Female hockey coach firing was about more than money

When the University of Minnesota Duluth fired one of the most successful coaches in the history of women’s hockey, it suggested that it was about money. Shannon Miller made a lot of it, but she had offered to work for less. The university wasn’t interested in that discussion, prompting complaints that something more was involved.

“She established a winning program, raised it to the highest level of competition and sustained a national championship tradition over the last 15 years,” UMD Athletic Director Josh Berlo said last month. “Today’s decision about Shannon’s contract was an immensely difficult and financially driven decision. Unfortunately, UMD Athletics is not in a position to sustain the current salary levels of our women’s hockey coaching staff. However, we remain committed to supporting the Bulldog women’s hockey program.”

Now, the Duluth News Tribune reports that it was more than money. What more? Good question.

“Finances were a big part of this, but there were other considerations as well,” Chancellor Lendley Black told the News Tribune in his first public comments on the subject.

He declined to say what else was involved, saying it would be “inappropriate” to discuss it.

Black said the announcement that it was financially driven “was out of respect for Miller and the program.”

The university, believing it can control the message, has botched the situation badly.

In an article this week, Inside Higher Ed tackled the elephant in the room — men firing successful women.

“It has a potential to be a precedent-setter in that it communicates to women coaches that you can be really good and respected by your community and your peers, but that is not good enough,” Nicole LaVoi, associate director of the University of Minnesota’s Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women In Sport, said. “It says, ‘Not only will we not pay you what you’re worth, but your job might be in jeopardy.’ It’s a really dangerous precedent.”

A spokesman for the university only deepened the mystery.

Chuck Tombarge, a spokesman for the University of Minnesota at Duluth, said that while Miller’s salary was a key consideration, there were other factors that went into the decision not to renew the coach’s contract, including “the direction of the program.” Miller was not offered a pay cut, Tombarge said, because “a pay cut alone would not have addressed all of the considerations” involved in the decision. Miller’s team won 12 of its last 13 games, but it hasn’t made the NCAA tournament since 2011.

“Per UMD’s current practice, when any coach’s current contract is up, the athletic director closely evaluates overall program and quality success,” he said. “This will include the UMD men’s hockey coach’s contract when it is up in 2017. UMD values diversity in coaching and will work to recruit qualified and diverse candidates for this position.”

That doesn’t make sense either, Miller told the News Tribune yesterday.

“What’s even more disturbing is if you don’t like the direction the program was going… It’s back on its way up to being a dynasty,” Miller said. “So when I read that, I thought, ‘What does that mean?’ We don’t have resources that other schools have. We have slipped a little bit because of resources, not coaching. We arguably have one of the greatest coaching staffs in the country and people know that. I thought to myself, ‘You don’t like the direction the program is going?’ Well we are back on our way up. When we got fired, we had won 12 of our last 13 games and were ranked No. 6 in the country.”

In the last four decades, the percentage of college women’s teams being coached by women has fallen from 90 percent to 40, according to Inside Higher Ed.

  • kevinfromminneapolis

    Whatever seems to be going on behind the scenes we should probably wait for it to come out before leaping to sweeping conclusions.

    • If the original statement was intended to deceive the reasons for the firing, what makes you think the university was embracing a process by which “it” was going to “come out” as a matter of some natural order?

      I’m not a public relations guy but it seems to me a full accounting from a public institution — certainly something the coach is asking for — precludes a lot of this.

      That’s why the idea that creating an environment of speculation is somehow “out of respect for the coach” seems a little bit disingenuous.

      Also, i tend to blanch at the “it’s none of your business” attitude of public officials toward the people.

      This is an institution that’s gotten itself $5 million in debt and it might be a good idea to ask what the heck is going on up there.

      Oh, and it might be a good idea for UMD to have at least one woman — instead of three men — in a position to answer that question.

      • Thomas Mercier

        And even if their intent was to communicate the financial message to the public the least they could have done was tell the coach the truth so that she’s not left wondering at this point like the rest of us.

        • The players also asked the questions and they said they didn’t get answers either.

