Hiring women coaches takes intentionality. Just ask the NFL

Jennifer King, an assistant running backs coach for the Washington Football Team
Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images
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Less than a decade ago, there were no women coaching in the NFL. 

In 2015, Jen Welter became the first woman to serve in an NFL coaching role when the Arizona Cardinals hired her to an intern position. The following year, Kathryn Smith became the NFL’s first full-time female coach when she was named special teams quality control coach for the Buffalo Bills. 

In 2017, the New York Jets hired Collette Smith as a training camp intern to work with defensive backs, making her the first Black woman to coach for an NFL team. And earlier this year, Jennifer King was promoted to assistant running backs coach of the Washington football team, making her the first Black woman to serve as a full-time NFL coach. 

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Less than a decade after Welter paved a new path for women coaches, there will be a record 12 women coaches in the National Football League during the 2021 season, CNBC reported last month. This is the most women to coach in the NFL in a single season.

Progress still to be made in the NFL

While the NFL has taken major strides in just a few short years, we are still far from gender equity in the NFL and elsewhere in coaching. There are no women head coaches in the NFL and the majority of the NFL’s 32 teams still do not include a woman on the coaching staff.

Still, there are lessons that can be taken from the NFL and applied to other leagues, including professional women’s leagues. 

The first lesson? Intentionality!

The rise of women in the NFL isn’t an accident

Five years ago, the NFL established the Women’s Careers in Football Forum (WCFF) to inspire, educate, and connect women actively working in football to other college and NFL football operations positions. Over the course of two days, participants engage in a series of panel discussions, presentations and breakout sessions covering everything from strength and conditioning, research and strategy, and team operations. 

“A big thing we found is that people who are getting their start in the league got their job because they played college football with someone who knows someone who knows someone and it’s just such a close bro network. Women don’t really have that and so this forum is an attempt to really bridge that gap,” Venessa Hutchinson, the NFL’s senior manager of football programming, told CNBC.

Of the 12 women coaching in the NFL this season, eight attended the WCFF (their names can be found in bold on the table below). Sam Rapoport, NFL senior director of diversity, equity and inclusion, shared the names of the women coaching this NFL season with On Her Turf via email.

Coach

Current Role 

NFL Team 

Katie Sowers Assistant Running Back Coach Kansas City Chiefs
Jennifer King Assistant Running Back Coach  Washington Football Team
Callie Brownson Chief of Staff Cleveland Browns
Lo Locust Assistant Defensive Line Coach Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Maral Javadifar Strength & Conditioning Coach/Physical Therapist Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Emily Zaler Player Performance Assistant  Denver Broncos
Jada Gipson Defensive Back Intern/Linebackers Coach Cleveland Browns/Texas State 
Alex Hanna Receivers Intern/Defensive Quality Control Coach Cleveland Browns
Sophia Lewin Offensive Assistant Coach Buffalo Bills 
Tessa Grossman Intern /Graduate Assistant Strength & Conditioning Coach  Atlanta Falcons/Illinois State
Heather Marini Intern/Quarterbacks Assistant Coach Tampa Bay Buccaneers/Brown University
Angellica Grayson Linebackers Intern Washington Football Team

In addition to helping create a coaching pipeline, the forum has also helped expand the number of women in front office jobs. Since the program began five years ago, 181 WCFF participants have landed football jobs, with 100 of those roles being in the NFL, the league reported to CNBC.

Assistant coaches Maral Javadifar and Ross Cockrell of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers look on during the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LV in Tampa, Florida.
Assistant coaches Maral Javadifar and Ross Cockrell of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers look on during the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LV in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Further, the invite-only forum ensures 50% of all participants are women of color. The most recent virtual event in late February welcomed 40 participants, 30 of whom – or 75% – were women of color. Additionally, in five years of the program 83% of the women hired from the annual WCFF are women of color. 

“You have to be very intentional and very purposeful to make sure that it’s not just white women who benefit from this type of diversity initiative,” Hutchinson said.

A two-day forum has its limitations. There is only so much additional coaching knowledge one can gain in 48 hours. However, the real value comes from the investment and networking opportunities participants receive. Generally speaking, people hire or recommend people they know for positions. If football coaches and executives don’t see women throughout their career, they are less likely to hire or recommend women for open roles. 

While this may explain the anemic numbers of women in dominantly male-represented sports, this does not explain a different issue: why aren’t more women coaching women’s teams?  

Why aren’t more former players being hired to coach women’s teams? 

The dearth of women coaching women’s teams has been previously documented. As it stands right now, only 10 women currently work as head coaches across the three major North American women’s sports leagues: the WNBA, NWSL, and NWHL.  

