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Kathryn Smith Breaks NFL Coaching Barrier: Can The NCAA Be Far Behind?

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After a decade under the Shield, Kathryn Smith breaks the NFL's coaching barrier for women. Can the NCAA coaching fraternity be far behind?

Well done.
Well done.
Bills' Twitter Feed

First, congratulations to Kathryn Smith. The former executive assistant, who spent well over a decade in the NFL, has become the first woman to earn a full-time role as an NFL coach.

Kathryn Smith hired by Buffalo Bills as NFL's first full-time female assistant

Smith served as the administrative assistant to head coach Rex Ryan this season after working for 12 years for the New York Jets, including the final six with Ryan as Jets head coach.

This was not a gimme for Smith, who had shown exceptional aptitude in her various roles for the Jets and Bills before being named Special Teams Quality Control Coach. Nor, given the Cardinals' experience, did her gender present a problem to locker room dynamics or the buttoned-up atmosphere of the NFL, where talent and passion (on paper, at least) would seem to most matter.


“Kathryn has been working in a football administrative role and assisted the assistant coaches for years. She has proven that she’s ready for the next step, so I’m excited and proud for her with this opportunity. She will work with Danny Crossman and Eric Smith involving a number of responsibilities.”

“I consulted with Bruce Arians on this since he was really the first NFL head coach to make this kind of move when he hired a female linebackers coach through the summer. You can see the success some of these young ladies are having in the coaching profession, such as the young lady that is an assistant to Coach (Gregg) Popovich at the San Antonio Spurs, and realize how exciting this is for women like Kathryn Smith as well as the Bills organization.”

There have been ground-breakers in the NFL and high school ranks, to be sure. Natalie Smith, just the third female high school football coach, still comes to mind. Likewise, Smith follows in the footsteps of the Arizona Cardinals' Jen Welter who, this past season, became the first woman to be a positional intern / summer camp coach. Welter did not earn a full-time role, but her experience greatly paved the way for Smith.

Jen Welter on what it means to be the NFL's first female coach | The MMQB with Peter King

My name is Jen Welter and I am the NFL’s first female coach. To be exact, I am a training camp and preseason intern with the Arizona Cardinals, working with inside linebackers. By now, you may know my story. I played 14 seasons of pro football, including a season of playing running back and special teams for the Texas Revolution of the (previously all-male) Indoor Football League. I also coached for the Revolution and have a PhD in psychology.

Welter was joined this season by the NFL's first full-time professional official, Sarah Thomas, as well (There have been no performance issues reported there, as of the date of this writing.)

The lack of complaints and relatively-seamless transition regarding Welter, Smith and Thomas is telling in several respects. The first lesson seems to be that that those with talent and professionalism can trump perceived notions of weakness or not belonging to the sport's inner circle, irrespective of gender. It seems we are moving past the days of Robert Kraft's pig-headed locker room commentary a decade ago. The second, and to me the important dynamic, as it impacts the NCAA, is how the NFL's slow acceptance of women in the coaching fraternity will change the college landscape.

To date, there are no full-time women coaches in the NCAA's highest level of play. Meanwhile, less than half of all women athletics' programs, at any level, in any sport, are coached by women.

The first argument raised by opponents of breaking the gender boundary, is the notion that women don't understand the locker room environment; that they do not know what it means to play competitive ball at the highest levels.  It is an argument the NFL, the CFL, and the NCAA, have disregarded for decades, if so.  The the coaching ranks are stocked with those who did not play organized at the highest levels. Marv Levy, who never played in the NFL, guided the Bills to four Super Bowls, won two Grey Cups, was a selection for the NFL's 1990s all-decade team, and was the National Coach of the Year twice.

Looking closer to the NCAA ranks, there are scads of successful coaches who got a chance without ever playing a snap or minute at the college level: Tom Crean, Rick Majerus, Frank Martin and Mark Few in hoops have all been decorated tourney coaches in their career. In football, the list is just as illustrious: Dennis Franchione, Mike Leach, and Paul Johnson have all won 10+ games in their career. Johnson has led his 'Jackets to two BCS/NY6 bowl games. Franchione rebuilt the Lobos, TCU, and Alabama -- on top of winning five conference championships at Pittsburgh State.

To say that one must have experienced the game to coach it is as myopic as it is willfully-blind to the accomplishments of those who flatly contradict that narrative. Moreover, it is inapplicable to Welter, who played the sport for 14 seasons, and to Smith, who has been under the Shield for over decade.

While the cutesy gender-based antics of 1986's "Wildcats" was reflective of attitudes 30 years ago, it is time they are consigned to the dustbins of history (and, in any event, Coach Molly McGrath's Central High squad makes the City finals versus Prescott. No one wants to be a Coach McGill, amirite?)

Like Sally Ride before her, Kathryn Smith is apt to face something of a bumpy ride, from external commentators, at least: It is, ironically, those on the inside, those who are impacted by these women, that are the least likely to object. Criticism from outsiders with very strong opinions and very little knowledge is the burden of being the first when breaking any arbitrary and dichotomous barrier. But, as Smith and Welter would tell you, it is a burden that is worth worth bearing when daring to have the talent and passion to break into traditional male professions such as astronautics, coaching, or even the U.S. Army's special forces.

It is time, it is well past time, for such a change to reach the traditionally-chauvinistic halls of the academe, where there is typically one set-aside administrative position for "women's sports," and which is reserved for women who, based upon tenure and competence, can do the jobs of their male superiors. These advisory positions carry practically no authority of an athletic director (nor of even an assistant athletic director;) the candidates do not wield control over women's athletics; and, the candidates are shut-out from higher positions of fund-raising, budgeting, glad-handling; personnel management, and an entire host of AD functions that women are just as equally suited to perform. (Alabama, sadly, is no different. Would you like to look at a directory?)

The greatest problem with respect to coaching, then, arises in finding a solution. Is this a chicken-egg matter for the NCAA, one complicated (or simplified) by the Title IX issues at play. That is to say, must women first break the glass ceiling at the administrative level to give otherwise-qualified women coaches a shot? Or, must the change begin on the ground, with coaches being hired and performing well such that their presence is no longer a threat to the old boy networks which dominate college athletics? Or, is this going to be an issue that is litigated over and over again until we reach consensus?

I simply do not know the answer. I do know, however, that Smith and Welter and Thomas (and oddly, the NFL) are on the vanguard of an upheaval that we shall see played out again and again in our lifetimes. It is one, personally, that I believe is overdue and welcome.

Feel free to chime in below with your thoughts. And, let's play nice too: No personal attacks.

Roll Tide.