      • kevinfromminneapolis

        These things never come out by a natural order. People talk, reporters press and pretty soon we know the unofficial official story, whatever it may be.

        I’d also guess there’s an element of the much-used public employee privacy clause that prevents the university from giving a full accounting. Who knows.

        • Interesting, though, that nobody has cited data privacy yet. And there’s no privacy clause that prevents the person being fired from being told why she’s being fired.

          • kevinfromminneapolis

            I’ve run into it before.

      • @ndy

        Data privacy laws aside, don’t you think that perhaps UMD is simply trying its hardest not to give ammunition to a potential lawsuit? I agree, I think the whole thing stinks to high heaven, but airing the organization’s dirty laundry is not necessarily the best strategy for preserving public trust, the team, taxpayer dollars, Coach Miller’s reputation, etc.

    • Gary F

      I also think this post needs to have more details on the “other reasons” before coming to sweeping conclusions.

      • The UMD doesn’t want to give the other reasons, Gary. And what “sweeping conclusions” are you referring to, specifically.

        Because I don’t see a single conclusion — let alone sweeping — in the post.

        • dback

          Bob, that is disingenuous on your part to believe you didn’t infer or suggest a reason behind the firing. You clearly cite an article, or the “elephant in the room”, that details the firing of powerful women by men. Your post strongly implied, or ‘concludes sweepingly’, that she was fired because she was a successful woman. Whatever happened up there, I have to believe it was more nuanced than three sexist men in a board room sending out pink slips to women.

          • Bulldog Phil
          • Let’s assume as the link suggests that the problem is the team, having won 12 of 13, did have problems with elite schools. What is “inappropriate” about offering that as a reason either then or now?

          • No, it’s a possibility. That much was raised in the article and the controversy surrounding it CLEARLY has raised that as a sympton of a larger problem.

            It would be stupid of anyone to pretend that’s not part of the discussion and in the absence of any explanation, it’s going to continue to be so.

            That’s an element of this that cannot be ignored and it’s utter nonsense to brand the mention of it as a “sweeping conclusion.” Or “disingenuous.”

            Is there a larger problem? I don’t know. The discussion of it is more than earned by UMD’s handling of the announcement.

    • Andy

      From who exactly? We seem to left with nothing but speculation.

  • Al

    If no one was paying attention before, they certainly are now.

    • It’s always the coverup that gets you.

      It was a mistake for UMD to mislead on the original message. They should’ve said then “it was financial, and a bunch of other stuff that we’re not going to tell you.”

      Now they look bad because they didn’t consider that people are going to ask questions, and then it looks like you were trying to hide something from the start, which they pretty well admitted they were.

      I guess they teach this technique in public relations school but when has it worked?

      You can kind of smell a lawsuit coming from a mile away. That should help the bottom line, eh?

      • L. Foonimin

        there is an old J School adage that says the surest way to a Pulitzer Prize is the story behind the Government Cover Up

  • clost

    There is always more involved than what is in a press release. The trick is to write them in a way that makes it look as though there isn’t. This one failed on that account. Maybe the “more issues” will be revealed, or maybe they will figure out a more effective way to avoid making them public.

  • Ben Chorn

    One issue left out is the timing. The team was let known Miller and her coaches wouldn’t be back in the middle of finals week. Student athletes who had come specifically to Duluth for the coach were told in the middle of the most important academic week of the semester their coaches won’t be back. This is a HUGE distraction when trying to study and pass classes.

    Everything about the situation has been handled poorly by UMD.

    • shleigh

      A question regarding the timing… So she’s still currently coaching through this season? Is that normal timing for college coaches? To discuss contract extensions in the middle/start of the season or while the current contract is still in effect? I can only think of news about football coaches, both college and NFL, which usually get fired at the end of a bad season(s). I’d imagine that it’s not ideal for either the players or the coaches to know that there’s essentially an expiration date on their relationship.

