Shannon Miller’s had a pretty good run at the University of Minnesota Duluth. She started the women's hockey program from scratch and won five national championships in 15 years. But in early December, Miller was told she was being let go at the end of the season. That decision has sparked a national debate over gender equity in college sports.
Miller was lured to Duluth after winning a silver medal coaching Canada's Olympic team in 1998. And she hasn't stopped winning since. Her five national championships are the most of any Div. I women's hockey coach. So are her 15 NCAA tournament wins.
When Miller was called to a meeting in December to discuss her next contract, she was expecting an extension. Instead, she was given a letter of termination for June.
"They just stared at me, and I said, 'Well why?'" Miller recalled. "And they said 'Financial. We’ve been telling you, the university is having budget difficulties. It’s strictly financial.'"
Miller says her second question was, "Why now?" — in the middle of the season, after her team had just reeled off 12 wins in 13 games and was ranked No. 7 in the country.
"I think when someone comes in and builds a program and makes it an international powerhouse and the program wins the university five national championships, you would expect to be treated with some level of respect in your athletic department,” Miller said.
[sidebar title="For Women's Hockey, Progress With Room To Grow" width="630" align="right"]Bill Littlefield led a discussion with two prominent women in the hockey world.[/sidebar]University of Minnesota Duluth officials declined interview requests for this story. But in an interview with a Duluth TV station after the announcement, athletic director Josh Berlo repeatedly called Miller's dismissal a tough business decision.
"We’re at a point where we’re not able to sustain the highest paid coach in Div. I women's hockey's salary," Berlo said. "Our institution is working through some significant annual shortfalls. Athletics has been challenged to balance its budget."
Miller's base salary is $207,000. By comparison, UMD's men's hockey coach Scott Sandelin, who has only one title to his credit, makes $235,000.
The university is facing a severe budget crunch. Administrators are working to cut a $6 million recurring deficit. Still, outside experts found the university's rationale for Miller's dismissal difficult to understand.
"To me this really is a game-changer for women in the coaching profession," said Nicole LaVoi, associate director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota. "From all the research that I’ve read and conducted myself, I have never in the history of women in coaching heard of any coach being fired because she was paid too much. I also have not heard this for any male coach. I have not heard it for any coach, period."
We've got three women -- all-female coaching staff -- doing fantastic. All of us former Olympians. Why wouldn’t you embrace that?Shannon Miller, UMD's women's hockey coach
Since the news broke that Miller won't be brought back, experts across the country who study women in sports have speculated that her firing is as much about her gender and the fact that she's gay as it is her salary.
Since the landmark Title IX law was passed in 1972, the number of female athletes has increased nearly six-fold. But the number of female coaches has plummeted. Forty years ago, about 90 percent of all college women's sports teams were coached by women. Today, that's dropped to 40 percent and only about 12 percent in college hockey. Miller notes she's the only female coach in her eight-team division.
"It’s really sad. It’s wrong," Miller said. "These young women need a female role model to aspire to be. And here we are. We've got three women — all-female coaching staff — doing fantastic. All of us former Olympians. Why wouldn’t you embrace that? Why wouldn’t you hold us up and celebrate our success?"
Miller said she's going to fight the university's decision. She's retained an attorney who specializes in Title IX lawsuits.
"I couldn’t live with myself and walk away being treated like this — me personally, my staff, this program," Miller said. "This program deserves to be treated so much better and so do I."
But for now she's focusing on her players as they try to qualify for the program's 11th NCAA tournament in 16 years.
This segment aired on February 21, 2015.