The University of Minnesota-Duluth athletics department announced on Monday evening that it was not renewing a contract with head coach Shannon Miller and was letting go two assistant coaches and a part-time director of operations.

Miller has been a leader in women’s hockey both in the United States and Canada founding and serving at organizations that have advanced the sport for women. Miller had an impressive record as coach of women’s hockey in Canada, leading the 1998 team to a silver medal. In her tenure at the hockey program at UMD, she’s coached five NCAA wins, and 11 Frozen Four wins. In 2013, the UMD Bulldogs noted that, “No head coach in NCAA Division I history has been more successful than University of Minnesota Duluth women’s hockey head coach Shannon Miller, and now only two have compiled more wins.”

In 2010, Duluth Mayor Don Ness declared Mar. 26 “Shannon Miller Day” in Duluth.

Miller is one of the most successful openly LGBT college athletics coaches in the country. She was also heavily involved in working to defeat an anti-gay marriage amendment in 2012, making appearances around the Duluth area. She was a finalist in 2008 for OutSports’ LGBT Coach of the Year.

With so many accomplishments, why is the University of Minnesota-Duluth cutting Miller and her staff loose?

UMD officials said on Tuesday that the decision was purely financial.

“Today’s decision about Shannon’s contract was an immensely difficult and financially driven decision. Unfortunately, UMD Athletics is not in a position to sustain the current salary levels of our women’s hockey coaching staff. However, we remain committed to supporting the Bulldog women’s hockey program,” said Athletic Director Josh Berlo in statement. Berlo said the university would be rehiring those positions at lower salaries.

But, Miller says she would have taken a pay cut if offered one and that the university did not consider making any cuts to the men’s hockey program. In an interview with Duluth News Tribune college hockey writer Matt Wellens, Miller said:

“Well obviously I would have taken a pay cut if they would have talked to me about it. We’re coming out of a recession. They are making cuts at the university. Of course I would have taken a pay cut. Possibly my staff would have taken one. I think there should have been conversations about pay cut for staff. I think there should have been conversations about budgets being cut. But let me be very clear Matt, those conversations should be held with the women’s Division I hockey team and the men’s Division I hockey team. I will not shy away from that. That is a plain and simple fact.”

Miller added that she tried to open negotiations on a reduced salary:

“The person who put that on the table was me last summer saying, ‘I’m sure if we sit down and talk, I’m sure we can come up with a win-win as reasonable adults.’ I don’t think that’s a difficult conversation to have and I proposed that. I was under the impression that was likely going to happen at some point and it never did. Clearly I’m not in the driver’s seat and I’m losing my entire staff and telling us in the middle of our season. When people tell the story, the media, I hope they tell the story that we’re ranked sixth in the country, third in the WCHA and we’ve won 12 out of our last 13 games. I can tell you just like the press release says, I am shocked and saddened.”

Miller’s salary, which UMD says is at the heart of the decision to let her go, is minimal compared to the other coaches in the University of Minnesota system. She told the Tribune:

“I’m grossly underpaid if you compare me to the men’s coaches in Division I hockey,” Miller said. “The men and women should be compared equally because I believe in equality and I have no problem saying that. My salary compared to the salary of the coaches at the University of Minnesota, all the Division I programs, is absolutely minimal.”

UMD Athletics Director Josh Berlo was questioned by Wellens about contract negotiations:

Wellens: Josh, why did it never get to the point of at least you guys trying to extend an offer to her of whatever it is you can afford? If she turns you down, she turns you down. Why not at least try and throw an offer out there?
Berlo: “We had initial discussions with coach Miller over the course of time, but as soon as we realized we weren’t going to be able to sustain it, we informed her that we weren’t going to be able to extend her contract. I don’t have a better answer for you, Matt. We weren’t able to keep doing what we were doing and didn’t feel it appropriate to ask her to take a significant pay cut.”