      • Ben Chorn

        From my understanding, one of the assistant coaches had a clause in the contract she had to be notified 6 months in advance of being let go or the University would have to pay her some sum of money. The University decided to go with the early warning, but really didn’t put any thought into the exact timing (during Finals Week).

        This does give time for the University to find a new coach, and to let the previous coaches find new jobs, but this season UMD is in the running to make the NCAA tournament again so doing it mid-season was not the smartest.

        • Elizabeth M.

          According to information provided on the “Reinstate Shannon Miller” Facebook page, the 6 month thing is inaccurate. The U of M system has a specific policy regarding this.

          Here’s the quote from the page. I was unable to find the source.

          Length of Notice Requirement

          An appointee serving in their first year of employment is entitled to one month’s notice of non-renewal.

          Appointees serving in their second year through their fifth year of employment are entitled to three months’ notice of non-renewal.

          Appointees serving in their sixth year through their tenth year of employment are entitled to six months’ notice of non-renewal.

          Appointees serving in their eleventh year and beyond of employment are entitled to twelve months’ notice of non-renewal.

          # of Consecutive Years of Service ~~~ Length of Notice Requirement
          1 YEAR / 1 month
          2-5 YEARS / 3 months
          6-10 YEARS / 6 months
          11+ YEARS / 12 months

          UPDATE: According to U of MN Documents, these rules apply to different classifications/ job titles. Shannon Miller falls under: Academic Professional (97xx, 9621-9626)

          9791 Head Coach
          9792** Coach
          9793** Assistant Coach

          ** Academic Professionals appointed in these job codes/titles may not hold probationary/continuous appointments.

          Provided her job title is Head Coach, and I believe that to be true, this rule applies. Interestingly, if the above is being interpreted correctly, Schuler was not required to have a 6 month notice because her title is not subject to be considered a continuous appointment,

  • KC

    As a former UMD student, word about town is that she was a brutal coach. Successful because she pushed her players ridiculously far. Maybe one too many complaints from the players? Who knows.

    • Ben Chorn

      Players have mentioned in articles they came to UMD for the coach. Some have expressed intentions of leaving UMD now that Miller will be gone.

    • Elizabeth M.

      I’m friends with the family of a former player who transferred to UMD from another D1 school after a horrible experience. None of them, including the player herself, has ever said anything of the kind. Not ever. Are the players saying she was brutal the ones Coach Miller dropped because they weren’t pulling their weight? Perhaps they have some axe to grind.

  • Chris Blum

    From FB: There is a history going back quite a few years. Do a bit of research and a
    reasonable person might come to the conclusion that the university just
    wanted to be rid of a coach who may have some anger issues. Maybe the
    relationship had gotten to the place where they just didn’t think the
    winning was worth the potential behavior issues down the road. Bobby
    Knight?

    • Jean

      That’s one of the rumors floating around Dululuth right now. The other is that UMD is homophobic. PR nightmare.

    • Elizabeth M.

      Anger issues, huh? If anger issues were the problem, then why didn’t the MALE coach of the Mankato State women’s hockey team get canned? A few seasons ago, he got angry enough to call Coach Miller a f—ing c— because she took a time out he didn’t like. He used this language in front of his female players. He also directed one of his own players to take out Haley Irwin. The MSU player complied and gave Haley Irwin a head shot that put Irwin, one of the toughest players in the game, flat out on the ice. That same MSU player the delivered a two-fer by circling around and cross-checking Audrey Cournoyer into the upper crossbar of the goal. Not buying anger issues.

    • Anything that has “research” and “Facebook” in the same sentence should never have any weight by any reasonable person.

  • Gary F

    Possibility of NCAA sanctions? Recruiting issues? Academics? Behavior? Insubordination?

    Could be lots of things. People in very successful programs sometimes get in trouble with the NCAA.

    She was the highest paid woman’s hockey coach in the nation. She made more money than all the men who coach woman’s hockey. She made more money than most low revenue coaches of other D1 schools.

    Not sure why this has to fit the narrative of recent story in the decline of woman’s hockey coaches.

    Yes, the PR battle was not handled right by UMD. Now we need to find out the reason why.

