For now, football is still a field of “firsts” for women.
First female coach in the NFL. In Division I. In the Super Bowl.
“There’s a lot of responsibility in this first generation,” Heather Marini, the first (and only) female position coach in Division I college football history told Yahoo Sports.
Marini, who got promoted in March from offensive quality control coach to quarterbacks coach at Brown University, knows the underrepresentation of women on the sidelines won’t vanish overnight. But she and several other prominent women are finally getting opportunities.
Since 2017, at least 13 women have coached in the NFL and several more in college, according to data provided by the league. Soon, Marini said, the “firsts” will be gone, and so will the gendered labels.
"It's like any profession,” Marini said. “[A] hundred years ago having a female doctor would be rare and unusual. You'd say, 'Hey, I'm going to my doctor. Oh my god, she's a woman.' It would be outrageous. ... But now we understand, you don't say 'I'm going to my female doctor today.' Just like female coaches, as we get more and more involved with games, it will be the same.”
This summer, in her new position, Marini is going through game scripts and breaking down film with Brown’s quarterbacks over Zoom. Last year, she mostly worked behind the scenes, crunching numbers and suggesting strategy changes in coaches’ meetings. On Wednesday, the Ivy League canceled fall sports, and hasn't determined whether football will return in the spring. But whenever Brown's next season is, Marini's responsibilities will include signaling, recruiting, teaching the younger QBs the offense and likely working with first-team all-conference playmaker EJ Perry.
Her resume to become a head coach one day is only growing.
“Coaches understand that having a table of people that look like them, act like them, is not the best way to cultivate great ideas and creativity and support players in the best way. And so, including women in that discussion, and people of color, all of those things is what's going to make football into the future a success,” Marini said.
Marini will be at the head of the table while also being the only woman in rooms full of over a hundred people at times. Every Thursday, she’ll conduct the team’s “self-scouting” meeting in which Brown’s coaches evaluate the team’s performance and practice habits and how to apply that going forward.
Marini said Perry, who set the single-season Ivy League record in 2019 with 3,678 total yards, will break even more milestones this year. She plans to make Bears head coach James Perry’s fast-paced offense speed up even more.
Perry, EJ’s uncle, said had there been in-person spring practices, EJ would’ve taken another leap with Marini’s guidance. Marini’s coaching style comes from her upbringing in Australia, where she played several sports, eventually discovering football as a teenager. At a local club, she began as an assistant youth coach before becoming a head coach. She also played quarterback and coached simultaneously at one point, an experience that helps her relate to Brown’s QBs.
Although she doesn’t have much prior background in recruiting, Marini has impressed the Bears head coach in that aspect so far, he said. Perry said recruits and their parents resonate with her, even as everything’s being conducted over Zoom. That’s something Perry didn’t see three, five, and certainly not 10 years ago, and it’s something Brown, which finished in last place with a 2-8 record last year, needs.
“They're excited their son is being recruited by a woman,” Perry said. “When they see Heather's passion, they're even more excited.”
Still, pressure remains for Marini and others to prove, in a historically conservative, masculine sport, that women belong.
“Being the first in Division I means that there will be a next,” Marini said. I think coaches in general are starting to understand that if you exclude 50% of the population, you're not going to necessarily get the best people for your staff, which means that you're not getting the best people for your team.”
Scratching the surface
The origins of female coaching stretch further back than most realize, sport management professor Dr. Ellen Staurowsky said, all the way back to the late 1800s and Walter Camp.
Camp, known as the father of American football, won three national championships as the head coach of Yale. At the same time, Camp also ran at his family’s clock company to help supplant his coach’s salary. When he couldn’t make it to practice, his wife Alice ran practice for him.
“I think we sort of have this hidden history of women who have been helpmates in terms of the game for a very very long time,” said Staurowsky, an expert of gender of sport who teaches at Drexel University.
