Slowly, Path to Hiring of NFL's First Female Head Coach Is Taking Shape

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterNovember 23, 2016

ORCHARD PARK, NY - AUGUST 20:  Kathryn Smith, Buffalo Bills quality control-special teams coach, walks the sideline during the game against the New York Giants on August 20, 2016 at New Era Field in Orchard Park, New York. Buffalo defeats New York 21-0.  (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

When the first female NFL head coach dons her headset on the sideline in 10 years, it will be remarkable because of how unremarkable women on the sideline will be by then.

She will be a trailblazer, of course. But she will not be alone. There will be a female coordinator here, a female head athletic trainer there, female position coaches, scouts, assistants and interns everywhere.

That first female head coach will have paid all the dues any male coach pays, and probably one or two more. She will have climbed the ladder from lowly quality control assistant. The only difference is that the ladder no longer leads to a Boys Only tree fort. The NFL is preparing to welcome her arrival.

"In 10 years, I would like to see a female head coach," said Samantha Rapoport, the NFL's Director of Football Development. "I'm not saying that's our metric or our goal, but it would be great."

Rapoport is spearheading a new initiative to provide more opportunities for women in football operations: coaching, player personnel, scouting, athletic training and so on. Call it the Rooney Rule for Women if you want; Rapoport welcomes the comparison. "I feel what the Rooney Rule did for the NFL was really important," she said. "To include females in that is great."

There have already been a few female assistant coaches in the NFL. Jen Welter worked for the Cardinals last year, and Kathryn Smith became a full-time assistant coach for the Bills this year. But Rapoport is not looking to create isolated success stories. With the NFL's support, she's working to open up new career paths for any woman interested in pursuing them. "For me, 10-year success would be for it to not be weird or noteworthy to see females on the sideline," she said.

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"We want to flood the pipeline with qualified females so head coaches and general managers have qualified females to select for interviews."

The first step is to find those qualified females in a football world where men overwhelmingly dominate the professional, college, prep and even minor-league coaching and scouting ranks.

Jen Welter assisted with the Cardinals' linebacker corps early last season when she served as an intern for the Cardinals. Her tenure ended after three preseason games.
Jen Welter assisted with the Cardinals' linebacker corps early last season when she served as an intern for the Cardinals. Her tenure ended after three preseason games.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Such women are not nearly as hard to find as you may think. The NFL already knows about a few of them.


Coaching Passion

Stephanie Balochko would love to be an NFL defensive coordinator someday. But she's not ready for the job. Not judging by her cliche-spouting skills, anyway.

When asked what kind of defense she ran while coordinating the Pittsburgh Passion of the Women's Football Alliance, she said, "I was told not to tell you. I'm pretty sure we're going to be running it again this year, and I don't want the team owner to be mad at me."

That's not how the pros do it, Coach. Pretend this is your first press conference in the NFL. How about some standard boilerplate?

"We run an aggressive, fast, versatile defense," she said. "We can drop linebackers to safeties and safeties to corners. We disguise it. We're very adaptable."

That's a little better. But is it an attacking defense, Coach?

"Yes. We are attacking!"

Balochko is a quick study. She played middle linebacker for the Passion for 15 years. She wore No. 58 in honor of Jack Lambert, though she wasn't a Lambert type: "I wasn't the crazy one running around like that. I'm more of a thinker."

Balochko eventually moved from the field to the coaching ranks. She's now a film junkie who scouts the Passion's opponents on Hudl and keeps up with NFL defensive trends by watching the coaches' film on NFL Game Pass. "I can tell you when the guard's toe is pointed to the right, it was gonna be a run right," she said.

To clarify, the Women's Football Alliance is not one of those leagues where women bounce around in shoulder pads and lingerie. It's a sprawling national association of 45 women's 11-on-11 tackle football teams. The WFA and other leagues attract hundreds of women like Balochko, who played soccer and softball in high school but wanted an opportunity to try tackle football. Balochko imparts portions of her "guard's toe" knowledge of football to athletic women who sometimes show up for tryouts not knowing where a guard even lines up.

In August, Balochko parlayed her coaching experience into an unofficial internship with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Balochko got to know Steelers coaches through youth clinics and programs the team runs in conjunction with the Passion. After more than a year of children's camps and email conversations, she set up an opportunity to work with Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell during training camp. Balochko took a week off from her firefighting job in Ohio and drove to Latrobe, Pennsylvania. She spent one practice in the bleachers, and then Mitchell called her down onto the field and straight into a coaches' meeting.

Balochko (58) makes a tackle for the Pittsburgh Passion
Balochko (58) makes a tackle for the Pittsburgh PassionCourtesy Stephanie Balochko

The next morning, Balochko was a full-fledged coaching intern. "I was a part of everything," she said. "I followed Coach Mitchell, listened to what he had to say. When he got comfortable with me, he started throwing me in to do some things: help this guy with the scout team, help me get the next group ready to go in."

