UMD chancellor says performance, financial issues led to hockey coach's firing

UMD women's hockey coach Shannon Miller
University of Minnesota Duluth women's hockey head coach Shannon Miller speaks to her players in between drills Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015, during practice at Amsoil Arena in Duluth.
Derek Montgomery | For MPR News

University of Minnesota-Duluth officials said Tuesday the decision to fire women's hockey head coach Shannon Miller had nothing to do with gender or sexual orientation, but financial and performance-related issues.

Chancellor Lendley Black responded to a letter dated Feb. 20 by members of the Senate DFL Caucus who sought an explanation to the decision not to extend Miller's contract. Gov. Mark Dayton Tuesday added his name to 13 signatures.

Black said the university took an "analytical" approach to save money and sustain 16 athletic programs that typically involve around 400 students. Miller is the highest paid women's hockey coach in the nation, he said. She makes $215,000 a year.

Miller, whose contract runs out at the end of June, said earlier this month she plans to fight her firing and has questioned whether the university is applying a double standard.

"It was time to make a change," Black wrote.

Lawmakers questioned the decision because Miller won five national championships in 16 years. It also comes at a time when the number of female coaches in women's college sports has declined to 40 percent. The state legislators' letter also points out the UMD men's hockey head coach earns $20,000 more per year than Miller.

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"We will undertake the same kind of analysis when the contract of the head coach for the men's hockey team is up for extension in 2017," Black said.

UMD's chancellor said that while the team has had success under Miller's leadership, it was not competitive enough having lost the 2011 NCAA playoffs and not participated in NCAA tournaments over the past three seasons.

The women's hockey program also lacked consistent recruitment efforts under Miller's leadership.

"The team's recent record on recruiting has been spotty," he wrote.

Reached Tuesday night, Miller said she's been having a conversation about enhancing the program for six years. She suggested additional resources to dedicate more time to recruiting athletes, she said.

Miller also lobbied the administration to offer summer school to give students more time to practice without the burden of a full course load, she said.

But she said officials did not welcome her ideas and said UMD is not large enough like neighboring universities to be able to expand the program.

"We've won five national championships, what more would you like me to do?" Miller said. "We've done our part, you guys have now got to step up."

Head softball coach Jen Banford, who's also the part-time director of operations for women's hockey, will also be terminated at the end of June.

Black said it's standard practice for the two contracts to be terminated at once. The new women's hockey coach will select her own staff, he added.