Of the 10 National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) teams, two currently have women in head coaching positions (one of them serving in an interim capacity) amidst a season of coaching turmoil. Ahead of its seventh season, the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) has two women bench bosses across its six teams. In its 25th season, the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) has six women (including three former players) serving as head coaches.

So why are women underrepresented as coaches in women’s sports leagues?

Throughout much of the comparatively short history of these three women’s leagues, the player-to-coach pipeline hasn’t existed, though some notable changes have been made in recent years.

The WNBA’s landmark 2020 CBA includes an initiative dedicated to helping players get connected with coaching opportunities. Last month, the NWSL and the U.S. Soccer Federation announced a new free ‘B’ license course for former and current players.

Our mutual goal is to help the tremendous athletes in our league succeed both on and off the field and subsidizing the cost of this elite coaching education program will help us live up to that mission,” NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird said in the announcement. “We’re excited to see what our players accomplish with this certification in the future.”

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The partnership will pay for the costs associated with the course, including travel to Houston to sit for the exam. There is no direct cost associated with participating in the program.

Eliminating the cost barrier is a good practice in intentionality. However, the timing of the course makes it hard for active NWSL coaches or players to balance course work and their professional season, according to Orlando Pride defender and new mom Ali Krieger

“We women do a lot,” Krieger – who is also dipping her toe into broadcasting – told On Her Turf in a phone interview. 

Ali Krieger #11 (left) and Ashlyn Harris #24 (right) of the Orlando Pride hold their daughter Sloane after a game between Washington Spirit and Orlando Pride.
Ali Krieger #11 (left) and Ashlyn Harris #24 (right) of the Orlando Pride hold their daughter Sloane after a game between Washington Spirit and Orlando Pride in May 2021. (Photo by Roy K. Miller/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

During her career, Krieger has witnessed how tough it is for players like her to parlay decades of elite soccer experience into coaching careers. In the future, she hopes more opportunities – such as the coaching course grant – are accessible and take into account the high grind and moderate reward of women professional athletes, especially given the often low wages that players are paid. 

Can women’s leagues learn something from the NFL?

While there are barriers for players who already have coaching aspirations, there is also the issue that many players don’t see coaching as a potential opportunity.

That was true for much of Noelle Quinn‘s 12-year career in the WNBA. Coaching was not on her radar at all until she was approached to co-coach her former high school team while finishing out her pro career. 

“It wasn’t on my vision board. It wasn’t on my radar. When you grow up, you have male coaches,” Quinn, the new head coach of the Seattle Storm, told On Her Turf last month.

“I think in life when you see something and you see yourself within someone, you’re more apt to gravitate toward whatever that is,” Quinn continued.

The WNBA recently granted teams permission to add a fourth coach, so long as one of the coaches on staff is a former player. 

“Creating that, in general, was a great start,” Quinn said, noting that players can’t “know that they like coaching if they never had an opportunity or an experience.”

Even WNBA players who knew they were interested in coaching have run into barriers. In 2018, current Los Angeles Sparks guard Kristi Toliver took an assistant coaching job with the Washington Wizards while playing for the Mystics. Yet, because both teams are owned by Monumental Sports Entertainment, Toliver had to accept significantly less money than her male counterparts. 

Toliver eventually ended up signing with the Los Angeles Sparks while remaining with the Wizards to avoid the conflict that led to her pay cut. Last month, Toliver confirmed she will be added to the Dallas Mavericks coaching staff for the upcoming NBA season. Toliver is glad to see more leagues are seeing value in having former women athletes on the coaching staff and hopes the WNBA can continue to create opportunities.

“You want to say it’s obvious, you know, but obviously, it’s not. So the fact that all these leagues are making steps in the right direction, I certainly hope and feel that the W would follow suit with that,” Toliver told On Her Turf after a practice with the Sparks. 

Phoenix Mercury v Seattle Storm
Seattle storm head coach Noelle Quinn talks with Jewell Loyd #24 during a game against the Phoenix Mercury on July 11, 2021 at the Angel of the Winds Arena, in Everett, Washington. (Photo by Josh Huston/NBAE via Getty Images)

Some coaches have also made a commitment to hiring women, including Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve, who has an assistant coaching staff that consists of three women, all former WNBA players. 

But it takes more than individual commitments.  

That is why the intentionality of the WCFF remains such a critical part of the program.

Unlike failed quota systems or the controversial Rooney Rule – which requires teams to interview at least two underrepresented candidates for any open job – the WCFF has proven results, especially for women of color. 