By the time the Steelers faced the Lions in a preseason game, Balochko was ready to do more than help organize the scout team. In the second half of the game, Mitchell asked her to watch the nose tackle while he watched the defensive ends and then report her observations to him.

"I knew darn well he was able to watch all of them and knew exactly what everyone was doing," she said. "So I really concentrated on the nose and made sure I was right in what I was saying."

When Balochko's observations proved correct, Mitchell had her relay her coaching points to the Steelers defenders, who readily accepted her advice. "They were amazing," she said. "The guys were great."

The experience was thrilling, but not overwhelming. "I learned a lot," Balochko said. "But I also learned that it was just football. It was the same thing I coached for girls. They're just bigger and faster. We work on the same schemes. We may not hit as hard, but we're hitting."


Connecting Two Worlds

Balochko's experience would not be noteworthy if she were a male small-college coordinator (or team executive's nephew) given the same opportunity. But Balochko had no natural network to rely upon when she worked her way through the Steelers email chain. Other would-be female coaches face the same problem. There is no natural entry position into NFL coaching for women.

That's where Rapoport comes in.

"My role is really to connect the two worlds," she said. "I think people just don't know about the world of women who are extremely knowledgeable about football."

Rapoport is working with executives in women's leagues like the WFA to identify candidates. She is also networking with colleges, seeking women coaching any team sport who may be longing for an opportunity to switch to football.

"You can be a female basketball coach who is also very knowledgeable in football," she said. "As long as you know how to coach and are open to learning, that role is open to you as well."

The Women's Football Alliance has provided an opportunity to not only play tackle football, but also to coach their way up the football ladder.
The Women's Football Alliance has provided an opportunity to not only play tackle football, but also to coach their way up the football ladder.Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

As Balochko's internship illustrates, former WFA linebackers and college lacrosse coaches won't get handed coordinator positions immediately. They'll arrive on the ground floor. To prepare them for those entry-level jobs, Rapoport and the NFL are scheduling a series of seminars, one of which will be held during the week of this year's Pro Bowl in Orlando.

The seminars will lead to networking opportunities, which can lead to internship programs, quality control and positional-assistant jobs, and so on. The NFL has run similar coaching-development programs for ex-players and other male applicants for years. It's a long road from seminar to internship to deciding what to call on 4th-and-1 at the goal line, but at least interested women will soon have an on-ramp.

Rapoport's own journey to the NFL was almost literally a Hail Mary pass. She started her football life as an undersized option quarterback in Canadian coed flag and women's tackle leagues. She idolized Troy Aikman and wore No. 8 but jokes that she was "more like Doug Flutie."

Flutie was her only athletic tie to her home country. "I hate the cold and I don't like hockey," she said. So she set her sights on a job with the NFL.

After applying for an internship at the NFL league office in 2002 and being rejected, Rapoport mailed a football along with her next application. "What other quarterback can accurately deliver a football 386 miles?" she wrote on the ball.

The NFL couldn't resist, and Rapoport began working her way through the ranks of USA Football and other youth/outreach programs.

It's a great story. But if Rapoport's program works, women who want to coach won't have to resort to gimmicks or spend years volunteering for youth football camps to get the NFL's attention. They will just have to coach.


A Changing Ethos

If you are forever skeptical of the NFL's motivationsand who isn't?nothing written here is likely to convince you that the league's outreach to women is more than public relations window dressing, a smattering of internships and token hires compartmentalized beneath an unbreakable glass ceiling while the "old boys" resist any real change to the status quo.

But perhaps Amy Trask can change your mind. "I don't know if we should presuppose that there would be resistance in all instances," she said.

Trask was the NFL's first female executive who wasn't directly related to a team owner. When she joined the Raiders legal department in the 1980s, men held every position of power—not just in the football operations department, but accounting, legal, finance and everywhere else besides the reception desk and other support roles.

Amy Trask worked for the Raiders for 25 years and became the team's CEO in 1997 before eventually leaving the organization in 2013.
Amy Trask worked for the Raiders for 25 years and became the team's CEO in 1997 before eventually leaving the organization in 2013.David Paul Morris/Getty Images

Much has changed, particularly within what Trask calls the "innards" of organizations. Dawn Aponte was the Dolphins' executive vice president of football administration. Jeanne M. Bonk is the Chargers' chief operating officer. Hannah Gordon is the 49ers general counsel. Lawyers and budget specialists don't hold press conferences (ideally), but they hold real organizational power.

