A significant moment in college sports history will unfold on Friday when two men’s soccer teams meet at little Gaelic Park in the Bronx — not because of the teams involved, but because of who is coaching them.
Kim Wyant is the head coach of New York University, which will host powerhouse University of Chicago, coached by Julianne Sitch. It is believed to be the first N.C.A.A. men’s soccer game in which both coaches are women.
“This is definitely historic,” said Nicole LaVoi, a senior lecturer at the University of Minnesota, who compiles annual data on the number of women coaching in college sports. “It’s a landmark occurrence.”
A small number of women are coaching men in various roles at both the professional and college levels. Becky Hammon, now a head coach in the W.N.B.A., was hired as a full-time assistant for the N.B.A.’s San Antonio Spurs in 2014 and that league has had several women hired in assistant roles in the years since. A handful of women are coaches in the N.F.L. and in Major League Baseball. Rachel Balkovec just finished her first season as the manager for the Yankees’ Class A affiliate in Tampa, Fla.
But the instances remain rare, particularly in college sports, where male coaches far outnumber women, even in women’s sports. Data published by the U.S. Department of Education shows that only about 5 percent of all men’s college teams are coached by women, and the majority of those are in low-revenue, combined-gender sports like skiing, swimming and track and field.
The data also showed there are no women in head coaching positions in Division I football, baseball, men’s basketball and men’s soccer, and only about 26 percent of Division I women’s soccer coaches are women.
Wyant began coaching men at the college level in 2015, when she was hired by N.Y.U., a Division III school. The first goalie to play an international game for the United States women’s national team, she has led the Violets to five postseason appearances and has become the standard-bearer for women coaching a men’s team in a college team sport.
She has also been a role model for many aspiring players and coaches, including Sitch, who until April was an assistant coach for the Chicago women’s team — just as Wyant had been an assistant for the N.Y.U. women’s team. When the Chicago men’s job opened up last winter, Sitch called Wyant and they spoke for about a half-hour. Sitch hung up inspired, feeling there was no reason she could not follow Wyant’s lead.
“Prior to her, there wasn’t any other women coaching and leading men’s teams,” Sitch said. “She was obviously a positive influence and role model.”
Now, they are facing one another in a highly anticipated game that holds important social meaning, but also significance within the University Athletic Association, the teams’ conference. Sitch took over a team that went 16-6-1 last year, and this year the Maroons are 14-0 and ranked No. 1 in a Division III coaches’ poll.
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“It’s a really solid group of young men,” Sitch said. “It’s a tribute to the alums and former staff and the legacy that has been built here. It has been very positive and very inviting, across the board.”
In the few months she has been recruiting high school athletes as a head coach, Sitch said she never sensed the slightest resistance from players and families about her gender. Wyant had told her on the phone that she had the same experience.
“Players just want to know, ‘Can I get better?’” Wyant said at a recent N.Y.U. practice at Pier 40 in Manhattan. “They are looking for a leader who is invested in the team. Do we feel respected? Whether male or female, if you can deliver all of those things, you can succeed.”
Five years ago, Wyant was on a recruiting trip in San Diego, visiting with the family of a player named Jet Trask. Also at the table that day was Trask’s younger brother, Ben, then a high school freshman. Jet Trask opted for Sacramento State, a Division I program, but Wyant made such an impression on young Ben that four years later he wanted to play for her.
“Her experience and credentials were never in doubt,” Ben Trask, a sophomore midfielder, said. “I knew if I came here, I would be playing for a great coach. If I had it to do again, I would come here again.”
Ben Trask, and Nicholas Suter, a senior co-captain, both said that most of their friends and high school teammates ask them what it is like to play for a woman coach, and both said they tell them there is no difference from playing for a man.
“It’s amazing to play for her,” said Suter, who is from Long Island. “It was one of the perks of coming here.”
Suter said Wyant has a unique ability to communicate with the players and get the most out of them. He recalled a dramatic first-round game in last year’s N.C.A.A. tournament, against St. Joseph’s College of Maine in New London, Conn. With N.Y.U. trailing, 2-1, and only 15 minutes remaining, the game was suspended because of lightning. The Violets trudged back to their hotel while organizers looked for a new field with lights.
Over a team dinner, while they waited three hours for a new field with a different playing surface, Wyant told the players that they were prepared for the situation. As a team in an urban setting, N.Y.U. often shuttles between various sites around New York for practices and games, and Wyant stressed that they were better suited to adapt to the uncertainties of the moment. Inspired, they went to the new field, where Suter scored the equalizer and N.Y.U. won, 3-2, in extra time.
They may need similar magic to handle Chicago, which has rolled through its schedule under Sitch and produced a record that helps validate the decision to hire her.
“We had the student-athletes be a part of the search and it was really important to see how they would react,” said Angie Torain, the Chicago athletic director. “They were just so positive, it was ridiculous. It’s because of her soccer knowledge and what she brings for them.”
But according to Teresa Gould, the deputy commissioner of the Pac-12 Conference, one of the Power 5 leagues in Division I, far too few university administrators are making similar decisions. Gould is also the president of the board of WeCOACH, an organization dedicated to the development, support and retention of women in coaching at all levels. She says the numbers are troubling, especially 50 years after Title IX was adopted to promote equal participation and access to sports.
But Title IX does not govern coaching hires. Gould points to LaVoi’s yearly data, compiled at the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport, which reveals that only 42.7 percent of the coaches of women’s collegiate teams are women. In 1971, about 90 percent of coaches of women’s college teams were women.
Gould said there has been a general exodus away from coaching as the pressures and demands of the jobs multiply under the weight of win-now approaches, financial imperatives and the exhausting influence of social media. She says coaching is a lifestyle commitment more than just a career, and it often hampers women more than men because of things like child care and travel.
“It has become harder for women, who may still be the primary general managers of their households, to do both,” Gould said.
That is why she is so excited about Friday’s game, hoping it will raise awareness and provide proof to girls, young women and especially college administrators, that coaching is a viable career path for women, regardless of the players’ gender.
But the game, and the examples set by Wyant and Sitch, also provide strong female role models for boys and men, too.
“It’s immensely important,” LaVoi said, “because we know from the data that when young men are exposed to female leaders in a context they care about, like sports, they have more egalitarian perceptions and beliefs about gender and leadership. Then they are more likely, as they graduate from college, to treat women as equals in the workplace and perhaps in their personal relationships.”
For the N.Y.U. players, going through their paces at Pier 40 under Wyant’s watchful eye, their immediate concern is beating Chicago, a talented team that has only improved under Sitch’s leadership.
“It will be historic, it will be special,” Wyant said. “I think it’s so appropriate that N.Y.U. is hosting it, because N.Y.U. is a major reason this is happening. They put me in this role and had the courage to make this decision. But our main focus right here is on trying to beat a really good team on Friday.”