When the head coach of the men's basketball team asked the graduating senior on the women's basketball team what she was planning to do next, there wasn't a definitive response.
Coaching would be a good option, suggested Dave Drabiuk, the men's coach at the University of Alberta's Augustana campus. But Rachel Warrack, the fifth-year starter, said the women's team wasn't looking for another assistant.
That was when Mr. Drabiuk cut to the quick: He wasn't talking about the women's team; he was asking whether Ms. Warrack was interested in being an assistant coach on the men's side.
"The look on her face," Mr. Drabiuk recalled. "You would have thought I had three heads."
As much as sports have evolved from old-school attitudes to analytic strategies, women coaching men remains a tall hurdle, one that many can't get over. To those who oppose female coaches, the arguments seldom differ: Women as coaches are either too emotional or not emotional enough. They're unproven, unsuitable and unable to command the full respect of the male athletes they're leading.
Penny Werthner, dean of the University of Calgary's faculty of kinesiology and a noted sports psychologist, said while there are professions that have worked at closing the gender gap – in law and medicine, for example – elite sports are not among that group.
"I think sport, at the pro and Olympic level, is still the last bastion of maleness," Dr. Werthner said. "This is why I would say – and I'm not over-stating it – it can be a hostile environment for women. It's why women's coaches are judged much more critically. They know they have to be twice as good [as their male counterparts]."
Clermont, a French second-division men's soccer team, recently hired Helena Costa as its coach. Right away, Ms. Costa realized she had no real authority and was only a "face" for the sake of publicity. The day after she resigned, Clermont's club president Claude Michy told the media, "She's a woman. They are capable of leading us to believe in certain things."
So can the National Football League. It drew its share of three-headed reactions earlier this week when the Arizona Cardinals announced they had signed Jen Welter as an assistant coach. Ms. Welter is one of four assistants working on an internship with Arizona's linebackers. She'll be gone come September and the start of the regular season. By then, the NFL will have used Ms. Welter's presence to help polish its sullied image as a league where players physically abuse their wives or girlfriends. Having a female coach allows the NFL to say it seeks the higher ground, just like the NBA.
Becky Hammon is a full-time assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs and its head man, Gregg Popovich. She has been working this summer as the head coach of the Spurs' prospects in the NBA's Summer League. By all accounts, Ms. Hammon has lived up to what Mr. Popovich said when he hired her a year ago, "She's not a gimmick."
As the Augustana basketball coach in Camrose, Alta., Mr. Drabiuk had followed the Hammon story and was open to adding a female assistant to his staff. What he wanted was the right person who could stand up to the scrutiny as the first female assistant coach of a men's team in the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference.
It turned out Ms. Warrack fit the bill. She had not only played for the Augustana women's team and was well known in the community; she had the personality to shut down her critics.
"I would say my basketball self and my outside self are pretty similar," said Ms. Warrack, a feisty forward in her day. "I'm outspoken. If Dave and I have differing opinions, I'm not afraid to speak what's on my mind. Everything I've done to this point has pushed me in this direction."
Ms. Warrack was the beneficiary of the Female Apprentice Coach Program, established in 2005 to help more women become head coaches. The program gives women a chance to be mentored by experienced head coaches – men or women – in a variety of sports from badminton to volleyball. Sport Canada provides funding and the applicant's school receives a $4,000 honorarium to cover costs.
The program helps female coaches get to the front door. It's kicking it in that can be problematic.
Olga Hrycak coached at Dawson College before moving to the University of Quebec at Montreal. She handled the men's basketball team, which meant she was an easy target for the non-believers.
Asked if she was taunted for being a woman in a man's domain, the now-retired Ms. Hrycak told the Montreal Gazette, "Oh yeah, especially when I used to go to the States. We would win a few games, but the coaches never shook my hand. And sure enough we'd pass by the locker room of one of the teams and [the opposing coach would be saying], 'Oh, how the hell can you lose to a [expletive] woman?' And stuff like that, excuse the expression."
Brenda Willis has spent 27 seasons coaching the men's volleyball team at Queen's University. She has been told by other women that if she really cared about female sports she would be coaching women, not men.
"I never set out to be a gender-barrier breaker," said Ms. Willis, who had some advice for the up-and-coming Ms. Warrack. "I'd say, 'Do your job. Focus on that. You should also have thick skin because people will not take you seriously all the time. You have to rise above public opinion.' … When you're coaching men as a woman, you're representing all women."
Ms. Warrack has already worked at what is called an identification camp. It's where players show what they can do to earn a spot on Augustana's training camp roster. Mr. Drabiuk watched the interaction between Ms. Warrack and the players in case things went sour.
"If any guy gave us, 'What's the chick doing here?' he was out the door," Mr. Drabiuk said. "But there wasn't anything."
This will be a busy summer for Ms. Warrack. She will attend coaching clinics and work through the National Coaching Certification Program to upgrade her status. Once training camp opens in September, she'll be running drills, breaking down videos from the practice sessions and doing whatever the head coach asks.
The one doubt he had was done away with early.
"I was thinking, 'This is a men's team with men's stuff. Are we going to have to clean up our language?'" Mr. Drabiuk said. "At our year-end awards banquet, the women's team had a video and the subject of it was Rachel's use of a specific [swear] word. … Let's just say we don't have any worries there."