenses over five years.
"We're at a point where we're not able to sustain highest paid coach in Division One women's hockey salaries," Berlo told the station. "Our institution is working through some significant annual shortfalls. Athletics been challenged to balance its budget."
Miller's salary is $207,000. By comparison, UMD's men's hockey coach Scott Sandelin makes $235,000.
Since the news broke that Miller won't be brought back, speculation has raged nationally that her firing is as much about her gender and her sexual orientation — she's gay — as it is her salary.
"There's definitely something going on in university athletic departments that's driving women away, or deterring women from these jobs," said Erin Buzuvis, a law professor at Western New England University and co-founder of the Title IX Blog.
Since the landmark Title IX law was passed in 1972, the number of female college athletes has increased six-fold. But at the same time the number of female coaches has plummeted.
Forty years ago, about 90 percent of college women's teams were coached by women. Today, that's dropped to 40 percent, and only about 12 percent in college hockey. Miller is the only female coach in the eight-team Western Collegiate Hockey Association.
"It's really sad, it's wrong. These young women need female role models. Here we are, an all-female coaching staff, doing fantastic, all of us former Olympians, why wouldn't you embrace that?" she asked. "Why wouldn't you hold us up and celebrate our success?"
For the first time in Miller's tenure, UMD didn't post winning records either of the past two seasons, before rebounding this year. Still, outside experts found the university's rationale for Miller's dismissal difficult to understand.
Buzuvis thinks this case could promote a widespread reassessment of how athletic departments treat female coaches.
In 2007 several female coaches at Fresno State University earned multimillion dollar discrimination settlements after persuading juries they had been fired because of gender-related issues.
"I'm watching this case with those older cases in mind," said Buzuvis, wondering "is this the one that's actually going to provide enough support for the idea that it's not just tenable to put up artificial barriers that apply to female coaches that don't apply to male coaches."
For her part, Shannon Miller says she's focusing on her players as they try to qualify for the program's 11th NCAA tournament in 16 years. But she's made it clear she won't go quietly when the season and her contract end.
"I couldn't live with myself and walk away being treated like this — me personally, my staff, this program," she said. "This program deserves to be treated so much better. So does my staff, and so do I."
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