Trask encountered her share of resistance during her time with the Raiders. In her book You Negotiate Like a Girl, she recounts tales of other executives' assuming she was a secretary, expecting her to get sandwiches and so forth. Trask tells the stories not to paint herself as a warrior against oppression, but to underscore just how much acceptance and support she did receive, particularly from her bossthe mercurial, misunderstood Al Davis.

"He believed in hiring the best candidate to help him, in a scouting capacity or a football capacity," Trask said of Davis, who also hired the NFL's first black coach since Fritz Pollard in the 1920s (Art Shell) and second-ever Latino head coach—and first to win a Super Bowl (Tom Flores). "He just didn't care about that person's race, religion, gender or ethnicity."

It's well-established football lore that Davis' only prejudices were pro-Raiders and anti-losing (and sometimes anti-commissioners). But he was not alone. When asked if her presence at league meetings in the 1980s and 1990s opened minds, Trask cautioned: "I can't say all minds were changing. I don't believe all minds were closed."

The NFL has its share of individuals who welcome diversity in all its forms: not just as a tool for winning football games (and, yes, providing a PR boost), but for its own sake.

Scott Pioli, assistant general manager of the Falcons and former Jets, Patriots and Chiefs executive, is a longtime member of the advisory council of the Bill Walsh Minority Coaching Fellowship. That program does for minority coachesprovide outreach programs, seminars, internships and potential inroads to future jobs within the NFLwhat the league hopes to do for female coaches. In 2010, Pioli hired Katie Douglass as the first-ever female director of player development when he was the Chiefs general manager.

Not surprisingly, Pioli supports Rapoport and her new initiative to attract and develop female coaches. "Why should one group of people be excluded from doing something that they love and they are passionate about?" he asked.

Falcons executive Scott Pioli believes the NFL has a responsibility to promote the best coaching and executive candidates no matter their gender.
Falcons executive Scott Pioli believes the NFL has a responsibility to promote the best coaching and executive candidates no matter their gender.Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

For Pioli, there's more to creating NFL opportunities for women than just increasing the applicant pool. "Part of our social responsibility, based on the platform that we're given, is to do the right thing," Pioli said. "If we have the opportunity to do the right thing, why wouldn't we, especially when there are qualified candidates?"

Common sense tells us that not everyone in every NFL organization is as single-minded as Davis or socially conscious as Pioli. Owners, coaches and players may accept female lawyers or salary-cap directors. But are the old boys really ready for a female offensive coordinator or director of scouting?

Trask believes that time may not be so far away, in part because the old boys aren't that old anymore.

"When I started my job and walked into that owners' meeting, there were men there who at that time were in their 60s and 70s," she said. "Think about what a paradigm shift that was for them. Think about how the world was changing, in terms of women in business, between the time they were born in 1920 and the 1980s. The rules of the game were changing on them very late in life.

"Now flash forward to today. Coaches, general managers, team presidents and CEOs were born much, much more recently than the men entrenched in the league when I began my career. I look at it as indicative of a changing of the ethos."

Now flash forward 10 more years, when millennials reach middle age and become "the establishment." The ethos is likely to be unrecognizable.

As for those macho football players who might be reluctant to take orders from a female coach, they are much more accustomed to working with important women in the locker room than you might suspect.


Defined By Performance

"First Female NFL Head Athletic Trainer" doesn't have the same headline sizzle as "First Female NFL Head Coach." But it's likely to happen far sooner, and in many ways it is just as important.

When Julie Max joined the National Athletic Trainers' Association (NATA) in 1979, she was one of just a few women in her field. "I was in the minority," she said. "There's no question about that."

Max rose to become the head athletic trainer at Cal State Fullerton, a role she has held for decades. She later served two terms as the president of NATA. The organization now has over 43,000 members. Roughly 53 percent are women. Yet Max remains one of the few women at the NCAA level to head an athletic training department.

"I continue to question why that percentage has not grown," Max said.

During her tenure as NATA president, Max created task forces for recruiting women into athletic training programs at universities and tried to raise awareness about career opportunities for female trainers in professional and big-time college sports. Yet most women who were qualified to become head athletic trainers chose high school or smaller-college programs, perhaps because the path to a Division I or big-league sports job wasn't clearly blazed.

"Until the opportunity exists, you're not going to go down that road," Max said.

Rapoport has reached the same conclusion.

Laura Schnettgoecke is one of a very few female assistant trainers now working in the NFL.
Laura Schnettgoecke is one of a very few female assistant trainers now working in the NFL.Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

"What I have heard from many athletic trainers is that they didn't go for jobs in the NFL, NBA and other men's pro sports because they didn't feel like that was the pathway for them," she said. "We hadn't shown the country that female head trainers exist."

