Can a woman coach men to be champions? UChicago's Julianne Sitch proved it can be done

The University of Chicago men’s soccer team reached the Division III semifinals in 2017 and 2018 and then the national title game in 2021. It fell short each time, including a heartbreaking, penalty-kick loss a year ago.

Last week, the Maroons finally broke through, defeating Williams College to capture the program’s first national title.

The head coach who finally pushed them across the line?

Julianne Sitch, who, in the process, became the first female soccer coach to ever lead a men’s team to an NCAA championship.

It renewed the question about why, perhaps especially in soccer, it is so rare for a woman to be given the opportunity to coach men, or even boys at the youth, travel and club levels?

“My job is to coach athletes,” Stitch told Yahoo Sports. “My job is to coach athletes to be the best they can be, on and off the field. It doesn’t matter whether they are male athletes or female athletes. My culture doesn’t change, my standards don’t change, my expectations don’t change.”

It seems simple and it is long past the time when this should even be a story. Future generations will assuredly wonder what took so long. America is filled with female bosses, supervisors, doctors, judges, governors, pilots, principals, valedictorians, CEOs and everything else.

No one even blinks any more, and certainly not the younger generation that make up today’s athletes.

Yet sports is a stubborn hold out. It’s common for men to coach women’s teams but exceedingly rare for women to coach men’s teams. A 2020 study by the Department of Education report found that while about 50 percent of women’s college teams are coached by men, less than 5 percent of men’s teams are coached by women — and those are almost exclusively in D-III track, golf and tennis programs.

SALEM, VA - DECEMBER 03: Players douse head coach Julianne Sitch of the University of Chicago Maroons after their win against the Williams College Ephs during the Division III Men’s Soccer Championship held at Kerr Stadium on December 3, 2022 in Salem, Virginia. The Maroons won the national championship, 2-0. (Photo by Grant Halverson/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)
Players douse head coach Julianne Sitch of the University of Chicago Maroons after their win against the Williams College Ephs during the Division III men’s soccer championship. (Grant Halverson/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

The issue oddly extends all the way down through high schools, middle schools and youth teams. What, a woman can’t handle teaching soccer to the U10 boys?

Stitch, 39, grew up playing in the Chicago suburbs during the late 1980s and early 1990s. She was initially placed on all-boys teams and recalls the posters on her bedroom wall were of the United States men’s national team. When she would tell her father she wanted to be a pro soccer player, it was considered impossible.

That changed in 1999, when the women’s national team won the World Cup. “Suddenly I had posters of Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain and Kristine Lilly,” she said.

Sitch went on to make the U18 and U21 national teams, become a star at DePaul and then play professionally in the United State and Europe.

After returning, she worked as an assistant coach for the Chicago Red Stars of the National Women’s Soccer League, with various girl’s national teams at U.S. Soccer and with the college programs at UChicago and Division I UIC.

Last spring, after previous head coach Pat Flinn left for Drake, athletic director Angie Torain tapped Sitch to run the men’s program. There were no fears about gender.

“Julianne has played and coached at the highest levels,” Torain said. “She knows the game of soccer and what it takes to be successful.”

Sitch was confident not only in herself, but in her players. She said she never addressed the fact that she was a woman and said she never brings it up in recruiting either. She’s just the coach. She thanks Torian for believing in her and “potentially taking a risk in hiring me.”

Of course, the risk never materialized. Chicago went 20-0-1 on the season. And that one tie? It came against NYU, who is coached by Kim Wyant, the only other woman to coach a men’s soccer team in the country. The game was the first men’s collegiate game featuring two female head coaches.

“Can a woman coach men?” Sitch asked, rattling off some of the supposed doubts. “Can a woman motivate men? Will men respond to a woman? For myself, I have to give all the credit to the team. It was never an issue. I never felt anything but absolute respect from Day 1. They accepted me from the beginning and that’s a credit to them.”

This is Division III soccer, so it’s hardly going to rattle the sport — let alone other sports — at the highest levels. Still, it proves the point.

The male athletes of today have mostly grown up in a world with female authority figures and so adapting isn’t even adapting. This is an older generation problem. Besides, people of any age generally care more about having a boss or a coach who can set them up to succeed rather than share a particular background.

Yet the barrier still exists. Some will still doubt this is possible.

If nothing else, Sitch should serve as an example to lower levels of the sport, especially at the club level, where women are rarely given the chance to coach even boy’s teams, although men often coach elite girl’s teams. That’s where the next generation of leaders is coming from.

“I think it’s important for girls to see women in leadership roles so they can believe it and dream it and go after it,” Sitch said.

Meanwhile, she’s working on recruiting, planning for next season and enjoying some national championship memories.

“To see them smiling and celebrating and finally making that last step to winning the title, for me, that is what you want as a coach,” Sitch said.

No matter who is on the team.