Perhaps because of the overhead costs associated with networking events like the WCFF – or even the NBA Basketball Operations Executive Program – many opportunities for women come on the men’s side of the game. Not to mention, better coaching salaries. Women coaching men’s teams – whether in the NFL or the NBA – is an important step towards gender equity in sports. Yet, what does that mean for women’s teams? 

“I’m not as interested in seeing women coaching men as I am women coaching women,” former Notre Dame women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw said on an episode of “On Her Turf at the Olympics” last month. “I think it is great that the NBA is hiring women to be on the sidelines, to be assistant coaches. But what I would love to see is those women coming back to the WNBA and being a head coach.” 

Diana Flores looks to break down gender barriers with turn as AFC offensive coordinator in 2023 Pro Bowl

Courtesy Diana Flores
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Diana Flores admits she was surprised when she became a viral sensation last spring, courtesy of a 15-second slow-motion clip showcasing her evasive maneuvers and fancy footwork while leaving at least three defenders in the dirt during Mexico’s 2022 national collegiate flag football championship.

“I never expected someone to record that moment,” said Mexico City native Flores, who led her team – the Monterrey Tech Borregos – to their third consecutive national title as a senior last May. “I was just having fun. I was just playing the game I love and then days later to see that it was viral on the internet — it was crazy. But at the same time, it was exciting because I remember when I was younger, I didn’t have a lot of flag football role models to follow. So now, for me to be a role model for many boys and girls that play my sport is something that really makes me happy and proud and also motivates me to keep getting better.”

Flores, who led the Mexico Women’s National Flag Football Team to a gold medal at the 2022 World Games, will have the chance to promote her sport on one of the world’s biggest stages this weekend when she serves as the AFC offensive coordinator for the NFL’s 2023 Pro Bowl Games, featuring the first-ever AFC vs. NFC Flag football games on Sunday in Las Vegas.

Organized in partnership with RCX Sports, the NFL’s flag football operating partner, and the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), Sunday’s Pro Bowl event will feature three 7-on-7 AFC vs. NFC flag games. Each game will be 20 minutes in length (two halves) and played on a 50-yard field with 10-yard end zones. Flores will be joined by Peyton Manning as the AFC head coach and Ray Lewis as defensive coordinator. On the NFC side, U.S. Women’s National Flag Football team quarterback Vanita Krouch will serve as offensive coordinator, with Eli Manning as NFC head coach and DeMarcus Ware as defensive coordinator.

“I think that this has been one of the best things in my life,” she recently told On Her Turf about her Pro Bowl appointment. “It is like a dream. I mean, I grew up watching football, watching the NFL, playing flag football. And now to be able to be part of all of this — it is bigger than my biggest dreams.”

Flores’ football dreams began as when she was just 8 years old. Her father — who played quarterback for the perennial football powerhouse Monterrey Tech program — took her to a practice and she fell in love with the sport. But as the time there were no teams for girls her age, so she played with girls twice her age and used it to her advantage, focusing on her own abilities and sharpening her skills. By age 14 she was playing NFL Flag in Mexico, where she was the only girl in the league, and at 15 she started playing NFL Flag in the U.S, where she finally played on an all-girls team.

ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: U.S. flag football star Vanita Krouch ‘living the dream’ ahead of NFL Pro Bowl debut as NFC coordinator

“I remember when I started playing, I used to receive a lot of like comments, directly and indirectly from other people, like, ‘Why do you play that sport? That’s not a girls’ sport, that sport is for boys, you’re get injured, you’re going to get hurt, don’t play with boys, that’s too rude.’ And the list keeps going. But my mom and dad were so supportive. They always encouraged me not to listen to anybody, to just follow my passion.

“And I think thanks to them, I’ve always had this mentality that gender doesn’t matter. It just matters how passionate you are about your dreams, how hard you work for what you want to achieve. And that you will always demonstrate what you’re made for, depending on the hard work you do. So, I’ve lived through that [negativity], I have experienced that. And I think that it has been one of my biggest blessings to be able to experience — for myself — what sport can do and how gender barriers get broken when you follow your dreams and you connect with other people through your passion.”

At just 16 years old, Flores made Mexico’s national team, playing in the first of four Flag Football World Championships – so far. Last summer at the World Games in Birmingham, Alabama, the 24-year-old Flores led Mexico to a 6-0 record, which included two wins over the U.S. women, who took silver. In the gold medal game against the United States, she completed 20 of 28 pass attempts for 210 yards and four touchdowns in Mexico’s 39-6 victory. She finished the tournament with 23 touchdown passes, the third-most among women’s teams, and she was the only starting quarterback to beat USA’s star QB, Krouch, who is 19-1 in international tournament play.