There are a handful of female assistant athletic trainers sprinkled around the NFL: Sonia Gysland for the Steelers, Laura Schnettgoecke for the 49ers, Allison Miner for the Chargers. Ariko Iso, the NFL's first female athletic trainer, left the Steelers to head Oregon State's athletic training program in 2011. Sue Falsone became Major League Baseball's first female head athletic trainer in 2012 and has since gone on to a private consulting company.

Yet with thousands of fully qualified female athletic trainers in the workforce, there is no good reason for such scant representation in major sports. Trainers don't come through the player pipeline like coaches do.

"We are health care providers," Max said. "It is not defined by gender. It's defined by performance."

As for locker-room resistancePeyton Manning's alleged collegiate incident with a female trainer in 1998 leaps to mindMax points out that this generation of athletes grew up with not just female trainers in high school, but also female doctors and pediatricians. "Our male athletes look at women athletic trainers exactly the same," she said. "They see us doing the same job, and they grow up trusting that."

It's another example of a changing ethos. Of course, if you choose not to hire the most qualified candidate for a job because of your locker room culture, it's your locker room culture that's the problem.

Rapoport's initiatives should have a more immediate impact in training departments, which will then put women on the path to department leadership roles, which should then attract more women to athletic training departments in other major sports and colleges.

"There's a cliche: You can't be what you can't see," Rapoport said. "When you start to figure out your career path, you change your thinking. You start to think, 'Maybe I can become a trainer, because look who's the head trainer of that team.'"

"I really think that in the future we are going to crack that ceiling and they are finally going to see that we can do the exact job that our counterpart does," Max said.

When that first female coach takes the field, she won't be the only woman in a position of power on the sideline. It will be one more step toward redefining what's "normal" for women in the NFL.


Dirty Work

Stephanie Balochko was the first female firefighter hired in her Ohio county 23 years ago. Like Trask and Max, she's a pioneer. And she has sound advice for women who about to take their first steps into a traditionally all-male profession. "You can't be timid, but you can't expect people to change just because you are there," she said. "This is their world. You're walking into it."

But Balochko has no interest in being the NFL's first female head coach. Linebackers coach or defensive coordinator would better suit her. "The head coach is more of a manager, and I am not the manager type," she said. "I'm a firefighter, but I don't want to be a lieutenant. I like doing the dirty work."

The women who enter Rapoport's program and work their way from internships to the bottom rung of the coaching ladder had better love dirty work. Quality control assistants work endless hours watching tape, scouting their own teams and performing the most menial of coaching tasks. It's the football equivalent of the old "job in the mail room." Women who hope to advance from that position face the same obstacles as men.

"The quality control coaches who succeeded and were elevated from that position are those who worked very, very hard," Trask said. "They did anything and everything they could to contribute to the success of the team, whether they were asked to do it or not."

But hard work isn't enough in a profession full of grinders. When a female coach gets an opportunity to offer input, as Balochko briefly did during that Steelers preseason game, she must make the absolute most of it. "How good are her observations?" Trask said. "How good is her input? If she has the moment to offer insights, and she's right, people are going to listen more."

After serving in various capacities in the NFL for 13 seasons, Kathryn Smith was named the Bills' special teams quality control coach this year, making her the first full-time female coach in the league.
After serving in various capacities in the NFL for 13 seasons, Kathryn Smith was named the Bills' special teams quality control coach this year, making her the first full-time female coach in the league.Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

If she's wrong, there's a chance her gender will be held up as the reason why. That's why Rapoport wants to create a network of women who can enter football operations all at once, not a few isolated trendsetters forced to single-handedly represent their gender.

"It doesn't do much for any minority group to put one person in a position and then analyze them," Rapoport said. "Did she win or did she fail? If she failed: Women don't belong in the NFL! If she succeeded, then you celebrate it. That's not the best way to do it, because one example is an outlier."

With a large group initiative, individual failures become just thatfailures by individuals, not female coaches as a whole. "You will find bad coaches everywhere, regardless of whether they are male or female," Balochko said. "But it will be more pronounced if you are one of the first female coaches in the NFL. It will be exposed a little bit more."

The NFL's new initiative should ensure that the league's first bad female coach doesn't turn out to be its last female coach. "When you set a plan to move forward and make something better, it's not going to come out perfect," Pioli said. "But we have to be authentically invested in any of these changes. We have to keep at it."

Fair enough. But if not Balochko, who will that first female head coach be? Perhaps it will be Kathryn Smith, who become the NFL's first full-time assistant coach last January. Or someone the league discovers through a seminar. Or perhaps she's already a successful NCAA coach, someone who combines the NFL's newfound progressivism with one of its proudest coach-hiring traditions: nepotism.

"Bill Belichick's daughter would make a great football coach!" Rapoport said of Holy Cross lacrosse coach Amanda Belichick.

That may be taking things too far. The NFL may be ready for a female head coach in 10 years, but another Belichick? Maybe…


Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @MikeTanier.