Yet women didn’t coach at all at the NFL or college level for most of the 20th century. Through the years, stereotypes of women who didn’t understand basic football terms — not unlike other sports — persisted even as women gained interest in the sport, Staurowsky said. In 2017, roughly half of the NFL’s fan base was female.
It took until 2015 for Jennifer Welter to break the gender barrier in the NFL. Since then, Scott Pioli started a grant program to help create more pathways for women, Kathryn Smith became the first full-time female NFL coach, and Katie Sowers became a household name.
The NFL also created the annual Women’s Careers in Football Forum to serve as a networking opportunity for women who don’t have the same natural pipeline as men. Similar to programs that address a lack of racial diversity in football, the forum’s goal is to create a network so strong that the event’s not necessary anymore.
At the inaugural forum in 2017, Marini met Lori Locust (now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers), Jennifer King (Washington Redskins) and Callie Brownson (Cleveland Browns) as well as several collegiate and professional coaches and executives.
The forum — as well as several other camps and organizations — has created dozens of opportunities for women, but progress can be glacial. There’s no Rooney Rule for women.
In 2019, the NFL earned a C+ in gender hiring practices in the annual Racial and Gender Report Card released by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports. The score is slightly better than MLB but well below the NBA and MLS (the study doesn’t include the NHL).
“We're just starting to scratch the surface of how many women are going to get into coaching,” Perry said.
After the 2017 event, Marini embarked on what she calls her “DIY internship” in which she shadowed any practice, went to any clinic and talked to any coach she could.
Stanford. Cal. Towson for a job interview.
Eventually, Marini landed a scouting specialist job in 2018 with the New York Jets.
“She knows any opportunity will make her more well-rounded, make her better and see things differently when she's on the coaching side of things,” Venessa Hutchinson, who helps run the forum, said. “So really just that versatility, willingness to work, willingness to whatever department it is, work. If I had to pick a word to describe her, she's flexible.”
Down Under center
Long before the Women’s Careers in Football Forum began, before Marini even watched a football game, she grew up playing basically every sport under the Australian sun. Soccer, netball, badminton, track, swim. It wasn’t until she was about 18, when her now-husband introduced her to football, that she fell in love with it.
Marini earned a bachelor’s degree in exercise and sport science at Deakin University in her hometown of Victoria, and in 2008 began coaching men at the Monash Warriors Gridiron Club. As an assistant, then the U-19 team’s head coach, she ran an up-tempo offense similar to Brown’s.
Marini describes her coaching philosophy as centered around “developing thinking athletes” who can reach their potential physically. Perry called her the “type of person that attacks whatever task given.”
Players and coaches, both then and now, have almost always been welcoming to Marini, she said. However, she once heard a rumor that one of her Monash Warriors’ parents wasn’t sure about a woman coaching his son. It didn’t bother her because she knew how her team truly felt.
“Players figure you out pretty quickly,” Marini said. “They want you to be there to help them and help them win and help them be the best they can be. And if you're there to do that, they're going to accept you and want you to be there."
Perry said the “little known secret” about football is that coaches who have never played at the highest level get hired all the time. High-profile current coaches like Hugh Freeze (Liberty) and Mike Leach (Mississippi State) didn’t play past high school.
Yet Marini checks that box off, too.
Monash eventually started a women’s team, so almost 10 years after she began coaching, Marini was running her own no-huddle offense as its quarterback.
But Marini preferred the sidelines to the shotgun. Then came a move to the states with her husband, her D.I.Y. internship, the Jets, self-scouting Thursdays at Brown and the Women’s Careers in Football Forum year after year.
At the 2020 forum, before asking new Redskins head coach Ron Rivera a detailed question about pressuring the quarterback without blitzing, Marini took the microphone and introduced herself by confidently saying she’s going to be an NFL coach one day.
She hopes at that point, whenever it may be, she’s not the first.
“She's going to be a coordinator. She's going to be a head coach,” Perry said.
“I have no doubt about that.”
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