All that international experience so early in her career has given Flores a wise-beyond-her-years approach to playing flag football, a sport where she was frequently the only female player on the field and often the only Latin American as well.

“When I first came to the U.S., it was a little shocking to notice that I was probably the only Latin American girl playing,” she recalls. “But I think that it was easy for me because I got all the support from my coaches and my teammates. And since a young age, I think that I started to realize that sometimes what you do is for something bigger than yourself. That’s why you have to always give your best, in any situation. Even at that young age, I understood that I was representing more than myself on the field, I was representing Latin American people, Latin American girls in a sport that [many people thought] was meant to be for boys.”

RELATED: NFL still pushing for Olympic flag football with a chance ahead

One door Flores hopes to help open is the one leading to the Olympics. Flag football is on the short list being considered for inclusion in Los Angeles in 2028 Los Angeles. As an ambassador for flag football for the NFL and the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), she’s participated in talks with the International Olympic Committee, and just last month she was joined by First Lady Dr. Jill Biden in Mexico City where they joined forced to promote women’s empowerment and inclusion.

“I think for me, that experience is one of my top three,” she said of spending time with Biden. “I call them gifts from life, something that you didn’t expect it to happen, and somehow, one day, you’re right there in front of the First Lady. I admire her for what she does for boys and girls, for empowering woman and giving opportunities for everybody to achieve their dreams. So it was truly an honor to meet her, and also to be able to keep impacting my sport, not only on the field, but [off] the field, and have the opportunity keep inspiring others and keep impacting the world.”

As for what she hopes fans at the Pro Bowl and viewers at home take away from Sunday’s flag football showcase, Flores hopes they’ll see the characteristics that made her fall in love with flag in the first place: creativity, speed, agility, teamwork, passion and a lot of heart.

“I hope to show to all little girls and women that dreams come true, that nothing is impossible, to keep inspiring and opening opportunities and doors for women in sports, especially in the world of the NFL and football and flag football,” she says. “We’re going to make history, and I am so proud and happy for that. I’m really hoping that it is just the first step, not only for me, but for all the women that are coming after me.”

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Flag football star Vanita Krouch ‘living the dream’ ahead of NFL Pro Bowl debut as NFC coordinator

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When Vanita Krouch got the news that she was named NFC offensive coordinator for the 2023 Pro Bowl Games, featuring the first-ever AFC vs. NFC Flag football games on Sunday, the U.S. Women’s National Flag Football team quarterback admits her jaw nearly hit the ground.

And then she realized something even more profound.

“For the longest time, thinking about the moment, everything, you’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is a dream come true. Is this really happening?’” said the 42-year-old Krouch, known as the “Tom Brady of flag football” with a 19-1 record as USA’s starting quarterback in international tournaments since 2018.

“But then I started thinking to myself: You know what? None of us grew up thinking of this as a dream to obtain. So really, it’s kind of reversed where I’m living a dream. I get to be a pioneer in this growth of flag football for all and inclusion for all, youth and adults, [women and men]. It’s such an inclusive sport, and I get to be a part of this growth and still actively play. It’s exciting. I’m literally living the dream. I’m very much like, ‘Guys, don’t pinch me. Let me keep sleeping.’”

Organized in partnership with RCX Sports, the NFL’s flag football operating partner, and the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), Sunday’s Pro Bowl event will feature three 7-on-7 AFC vs. NFC flag games. Each game will be 20 minutes in length (two halves) and played on a 50-yard field with 10-yard end zones. Krouch will be joined by Eli Manning as NFC head coach and DeMarcus Ware as NFC defensive coordinator. On the AFC side, Mexico Women’s National Flag Football quarterback Diana Flores will serve as offensive coordinator, with Peyton Manning as head coach and Ray Lewis as defensive coordinator.

But Krouch’s journey to the Pro Bowl stage began under the unlikeliest of circumstances and was inspired by her own family odyssey, which began in Cambodia during the horrific regime of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. Krouch’s mother, Phonnary Krouch, fled the country with three young sons in tow, running by night and hiding by day to escape, finding safety initially at a refugee camp in the Philippines. That’s where she welcomed Vanita, in September 1980, and two months later the family made its way to the United States. Krouch’s father exited the picture upon their arrival in America, leaving Phonnary to raise four children alone.

“In a nutshell, my mom is an amazing woman,” said Krouch, who first found sports via an elementary school flyer advertising youth soccer in Carrollton, Texas. “On the journey, she had a lot of trials, tribulations, … and after our dad left us, it was just mom and four kids in this little one-bedroom apartment. So, it was a challenge. I’m just so amazed by her strength and will to never give up.”

