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Women football coaches are rare. NFL and college coaches are trying to change that

SB Nation spoke exclusively with people in coaching circles to find out what’s being done to get more women hired.

Intern coach Callie Brownson, wearing sunglasses and a Bills windbreaker, superimposed on a blue, white, and red background
Callie Brownson, now with the Bills, became the first woman to be a full-time assistant at the DI level.
Buffalo Bills / SB Nation illustration

Callie Brownson didn’t set out to make headlines as the first woman to be a full-time assistant on a Division I college football team. But when interview requests started pouring in after she accepted a job at Dartmouth as an offensive quality control analyst in 2018, she and head coach Buddy Teevens realized they had unknowingly made history.

“That seemed impossible since I had so many of my peers who have been hired in the NFL,” says Brownson, who spent the 2019 season as a full-time intern by the Buffalo Bills. She was then hired by new Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski as Cleveland’s Chief of Staff. “How has college been untouched?”

At the professional level, we’ve seen a lot of women land jobs coaching football. There are currently four women with full-time NFL team staff positions, and there have been six temporary hires in the league. But only one woman is employed full-time as a coach at the DI collegiate level.

“The feeder program in a college is strictly male because of the experience,” Brownson says. “It’s like a fraternity, almost.”

Coaches have hired former players as graduate assistants for decades. Dabo Swinney, Nick Saban, and Jimbo Fisher all started their careers as GAs at their former schools, a process that makes a lot of sense for coaches who would rather bring in people they’ve worked with over conducting a blind search.

It’s a “vicious cycle,” Brownson says, but one that could be resolved by creating programs for women to directly gain exposure and job opportunities at the college level. Of course, creating these programs is one thing, but getting coaches to actually trust in them as a valuable staffing resource is the more important step.

“How do you do that in a way that’s respectable, that’s gonna be a way that college coaches will come to that feeder program?” Brownson says.

The NFL’s director of development, Sam Rapoport, has been addressing the lack of women in coaching and scouting roles at the pro level since the league hired her in 2016. Scheduled in conjunction with the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, the Women’s Careers in Football Forum is a teaching and networking opportunity that gives women the chance to meet with teams and coaches.

Rapoport’s goal with the forum has always been to find ways to connect women working in football, including those who’ve played competitively and those “who have an interest in either pivoting to more of a traditional football role, like scouting to become a general manager, or coaching to become a head coach.” During the program’s first year, it included women who played the sport, opening it up in year two to candidates looking for pro-level jobs. In 2019, Rapoport invited women in different football roles at the collegiate level, Brownson included.

In the forum’s first two years, eight women were hired as full-time assistants or coaching interns, six within scouting departments, and five in football operations. Nearly 40 positions have been filled by women who’ve participated in the forum since it launched, with 20 of those opportunities coming this year alone.

NFL operations

For Heather Marini, the forum was her entry point into college football, as that’s where she met Brown University head coach James Perry. Marini coached and played professionally in Australia’s Gridiron Victoria football league before earning a scouting specialist job with the New York Jets last summer. She joined Brown’s football staff in 2019 as an offensive quality control assistant, making her the only woman who is currently a full-time assistant at the DI level.

Marini is Perry’s third female coach. He hired Phoebe Schecter and Sue Lizotte as assistant coaches when he was head coach at Bryant University prior to getting hired at Brown.

“Anytime I can open up the pool, it strengthens my staff,” Perry says. “The concept that I can bring someone in right now like Heather, who’s so smart and passionate about football, and adding all that she adds to my program, is motivation enough for me.”

Marini’s (and Brownson’s) experience isn’t common, however. Creating those opportunities at the college level is more challenging, Rapoport says, because colleges have smaller staffs and less funding for paid internships.

“There are more opportunities to get a taste of an NFL training camp through a scouting role or a coaching role in the NFL, because most clubs hire anywhere from five to six coaches to five to six scouting interns that could potentially lead to jobs,” she says.

Brownson’s road to Dartmouth (and eventually the Bills) wouldn’t have happened without the Manning Passing Academy, which implemented a women and girls’ camp in 2018. Inspired by Sam Gordon, a 14-year-old girl who founded the Utah Girls Tackle Football League and won the NFL’s first-ever Game Changer Award, it gives women an opportunity to showcase their interests and abilities in front of college coaches.

Courtesy of the Buffalo Bills

“(Coach Teevens) got to see my coaching style and organization as it pertained to my practice plan, and just me in person,” Brownson says. “For women, that’s massive ... there’s an opportunity to prove yourself.”

Teevens insists that coaching internship programs like Dartmouth had in 2018 is easy enough for more college coaches to replicate.

“It would be an easy thing to do for everyone,” he says. “Is it expensive? No. You have housing you provide for players and coaches, meals you provide — you’re adding one or two people to the list.”

Teevens considers Brownson the best entry-level hire he’s made at Dartmouth.

“People think it’s going to be shockingly different,” he says. “There’s no difference.”

Brownson echoes that sentiment, admitting she wanted to prove some people wrong when her hiring was met with a predictably mixed reaction. “[People said] ‘Well, this must be a rebuilding year for Dartmouth; this must mean this is a PR thing.’ And then we go 9-1. We’re 15th in the country.”

“If you ask the guys who I coach every day if [me being a woman] ever mattered to them, they’d say, ‘No, we thought she could help us win games.’ And that’s really the direction this dialogue should go. More women should be hired because it doesn’t change anything. In fact, it could make your program a lot better, if you’re willing to see it that way.”

Brownson says her goal when first starting at Dartmouth was to earn respect from her players as their coach.

“I had coaches in my time playing women’s football where I was like, ‘Does this dude even know what he’s talking about?’” Brownson says, noting the influence that had on how she works with players. “I was very hands-on. I was coaching the DBs, working on press technique, and I was actually in their face putting their hands on them and showing them, ‘This is how it is.’”

Teevens says more than anything, he wants college coaches to see firsthand that hiring more women isn’t a threat to the team’s culture.

“You don’t make your program softer, and it doesn’t have to be so adapted that you stop being who you are. There is no change — you’re just hiring a coach.”

Rapoport says coaches like Teevens and Perry preaching the success of women in football is important for exposure.

“It’s so critical to have male champions discussing this with women to demonstrate to them that they belong,” says. “When it comes to hiring in college, it goes back to what [coaches are] familiar with. ... We have to find a way to break that and be able to say bringing a woman on staff is a good idea, and here’s where to find her.”