    • The money thing goes away, in large measure, because of her willingness to work for less and the university’s refusal to talk to her about working for less.

      But, yes, it could be lots of things. The reasons it’s PROBABLY not any of the things you mentioned is because she hasn’t been told what those things are.

      If you watch the DNT video, she says the ONLY reason she was given is “strictly financial.” Now we’re hearing there’s more, but they don’t want to say what it is and they don’t, apparently, want to tell HER.

      At the very least that SUGGESTS — rightly or wrongly — that what those things are can be used against an employer in a wrongful termination suit. And I’ve been doing this long enough to smell a wrongful termination suit coming a mile away.

      Just tell the woman why she’s being fired. How hard can that be?

      • Chris Blum

        Does your labor atty give you that same advice when you terminate an MPR employee? How detailed do you get?

        • I don’t really understand your question.

          I don’t have anything to do with terminating employees at MPR.

          I do know when they’re terminated, however, they’re told why. And, of course, there’s also a paper trail of performance reviews so that it’s not entirely a surprise.

          What exactly is your point?

          • Chris Blum

            I wonder what your HR director would tell you if s/he were 100% honest.

          • The HR director has nothing to do with providing performance information. That’s the job of my supervisors. The HR director’s job is to execute personnel policies. She might say “he’s a jerk” or “he’s great” but it’s entirely irrelevant.

            The supervisor — all the ones I’ve had — have been honest and helpful and frank and direct. That’s what good managers do. And, even more so, it’s documented so nothing that happens to me will surprise me. That’s what well-run, professional organizations do.

            All that said, again, what is your point? There’s nothing in the UMD story that has anything to do with whether an HR director is honest or not.

  • Kathleenfromstpaul

    You’re giving the Athletic Director, Berlo, too much credit in these comments in terms of thinking of all these reasons (anger issues, behavior, etc.) that they let her go. To me, he’s a newbie trying to make a name for himself in this new position by making a bold move that he thought would be viewed positively by the administration in terms of saving money. He was totally clueless about the PR nightmare he created. To me, he’s got to go, not Miller.

  • Austin

    This article does not address the fact that the entire coaching staff was let go (except for one, a woman). I will say that the university is being cryptic
    about this story, but do you really think the administrators have developed
    such a disdain for women coaches over 16 years of relatively successful hockey,
    and would then be so dull as to openly praise their accomplishments, and not
    expect criticism? There clearly is something more to this decision – but sexism
    seems to be an unlikely culprit. There can be a lot of factors involved in a
    decision like this that all come to a head; unless you are aware of all of
    them, you are in no position to spout accusations of sexism on the part of the
    administrative board.

    • Just a reminder; this isn’t an “article,” it’s a blog post. Readers are encouraged to visit the links.

      I don’t know what is involved. I DO know that the clumsy way in which it’s handled invites the community discussion that’s taking place.

      Also, can you point to the “spout accusation of sexism” to which you’re referring?

      Because I’m pretty sure you’re wrong on many levels.

      • Austin

        This entire blog post is about explaining away any plausible
        reason for termination, and leaving one with the conclusion that this is simply a case of “men firing successful women” – I would call that accusing the board of sexism.

        The clumsy manner in which this was handled could indicate that they had to make a very difficult decision, and didn’t want to give the reasons publicly. UMD might eventually (or may have already) informed her privately of why her contract is not being renewed. Just like you don’t know everything that goes into the decision, I don’t know why UMD won’t tell her why her contract is not being extended. If this results in a wrongful termination suite, as you suggest it might in another reply, I expect the reasoning will come to light publicly.

        Until then, I am withholding judgment, or even speculation, that there is something sinister about the decision. This “community discussion” seems more like gossip.

        • Whether you reach that conclusion is entirely your responsibility and the result of whatever logic you wish to employ. What we can state as fact, however, is the blog post says (a) she was initially fired because of finances (b) there’s now something more than finances (c) they won’t say what it is (d) they won’t tell her what is is and (e) she’s become a lightning rod for the debate over gender equity in employment.