Other coaching staff that will be let go at the end of the season have impressive resumes as well, Yahoo Sports Canada notes:

Gina Kingsbury, an Olympian at the 2006 Winter Games in Torino and, like Miller, a native of Saskatchewan (Miller has been a dual U.S.-Canadian citizen since 2012), was just hired last July. Laura Schuler, 44, was an original member when the Canadian national women’s squad was formed in 1990, and played on Miller’s silver-medal winning squad at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano. She has been with the program since the 2008-09 season.

The reaction in Duluth and the hockey world have been on of shock and suspicion:

Zach Schneider, Sports Director at Duluth’s NBC/CBS affiliate, tweeted:

Other hockey fans have shared that sentiment:

Nicole M. LaVoi, Ph.D., and Associate Director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota noted:

It is well documented in my own research, and of my colleagues, that women coaches face a number of barriers and double standards that preclude women from entering the coaching profession, impede career advancement, and lead to women burning out and quitting the profession. The firing of Miller and the reasons given are a game changer and new “barrier” for women coaches.
It communicates to women that even if you do your job well, win, coach with integrity, are beloved by your players, well respected by your peers, turn out Champions and Olympians, are paid well for your expertise, make a long term commitment to the community, institution, and program, that you can be fired under the guise of “financial reasons” while your male colleague with less success and a greater salary, remains.

The money argument didn’t pass muster for Mike McFeely of AM 790 KFGO either:

The other odd thing about the money argument is that in the University of Minnesota system — unbelievably — $215,000 is not that big of a salary. Don’t mistake: It is high for a women’s hockey coach, it is high for any coach at UMD (men’s hockey coach Scott Sandelin makes upward of $250,000 per year base salary), and it is high for Minnesota residents in general.
But a quick check of the Minnesota state employee database revealed the University of Minnesota system (Twin Cities campus, Duluth campus, Crookston campus) had 295 employees making more than $200,000 in 2013. That included 60 making more than $300,000, 14 making more than $400,000, five making more than $500,000 and two (U of M president Eric Kaler and Gophers football coach Jerry Kill) making more than $600,000.
The Twin Cities campus alone had 284 employees making more than $200,000 per year.
So while $215,000 is a lot of money to most of us, it is just another nice salary in the University of Minnesota system.

Angie Nichols, Director of GLBT Services at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, told The Column that Miller’s departure will mean the loss of an LGBT community leader:

“Shannon Miller’s loss from campus will be detrimental in so many ways; she’s a local celebrity obviously, but she also represents the shattering of a glass ceiling that an outed lesbian woman could do only with her enormously world-class coaching reputation and style,” Nichols said via instant message. “She’s a living legacy an [Athletic Director] Berlo knows it. To be so closed minded to negotiation speaks to a potentially larger issue of his own discomfort with her success in particular. What’s interesting to me is that he could have fired Shannon Miller alone, her other coaching staff would have followed. Instead, he dropped all of them, which to me signifies ‘overkill’ usually associated with hateful acts of violence. He also reduced the salary of the softball coach who also works off-ice ops for women’s hockey. Her path out of here was made very clear.”

In an interview with Northland News Center on Tuesday evening, Miller said,
“I am heartbroken and I am so disappointed that they would show me so much disrespect and show my staff so much disrespect, and my players most importantly so much disrespect. I am embarrassed for UMD.”

When asked whether the decision not to renew her contract was about more than money, Miller said:
“This is about equity and about blatant discrimination, and that’s all I’ll say.”

The community is rallying around Miller. A Facebook group sprouted up overnight where fans and community members are organizing a campaign to have Miller reinstated. A rally is also planned on Thursday at 10am at the UMD Bus Hub urging the university to reinstate Miller and her staff.

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Andy Birkey
Andy Birkey has written for a number of Minnesota and national publications. He founded Eleventh Avenue South which ran from 2002-2011, wrote for the Minnesota Independent from 2006-2011, the American Independent from 2010-2013. His writing has appeared in The Advocate, The Star Tribune, The Huffington Post, Salon, Cagle News Service, Twin Cities Daily Planet, TheUptake, and much more. His writing on LGBT issues, the religious right and social justice has won awards including Best Beat Reporting by the Online News Association, Best Series by the Minnesota chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and an honorable mention by the Sex-Positive Journalism awards.


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