For all the talk about the progress that the women’s game has made over the past year, from the USWNT’s record breaking triumph in Canada to the steady and stable growth of the NWSL, this past offseason in DI women’s college soccer should serve as a reminder to the progress that still needs to be made at the top level of the collegiate game. Indeed, recent events in some of Division I’s smaller conferences have seemingly highlighted an even more dangerous regressive trend within the hierarchy of some of these programs. Specifically, the decision by Eastern Illinois and Western Illinois to forego naming a dedicated head coach for their women’s team for the 2016 season is an embarrassment to women’s college soccer and an appalling disservice to the “student-athletes” within each of these programs.
Astute observers can probably claim to have seen almost everything these past few seasons in the coaching ranks within college soccer. The distasteful practice of firing a coach silently and hiring a replacement with fanfare has become commonplace, even at programs in some more noteworthy conferences. Other vacancies have remained open for months since the end of the 2015 season, while the very bottom rungs of the ladder like the SWAC may only announce coaching changes in the weeks leading up to the season.
But few probably could have seen this coming. Even SWAC schools, who scrape by on guarantee games, reduced schedules, and penny pinching have not been so brazen as to go as far as Eastern Illinois and Western Illinois. Naturally, this likely comes as a result of not having a men’s team, but even so, nobody in Division I had crossed this rubicon for a long time. The age of the all-knowing “director of soccer”, previously just an untitled men’s coach who had taken up the women’s team as an extra boost to the bank account, had been relegated to the past as a relic of days gone by. Even considering the success of figures like former Portland great Clive Charles in such a role, most view juggling two roles as impossible in the current game, such has been the evolution of women’s college soccer over the past few decade.
The moves by Eastern Illinois and Western Illinois represent a nauseating rollback of this evolution. As perhaps a picture of how much faith EIU has in this endeavor, the top news story on the Panthers’ women’s soccer team’s home page isn’t touting the appointment of men’s head coach Kiki Lara to the quixotic position of “Director of Soccer” but of the program’s sacking of his predecessor at the head of the women’s program, Jason Cherry. This was all the way back in December. There’s been nary a peep on EIU’s official site about Lara’s new role, and his current bio on the site makes no mention of his hire in his new role.
Lara’s credentials as an overseer for any women’s program, much less one as troubled and uncompetitive as EIU’s are questionable. There’s scant mention of any experience coaching women in his official bio, with his assisting Washington State’s women in 2005 thrown in as an afterthought at the end of the page. Additionally, one has to wonder just how much attention the women will get as Lara tries to juggle this position with his role as the head coach of the men at EIU. Lara has only been in charge of the Panthers’ men’s side for one season, but the team was an absolute disaster in 2015, going 3-14-0 and finishing at #190 of 206 teams in the RPI.
Lara is not inheriting a program in good health. The Panthers have lost more than ten games in five straight seasons, finishing next to bottom in the OVC in 2014 before propping the league up in 2015. The Panthers haven’t won a major trophy since 2004’s OVC Tournament, the last of four straight conference tournament triumphs. It’s a grim reminder of how far the program’s fallen in the span of a decade. But more recent history suggests that this is not a program that needs to be treated by the EIU administration as a second-tier hobby for a men’s head coach who already has a sizable rebuilding project on his hands in territory he’s already familiar with.
Western Illinois were perhaps a little more brave with their handling of the change in management, though the listing and re-listing of the job opening at the top of their women’s soccer program over the past few months renders much of Director of Athletics Matt Tanney’s effusive self-congratulations over the hire as little more than disingenuous doublespeak. Still, the new “director of soccer” for the Leathernecks, Dr. Eric Johnson, is hardly a neophyte at the game, having won regularly at the Summit League level with his men’s sides. Johnson also has coached women before, but that being at DIII Loras College, decades earlier.
As competitive as WIU has been on the men’s side recently, the Leathernecks are, again, a program in need of true stewardship on the women’s side. They haven’t made the postseason since 2012 and went 1-7-0 in league play in 2015, perhaps explaining the change at the top. But as stated above with Eastern Illinois, the notion that there’s going to be a grand turnaround when the women’s program is all but assured of second-class status behind the men in Macomb is dubious at best. The voices at the top will argue that the women will get the same attention as the men for both of these sides, but common sense and the cynicism burned into observers from viewing these types of things over the long run says otherwise.
There have been multiple theories as to the reason behind these moves, none of them remotely palatable from a sense of a supporter of women’s athletics. The purely cynical reasoning of the administrations of neither of these schools caring one whit about women’s sport certainly may be true in some degree. As an educator on the campus of a school with horrendously poor men’s teams in major sports that still suck up the oxygen in the room in terms of coverage, while competitive (and occasionally conference championship winning) women’s teams are largely ignored, I can testify to the pigheadedness of backwards thinking officials, even in 2016.
The financial explanation is no less grim and potentially more distressing in the long run. The gaps between the haves and have nots in Division I is not shrinking, it’s exploding, with television money supercharging programs from the biggest conferences while the lower level teams are left to wither on the vine. Objectively, DI is probably well past its carrying capacity at 351 teams that play men’s basketball. In all likelihood, there will be 334 programs playing women’s college soccer in 2016, with the addition of Kansas State to the ranks. The top of the ladder is just getting by. The bottom of the ladder is hemorrhaging money to the point that cuts are inevitable, be they to personnel or to sports themselves. The former looks to be in full effect at the two aforementioned schools. One wonders if the latter might be over the horizon.
All of which leads me back to my main hot take on the situation. There is no god given right to compete as a Division I athletic program. Numerous programs have brought the game into disrepute over the past season, with antics that harken back to the barnstorming days of the initial decade of the establishment of women’s soccer as a varsity sport in the NCAA. There is no reason why Alcorn State should be fielding less than a full team for competitive matches in 2015. And there is no reason why Eastern Illinois and Western Illinois should be allowed to artfully dodge their responsibility as a top flight collegiate program to provide dedicated head coaches for their women’s soccer programs. The steps taken toward the contrary this offseason are a disrespectful, regressive course of action whose consequences could add up to much more than a potential Title IX violation. It’s time for the NCAA to wield some of its collective might towards a nobler cause and nip this in the bud before other programs take the same ill-advised steps backward. The message should be clear to EIU, WIU, and anyone else looking down this path: Get a full-time head coach, or get out of Division I.