She also credits her mom for standing up to then-stereotypical notions that Asian girls should not play sports.

“I’m just thankful, honestly, that my mom allowed me to break the Asian culture barriers of a woman playing sports because that’s not easy,” she said. “She faced a lot of backlash from the community. But she said, ‘Hey, my child’s making good grades. She’s healthy, she’s good. She’s staying off the streets. I don’t see a problem.’ And she just let me do it. I was just lucky to have a mom that let me spread my wings.”

Krouch also had a few mentors along the way. Her elementary school PE teacher, Toni Neibes, stepped in to pay for those initial soccer fees and continued her support as Krouch transitioned to basketball in the fourth grade. She fell in love with the sport and excelled at it as well, eventually earning a full scholarship to play college basketball at Southern Methodist University. She wears the No. 4 to this day in honor of Niebes, who wore the same number as a young athlete. She also credits her fourth-grade teacher, Judy Ward, as having a lasting impact after the teacher made a habit out of showing up for her youth basketball games.

She pays tribute to them both through her clothing line, 4Ward Apparel, which features ever-changing collections emblazoned with relevant slogans encouraging female empowerment, inclusion and her personal mantra of “paying it forward” – something she does with the line itself. Each month, Krouch donates a portion of the sales to individuals, families or organizations in need.

After graduating SMU in 2003, Krouch continued to play basketball in semi-pro and adult leagues, but she was still searching for something to satisfy her competitive drive. She and a former college teammate stumbled on flag football during a Google search for local Dallas-area activities, and the rest – as they say – is history.

“It was like I drank the Kool Aid and I never looked back,” she says of her start in flag in 2006. “It’s just like every game, every play is a new challenge, and it’s addictive for a competitor, so I just fell in love with flag. I actually think I’m way better at flag than I was at basketball.”

She moved into the quarterback position through some sly maneuvering by current USA Women’s Flag Football head coach Chris Lankford. They were playing together in a local tournament when he “tricked” her into the QB position, despite Krouch knowing “zero football language.”

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“One day I showed up for a tournament and I asked, ‘All right, guys, who’s our quarterback?’ And he says, ‘We’re looking at her,’” she remembers. They kept the plays simple, and her team made it to the playoffs that season. Krouch has been a QB ever since.

Krouch joined the national team in 2016 and was inducted into the National Flag and Touch Football Hall Fame that same year. Last year at the 2022 World Games in Birmingham, Alabama, a 41-year-old Krouch set a new mark as the oldest Flag football player, man or woman, in the games, and she ranked second among women with 25 touchdown passes at the tournament where USA won silver.

She aims to bring that expertise to the field at the Pro Bowl games, where she’s looking forward to seeing NFL players take on the flag football style type of plays. “Flag is a very finesse, quick game, a lot of footwork, and these guys can’t grab or hold, no downfield contact or downfield block or anything off the line,” she explains. “So it’s going to be exciting just to see skill for skill, footwork for footwork, defense to offense, and to see flag football language with those type of elite athletes.”

As for the biggest challenge, Krouch believes it will be crafting a concise playbook and language that puts everyone on the same page. “A challenge for me is getting a coach’s mindset,” she adds, “I have to actually come up with plays ahead of time and I don’t usually have premeditated plays in my head. I just read it so for me to tell Kirk Cousins or Geno Smith [what to do], it will be different, you know?”

But beyond the Pro Bowl, Krouch is excited that flag is being considered for inclusion as an exhibition sport in the 2028 Summer Olympics. While she’s keeping a hopeful eye on that development, she’s also working to shape the next generation of potential athletes as a physical education teacher at La Villita Elementary in Irving, Texas.

RELATED: NFL still pushing for Olympic flag football with a chance ahead

“It’s an honor to be a role model – for other youth flag football players, for my students, both boys and girls,” says Krouch. “Then at my campus and in my community, it’s amazing to be able to break the barrier of like, ‘Asian women can’t do this.’ And then to be at my age, still doing this, I feel very lucky and blessed. …I think I still got some years in me.”

As for what she hopes viewers and fans walk away with after watching the Pro Bowl flag games this weekend, Krouch feels confident folks will walk away enlightened by the show.

“I just hope that they have fun with it,” says Krouch. “And for those who don’t know flag to be like, ‘Wow, that’s really amazing. Maybe that’s something I really can get my son or daughter into at a young age.’ So I just hope that they see that the sport is real – it’s not just something we play at recess. It’s a real thing now. I think they’ll see that the world loves it, the world can play it and is playing it.”

Be sure to check back with On Her Turf later this week when we catch up with AFC coordinator and Mexico Women’s National Flag Football Team quarterback Diana Flores.  

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