          Those are five facts. Do with them as you please. Or do nothing with them.

          What makes people uncomfortable in situations like this is when others use critical thinking skills to evaluate the data they’re being given.

          If you watch the coach’s video on the DNT site, what you’ll see is someone using critical thinking skills — and asking US to use our critical thinking skills — to assess the data provided by the UMD spokesperson in the Insider Higher Ed article.

          The problem is people don’t generally HAVE critical thinking skills anymore.

          • Austin

            Yes those are the facts. I find those facts to not be worthy of a blog post given that the most important facts are missing. We see that there is something “more” behind this story and the rumor mill starts churning out baseless gossip and conspiracy.

          • Which is why it’s a bad idea to try to mislead people in making an announcement. Shannon Miller is trying to determine why she was fired. In the absence of that information, she’s adding up the facts that she knows .

            Should she wait?.How long should she wait? What is she waiting for? Where is the evidence that an administration that has acknowledged it withheld reasons when pressed, will willingly give up information to someone who would otherwise just be expected to go quietly?

            When you don’t tell someone why she’s being fired, how is that respectful.

            What’s happening is people are hearing the words and then asking questions about those words and how they relate to reality.

            That’s exactly how it’s supposed to work between the public and a publicly financed institution..

            The trouble with trying to hide things is people think you have something to hide.

            Just be honest and tell the women why they”re being fired.

          • Austin

            Who knows how sensitive the information was that they held. They just botched trying to hide it.

            I feel a little naïve thinking she doesn’t know more about
            why she got let go. Perhaps the whole situation just reeks of academic politics to her, and her attorneys are having her stick to a story, I don’t know.

            If she really doesn’t know, I definitely think she should
            seek out her answers to fill in the gaps and not go down quietly.

            Either way, I think it’s premature to throw this into the workplace
            gender equality debate.

          • Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t know.

            What would you consider the appropriate moment when it wouldn’t be premature to discuss the possibility of gender inequity?

          • MK Kress

            That’s human nature, to use critical thinking skills to analyze a situation when something doesn’t look right, seem right, or feel right. So we ask questions, we look deeper. There’s a big difference between “Wait… what is going on there?” when procedure and policy and basic good business is not practiced and “Omg, Shannon Miller is a bully, she swore at a ref once. No wonder she’s gone.” That’s baseless gossip. Yes, it’s a fact, but its intention is what makes it gossip. And this town is full of a that kind of narrow-minded garbage.

          • Austin

            My understanding is that swearing at a ref was just one example of her conduct that made it difficult for anyone to work with her. I’m not saying that’s the definitive answer, but could be part of a culmination or reasons not to renew her contract.
            We all paint pictures of what happens in a case like this, but critical thinking makes us go a step further beyond our own conclusion. I think with a little more critical thinking, one could easily dismiss gender inequity in this particular case.

          • What’s the source of your information? (Data, if you will)

            I think you misunderstand what critical thinking is.

            It involves taking the statements — data — of those involved and weighing them against other data. And then — when there are mismatches, asking for more data and repeating the process .

            It involves self-analyzing. and taking the data you’re given and also testing it against your own beliefs, which, presumably, were also based on a previous set of data.

            At this point, that process simply cannot eliminate gender inequity. It cannot conclude that it is either. There isn’t enough data yet. That’s why so many people are asking for more.

            The scenarios remain in play until one by one, they can be eliminated.

            So where does that leave us? It leaves with an administration that original said it was purely financial, only for us to learn that the fired personnel had been entirely open to negotiations and that the administration was not interested in those negotiations.

            Later, we learn that it wasn’t entirely financial and that it also had something to do with the direction of the program. But the program was ranked #6 and the firing took place after the team had won 12 of 13 games.

            You can ask “what direction do you mean?” And we don’t get that answer.

            We can ask, “if it’s financial, why wouldn’t you consider an offer for to work for less?” And we don’t get that answer, either.

            One by one, we can check off the things it’s not, leaving us with the things it could be, and from there, one is free– pending the supplying of more data — to reorder the things it could be by the possibilities.

