Shannon Miller worries she may never get another job in coaching, but she wants to be heard, whatever the cost.
Miller, one of the most successful coaches in women's hockey, is about to lose the job she's held for 16 seasons because the University of Minnesota Duluth says it can no longer afford her. After guiding Canada's Olympic team to a silver medal at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, UMD recruited her to start a women's hockey program. She has led the Bulldogs to five national championships and coached 26 Olympians from various countries. Her current salary, $207,000 (U.S.) this season, is the highest of any coach in NCAA Division I women's hockey.
With the university facing a $6-million budget deficit, Miller said she thought she would negotiate a new contract at a reduced salary. Instead, in December, with her team ranked sixth nationally and having won 12 of its past 13 games, the 51-year-old coach was told that she, her assistants – former Canadian Olympians Laura Schuler and Gina Kingsbury – and her part-time hockey operations director would be gone in June.
A UMD news release said the decision was "due to financial considerations," with athletic director Josh Berlo adding that his department "is not in a position to sustain the current salary levels of our women's hockey coaching staff."
"As a strong, successful woman who is also gay, I feel they had other reasons – I can't speculate on them, but I just know how I've been treated," the native of Melfort, Sask., said. "There have been a lack of resources for the program and I felt they didn't value the women. When you have a strong, winning female coach who is a good role model and known in the sport globally, you would think she would be treated with respect, but I've been totally disrespected."
Asked if she faced examples of discrimination based on her sexual orientation or gender, Miller said she has a "long list" but can't discuss it since she has enlisted two lawyers who are exploring her options for building a case against the school.
"When you make good money, some people are jealous and mean," she said. "There are some people attached to the men's hockey program – and I'm not saying the coaches – that hate me and they see it as a men versus women thing, and if the women's program is doing well it somehow hurts the men."
Miller's legal team hasn't yet determined what course to take, if any. One unrelated expert speculated that she could possibly bring a lawsuit against the university, examining UMD's finances and whether they are being equitable.
Or a Title IX complaint could be made to the Office of Civil Rights (Title IX is a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any education program or activity that receives federal funding).
"An equity case when it comes to Title IX and athletics would examine, 'Are there the same number of opportunities for both genders, and what are the experiences for both of those genders?'" said W. Scott Lewis, a partner with the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management.
"If you remove a coach with that level of success and hire a less-experienced coach, are the young women getting the same level of experience in coaching that the men are getting?"
To compare, Duluth's men's hockey coach, Scott Sandelin, who has won one national title, made $255,000 in 2013.
The University of Minnesota men's hockey coach, Don Lucia, made $320,000 in 2013, while the school's women's coach, Brad Frost, made $150,000.
Despite the distractions, Miller's team is 17-6-3 and is on a five-game winning streak.
Under Miller, the Bulldogs have qualified for the NCAA tournament 10 times, made seven Frozen Fours and six championship games – second only to the much larger University of Minnesota. However, Duluth's last championship was in 2010, their last tournament appearance in 2011. They play in the Western Collegiate Hockey League, widely considered the toughest in women's college hockey, providing the national champ every season but one since 2001.
Miller said that in a July meeting with Berlo and UMD chancellor Lendley Black, she was asked to explain the dip in success. She said it hinged on recruiting.
She was one of the first to recruit female hockey players from Europe, but competitors with bigger budgets have started doing the same.
They also offer something UMD doesn't: scholarships that allow athletes to spread their academic workload over summer or a fifth semester.
She said the meeting ended with the two sides saying they would work out a salary that would be "win-win." She was shocked to receive a termination notice at their next meeting in December instead of a proposed salary cut.
"I don't think this was a financial decision; I don't buy that reason," said long-time Canadian Olympian Caroline Ouellette, who played for Miller at UMD from 2002 to 2005 and worked as her assistant for three seasons. "Players go to UMD from all over the world because they want to play for Shannon. She's intimidating when you see her from the outside, but she's very kind, and an incredibly strong, opinionated woman who fights for equality more than anyone I know.
"Over the years, I know she's made a few enemies because she always expects more, and she fights for it. She's the best motivator I've ever been around."
Black later inferred the reason may not have been only financial. In a statement to a local TV station, Black said: "The decision to not renew Coach Miller's contract was difficult but was made thoughtfully after a full review of a number of factors … we could have communicated this in a less narrow way and more clearly explained our desire to see the program go in a new direction."
The university declined interview requests from The Globe and Mail.
Miller is the last female hockey coach in the WCHA and her case underscores the decline in numbers of female coaches. In 1974, more than 90 per cent of U.S. female college athletes were coached by women, but a Brooklyn College study found that number had fallen to 43 per cent by 2012.
A University of Massachusetts study found the percentage of female head coaches in Division 1 women's hockey has gone from 50 in 1998 to 18 in 2014.
"I was at an event recently with NCAA female coaches from all sports and parts of the U.S., and every woman knew about Shannon Miller's situation," said Marlene Bjornsrud, executive director of the Alliance of Women Coaches.
"The biggest concern is that when a woman of Shannon's stature loses her job, she rarely recycles back into the profession."
A social media campaign has formed on Miller's behalf, and an online petition. Her players have expressed their support.
She's been contacted by gay and lesbian rights groups, women's coaching organizations and lawyers offering pro bono work.
"There is no way I'm going to allow them to treat me and my assistants this way – our program and women in general," Miller said. "I couldn't live with myself if I just walked away quietly."