Five national titles in 16 years. Fifteen wins in the NCAA women’s hockey tournament. The fourth winningest women’s coach in Div. I, and a former head coach of the Canadian women’s Olympic team.
That’s the legacy of Shannon Miller at the University of Minnesota at Duluth. Recent history hadn’t been as kind: 3-24-7 against rivals Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota in the last three seasons, and zero NCAA appearances since 2011. She wasn’t the first or the last college coach to see their program’s success ebb, but on Dec. 15, 2014, she suffered the fate that many of them eventually do: Her contract wasn’t going to be renewed after this season.
But the school didn’t cite performance – it cited finances.
Miller is making $215,000 this season, and the school claims a $4.5 million athletic department deficit. Athletic director Josh Berlo told the Duluth News Tribune that there were “discussions” on reducing her salary, but that “we determined that the contract couldn’t be extended.
Miller said she would have taken a pay cut, but wasn’t asked. And if this was a budgetary decision, as she told the News Tribune, "I think there should have been conversations about budgets being cut … but let me be very clear, those conversations should be held with the women's Division I hockey team and the men's Division I hockey team. I will not shy away from that. That is a plain and simple fact."
The backlash was palpable. Kate Fagen of ESPNW wrote that “UMD drove a stake through the heart of one of the best women's hockey programs in the country so it could maybe save about $65,000.” Jake New from Insider Higher Ed questioned if there was a salary ceiling for women, who embarrassingly make up just over 12 percent of NCAA women’s hockey head coaching jobs.
But others noted the program’s recent lack of a success as a possible factor. College hockey scribe Brad Schlossman said there were personal conflicts behind the scenes that contributed to the decision, bluntly: “Had she not alienated so many in the department, they probably would have been willing to alter her salary and keep her on.”
Still, the public reason was economics. And Miller, 51, is going to fight back against the UMD administration – claiming her dismissal was a violation of Title IX, the law that prohibits gender-based discrimination at federally funded schools.
“This is a slap in the face to our gender. I’m concerned about what this says to society about the value of women,” Miller told the Star Tribune, which reported that "her attorney Dan Siegel, who in 2007 won the largest Title IX settlement in U.S. history, said she has 'a tremendously strong case' that raises civil rights issues."
From the Trib and Rachel Blount:
In a Dec. 15 news release, Berlo said the decision not to extend Miller’s contract was “difficult and financially driven,” adding that “UMD Athletics is not in a position to sustain the current salary levels of our women’s hockey coaching staff.” Miller is making $215,000 this season, slightly more than Wisconsin’s Mark Johnson ($214,350). The Gophers’ Brad Frost makes $185,000. Johnson has four NCAA titles, and Frost has two.
Duluth’s three-coach staff made more than $338,000 last season, more than the staffs at Minnesota and North Dakota. UMD men’s hockey coach Scott Sandelin, who has one championship, makes $265,000.
UMD has been reducing costs in the wake of a universitywide $6 million budget deficit. During earlier discussions with Berlo, Miller said he told her the school might cut women’s hockey — and if it didn’t, the program would have to be “gutted.” Black said Thursday it would “continue to be funded at a level that allows UMD to continue to compete on the national level and achieve the kind of success the program has experienced in the past.”
Duluth reported a loss of more than $1.4 million on women’s hockey last year, not an unusual figure for the nonrevenue sport but a large hit to the school’s athletics budget ($9.87 million). Minnesota lost more than $1.8 million and Wisconsin over $1.2 million, but those two departments operate with about $100 million.
One gets the sense that there’s more going on here than economics, but that’s where UMD administrators planted their flag. And that being the case they’ve built, it’s an embarrassing slap in the face of one of the longest tenured and successful women who coach women’s hockey, and the optics on it are atrocious.
As Nicole LaVoi, associate director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport, told the tribune: “You would never tell [Alabama football coach] Nick Saban, ‘You’re paid too much, therefore we’re going to have to let you go.’”
The messaging here from UMD, at least publically? ‘We want women coaches to be successful on the ice, but don’t be disrespectful and be careful not to bump your head on that glass ceiling…’
Not a good look for NCAA women's hockey.
MORE FROM YAHOO HOCKEY: