Thanks but no thanks
This story appears in the June 11 Women in Sports issue of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!
JODY RUNGE STANDS over the sink, scrubbing dishes. The kitchen counters are cluttered with the remnants of breakfast: a skillet, a cutting board, coffee mugs. Her guests have excused themselves from the main house, returning to their room in the cottage around back. During the meal, they'd all chatted happily and Runge bubbled with curiosity, filling any silence with questions. "Every morning it's a new story," she says, satisfied, as she loads the dishwasher.
On this rainy March morning, though, the guests didn't ask Runge about her story, what twists and turns led her to A Painted Lady Inn, this bed-and-breakfast in a charming neighborhood in northeast Portland. So they didn't know that the soft-spoken proprietor of the warm Victorian, the striking 6'3" blonde who changes their sheets and scrambles their eggs, used to be one of the top women's basketball coaches in the country. That's how Runge wants it. Maybe even how she needs it.
In each of her eight seasons at the University of Oregon, from 1993-94 to 2000-01, Runge led the Ducks to the NCAA tournament. She won two Pac-10 titles and 69 percent of her games. She also fought for equality, demanding better practice times, respect for her players and pay commensurate with that of her peers. She rocked the boat. And for her trouble, she says, the administration tipped her overboard.
Now she is a cautionary tale, putting a face on a pervasive fear in women's sports: There are no second chances for female coaches.
Runge bought the inn the same year she resigned after a tumultuous final season at Oregon. She was 38 and figured she would take a year off to let the dust settle before returning to the game. But a one-year break turned into five, and five turned into a decade. In the 11 years since she left, she has applied for more than 50 jobs. Exactly one school interviewed her in person -- a Pac-10 program that arranged a furtive meeting, seemingly loath to reveal her as a candidate.
Runge's story should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed women's college sports since the advent of Title IX. Female coaches, no matter their records, often find themselves on the outside looking in. In 1972, when Title IX was passed, women coached 90 percent of women's teams. By 1978, that number had dropped to 58.2 percent. This year, it's down to 42.9 percent, according to the most recent survey by Brooklyn College professors emerita R. Vivian Acosta and Linda Jean Carpenter.
Some blame the drop-off on a shallow pool of female candidates, who often aren't as confident as men to apply for jobs, let alone pack up and move. Money has played a role in attracting more male coaches too; within 10 years of Title IX's enactment, women's sports had erupted, claiming 16 percent of athletic budgets, up from just 2 percent.
When I walked away, I knew how hard it was for women to get another chance, but I kept thinking that I'd done so well that somebody would want me.Jody Runge, former women's baskeball coach at the University or Oregon
But there are more pernicious reasons. First is old-fashioned sexism that gives men a chance to coach women's teams but squelches any thought of hiring a woman to coach men. There is also an ingrained homophobia that quietly pressures women to hire male assistants to combat any appearance of a "gay" program. This leads to a larger pool of qualified male candidates, who then get hired as head coaches.
Another theme that came up again and again during espnW's dozens of interviews: a lack of second chances for female coaches. Male coaches often pass through a revolving door after they lose a job; think Bob Knight or Rich Rodriguez. But women fear they are much more likely to be one-and-done. "When I walked away, I knew how hard it was for women to get another chance," Runge says. "But I kept thinking that I'd done so well that somebody would want me."
The silence, not the rejection, is what's most telling, and Runge thinks she knows what it means. As a coach, she repeatedly went to the administration with equality issues -- demanding a share of the prime practice slots, 12-7 p.m., for her team and refusing to look the other way when the marketing
Runge wasn't blind to the risks she was taking. She routinely sought the advice of other female coaches. Without exception, they encouraged her to stand down. "They felt I was risking my job," Runge says. "Their comment was always, 'I don't know if I would do that.'"
Runge resigned in the spring of 2001 after the athletic director at the time, Bill Moos, told local newspapers that her players called a meeting with him to voice concerns about their coach's acerbic style. Some players say it was Moos who convened the meeting, prying for ammunition. Many of them have since written formal letters of recommendation on behalf of Runge, and the sentiment is unanimous: She deserved better. Says one former player, Shaquala Williams: "She's a strong woman who didn't take a backseat to anyone. That didn't always sit well with the male-dominated administration." (Moos, now the AD at Washington State, declined comment for this story, as did other key administrators from Runge's tenure.)
Runge left Oregon believing she had a future in the game. She didn't yet realize she'd been branded, twice over. She had not only been essentially fired, she had also developed a reputation for, as she puts it, "always wanting something." She was a walking red flag.
Now sitting in the front room of A Painted Lady Inn, Runge sips tea and raises her eyes to the ceiling. She'll soon be at yoga, wrapping herself into an impossible pose, meditating on something other than her exile from the game she loves. But right now, she's thinking about the second chance she still hopes for.
The one that likely won't come.