Broncos Athletics

Boys' Club Becoming a Woman's World

Aug. 16, 2000

By Ron Kroichick

San Francisco Chronicle

Cheryl Levick's office does not exactly inspire visions of barrier-breaking greatness. She works in the crammed corner of a trailer on Santa Clara's campus, awaiting the renovation of Leavey Event Center (formerly known as Toso Pavilion).

The scattered papers on Levick's desk convey the frenetic nature of her job as the school's new athletic director. Beside the desk rests a file containing evidence of something more -- Levick's unique status as a powerful woman in a male-dominated field.

Levick uses the file to keep letters she receives from young girls aspiring to careers in athletics, or parents of girls too young to know their aspirations. One such letter arrived recently from a father of three girls, he had clipped and saved a newspaper story about Levick.

The oldest girl read the story. The other two are too young to read, so the father read it to them, to show them they can be anything they want. This is where Levick abandons her habit of downplaying ``the gender issue.''

``Those letters make me realize it does make a difference I'm a female trying to do these things,'' she said.

Levick, who spent the past 12 years at Stanford as senior associate athletic director, is the first female athletic director in Santa Clara and West Coast Conference history. Take the wide-angle view and the picture changes only slightly: She is one of 31 female athletic directors out of 318 Division I schools.

Title IX passed in 1972, guaranteeing some semblance of equality in the athletic programs offered by American colleges and universities. Nearly three decades later, women are starting to surface as athletic-department leaders.

Barbara Hedges was the only female AD in Division I-A nine years ago when she took the job at Washington. Hedges presides over a mighty football program, no easy chore for any athletic director.

Levick, 48, need not worry about football at Santa Clara, which dropped the sport in 1993. Still, she wanders into territory not historically kind to women.

Consider this (sort of) memorable moment in Chris Dawson's career. Dawson, an associate athletic director at Cal, was the women's sports information director in 1978, when she attended the national convention for SIDs.

Several spouses were handling check-in for the convention. As Dawson approached the table, one woman -- oblivious to the possibility Dawson might be an SID -- greeted her by saying, ``And whose wife are you?''

Twenty-two years later, Dawson feels more like she belongs. She's seen progress, to a point.

``It's still a boys' club, in many ways,'' Dawson aid. ``I do think it's getting better, because there are more women than there used to be. The growth of female participants in intercollegiate sports has helped more men in administration realize the value of participating.

``That gives them a different perspective of the appropriateness of women in sports. You would hope that carries over into their view of women in athletic administration.''

Sharon Purcell, who followed Levick from Stanford to Santa Clara (where she's an assistant AD), knows all about trying to change attitudes. Purcell coordinated events and travel for the Cardinal football team for four years.

She ran into plenty of resistance. Some male colleagues in the Pac-10 called her boss, rather than her, with questions. He always sent those questions back to Purcell (then Sharon Tollner).

Or fast forward to a recent phone conversation Purcell had with someone from a school in the South. Purcell referred to Santa Clara's athletic director as ``she'' -- and heard stunned silence on the other end.

Levick tells of one male coach at Stanford who was so uncomfortable reporting to a woman, he refused to enter her office (they initially met in the hallway). The coach eventually got over it and Levick went about her job.

``It's an issue of trust and confidence, ultimately,'' she said. ``That's what coaches will look at.''

The Rev. Paul Locatelli, Santa Clara's president, looked at Levick's diverse background -- gymnastics coach, NCAA and Pac-10 official and Stanford administrator. Locatelli also acknowledged the message sent by hiring a woman with such credentials.

``It's significant for a place like Santa Clara that only began admitting women students in 1961,'' Locatelli said. ``It says the quality of women candidates has improved. And it also says Santa Clara is ready for the balance of gender that reflects our student body.''

The decision to hire Levick -- or, more accurately, the decision not to promote assistant athletic director Gerry Houlihan -- still stirred controversy at a school prone to hiring from within.

Houlihan essentially ran the department as former AD Carroll Williams moved into a part-time, fund- raising role. Locatelli and the search committee interviewed Houlihan and three other candidates, then chose to take the search into another phase.

That angered many people in the athletic department, where Houlihan was the popular choice. No one will express their dismay on the record, but the decision to bypass Houlihan led to several defections from the department (including Houlihan himself).

Levick thus walks into a potentially precarious situation. She raved about the warm welcome she's received at Santa Clara, she's also curious about the response she will get from alumni.

Locatelli, for his part, did not hesitate to stray outside the Santa Clara family.

``That's not a concern,'' he said. ``Cheryl's goals and our goals are compatible. Everyone has been positive about her, even those who had some doubts.''

Those doubters initially included Levick. As she told Locatelli up front, she's not Catholic (Santa Clara is a Jesuit school) and she's a divorced, single mom. Moreover, she worked at a football-playing school in a big conference, and she had set foot on the Santa Clara campus exactly once, for a soccer game.

That did not deter Locatelli. And it has not stopped Levick from quickly immersing herself in Santa Clara, trying to quell the skepticism about an ``outsider'' running the show.

``I don't think it will present obstacles, as long as she keeps moving the athletic department forward,'' Purcell said. ``The moment things become stagnant, there could be a problem. People might say, `Why didn't we just stay inside?' ''

Santa Clara's athletic department is much smaller than Stanford's

--17 sports and 320 athletes vs. 33 sports and 850 athletes -- and the Broncos operate without football- generated television revenue. Levick knows fund-raising sits atop her agenda.

She is candid about her goal of contending for national titles in sports beyond soccer, where the Santa Clara men's and women's teams rank in the top five. Levick pointed to the Sears Cup standings, measuring a program's broad-based success, Santa Clara finished fourth among Division I-AAA schools last year, behind Pepperdine, Boston University and Pacific.

``Hopefully, you will see dramatic growth in the size and quality of the programs over the next five years,'' Levick said. ``It will be similar to what happened at Stanford in the early '90s, with the new gender- equity plan and dramatic growth there.''

This ambition causes a mixed reaction at Santa Clara. Williams, the school's longtime basketball coach before he became AD, spoke highly of Levick, he also cautioned against unrealistic dreams.

``We have to be good at who we are,'' Williams said. ``We're a small school in the WCC, we're not in the Pac-10. We have to remember that.''

That's the balancing act Levick must pull off -- expanding the program, within reason. She knows the scrutiny she will face, as one of the few women in her position.

Levick has seen many talented women grow frustrated in athletic administration and flee to the corporate world. She had her chances, too -- Silicon Valley headhunters beckoned her the past few years -- but she could not bring herself to leave the campus environment.

``The athletic world is a challenging field for a female,'' Levick said. ``But my background is so educationally based and I'm so competitive -- to blend that with athletics is perfect for me.''