            Gender equity comes up in this discussion because it exists in tremendous volume in our society. It exists in tremendous volume in collegiate sports.

            We know that. And, face it, you know that too. And if you don’t, then there’s really nothing more to talk about.

            Is it gender equity? I don’t know. Could it be gender equity? Absolutely. Could it NOT be gender equity? Sure.

            How can the public which provides the funding for a public institution get those answers from the people who administer that money?

            By the administration simply telling the woman why she was fired.

            This isn’t hard.

          • Austin

            There is a difference between the scenarios. The scenario
            given by the administrators is data that can be debunked by other data. The gender inequity scenario is merely “possible” and can’t truly be debunked. There was no reason to come up with that scenario other than the circumstantial evidence that a man fired a woman and WE don’t know why. If we’re going to bring that scenario into play, we need to be fair and bring in every other “possible” scenario (even if they are less egregious and more mundane), and then examine the likelihood of those scenarios.

            Edit: Not sure if you’re editing your posts, but only half of your posts are showing at first. If I check back an hour later, there is more.

          • Nobody’s eliminating any scenario; I’m not sure why you’re suggesting I am. As I said, you use the data to order the possibilities and probabilities as you continue to ask for more data.

            Sometimes, the data says the quacking you hear is a duck while the people providing it tell you it’s a dog.

            You never really know for sure until you’re allowed to see what’s making all that racket. But the data suggests one is more likely than the other.

            Until you’re allowed to see the data, you cannot be certain. But at some point you can say to the person who’s providing the data, “prove to me that’s not a duck.”

            Just tell the woman why she was fired.

          • BTW, the one thing that is certain is people watching UMD handle this mess have a better idea how it got itself into the financial predicament the institution is in.

      • KTFoley

        “the entire coaching staff was let go (except for one, a woman).”

        That’s not accurate. The entire coaching staff was let go except for Brandt Nicklin, the only man listed among the coaching staff on the team’s USCHO.com page. It turns out he worked with the goalies in previous years but is a volunteer assistant with the men’s team this year.

        • Austin

          The Bulldog’s official website also has a “strength and conditioning coach/equipment manager” listed under the coaching staff, Julianne Vasichek. She was not listed as being let go in UMD press release: http://umdbulldogs.com/news/2014/12/15/WHOCKEY_1215141959.aspx.
          I was not counting the volunteer coach since he is not on the payroll.

          • MK Kress

            Another odd thing to me is their inclusion of Banford, the part-time operations director. It’s not uncommon to clean house when a head coach is dismissed because they are going to want to choose their new assistants. I get that. But Banford is the operations person. It’s a 25% appointment of her total salary (she doubles as the head softball coach). She has not been non-renewed from her SB position. Why can the person that knows the logistics of running the team; travel, hotels, video, meals, budgets, etc. ? It’s all just really bizarre.

  • roblamberti1

    What journalism abhors is a vacuum. If there is no explanation, it will find one, provided someone is willing to speculate. The lack of transparency or details from the university will be filled in other information, whether it’s accurate or not. Simple Communications 101.

    • True enough.

      What journalism abhors is being given answers to questions that are designed to mislead or being expected to be little more than stenographers. “Just write what we tell you. Don’t compare it to facts already in evidence.”

      That’s almost ALWAYS signals a deeper, often darker, reality.

      People, especially rabid fans, will view that differently, depending on whether the people doing the talking are their people or someone else’s people. It’s situational.

      When you’re told “it’s strictly financial,” only to find out later that it’s NOT strictly financial, you have to repose the questions…. where exactly was the line at which you intentionally misled vs. just sort of stumbled by accident into saying something that wasn’t entirely true.

      To be followed closely by the best of question of all: “why?”

      Curiously, in this case, it’s not really a third party who’s just guessing what’s going on. It’s the two parties of the story.

      Perhaps a better way of looking at this story at the moment is to assess what we know and ask the question, “what part of what we’ve been told so far adds up?”