The woman breaking through football’s glass ceiling

Photo: Philip Cheung

Kelcey Wright

Under a bright sun on a football field outside Toronto, a venerable and much-despised practice tradition is underway: Dozens of large young men are running wind sprints, panting and sweating as they race over and over again from sideline to sideline. But this old-school exercise has a 2015 twist: Putting them through this gut-busting routine is Alena Luciani, Canada’s only full-time female college football coach.

Luciani, a tall, toned 25-year-old sporting Lululemon gear and fresh Nike kicks, was hired as head strength and conditioning coach for the Wilfrid Laurier University Golden Hawks this year. Her new gig makes her a rarity not just in the Great White North, but in all of North America. According to a recent study of college team sports in the U.S., the percentage of women coaching male athletes is between 2 and 3.5 percent — the same it has been since Title IX opened the old boys’ club of school-sponsored athletics to women more than 40 years ago.

Her Waterloo, Ontario, university of 17,000 students is no football power, but for Luciani, coaching here is what she hopes will be just the first step toward a bigger, even unlikelier goal: tackling the same job for a professional football team. The pro league she grew up loving, Canada’s CFL, has never hired a female coach. It was only this past summer that a woman got even a taste of NFL coaching, when the Arizona Cardinals hired Jen Welter to work with their linebackers for a few weeks during training camp.

There are women breaking into men’s pro sports, but they’re still about as rare as a Chicago Cubs World Series. In recent months, female referees have joined both the NBA and NFL, and Becky Hammon and Nancy Lieberman were hired as assistant coaches by NBA teams in San Antonio and Sacramento. Those two, though, are currently the only full-time female assistants in any of the four major U.S. professional sports. Theoretically, it would be far easier for Luciani to get her MBA and lean into the growing ranks of women sports executives and agents than to move into any pro coaching job. In an August poll of 2,000 sports executives by Turnkey Sports & Entertainment, the NFL was rated least likely of the major sports leagues to hire a female head coach, while only 2 percent suggested coaching was a viable path for a woman interested in any pro sport. How can a woman who hasn’t played the sport coach players effectively?, the conventional wisdom goes.

Luciani, of course, isn’t talking about drawing up game plans, though she knows her X’s and O’s. She grew up in a football-mad family and learned the game watching her two older brothers and several other relatives play for Laurier. Instead she’s honing her craft as a physical trainer, knowing she’s got a ways to go. Thérèse Quigley, former president of Canadian Interuniversity Sport, that country’s NCAA equivalent, notes that there are already two women head coaches in Canadian men’s college sports, so she doesn’t see Luciani’s gender as preventing her from advancing. But, she adds, “I’m sure it’s not easy.”

Fortunately for Luciani, she is not in a huge hurry — yet. Just a few years past her own sports career at Laurier, where she played varsity basketball and lacrosse, she’s focused for now on the short term. That means making her players better athletes, but also building her brand. You’ll find her on seemingly every social-media platform, smiling broadly as she touts a group-training regimen she’s devised or speaking earnestly in motivational videos. On the field, her long brown hair tucked into a baseball cap, she’s just coach, dealing out demands — “Come on, guys, push!” — and congratulatory fist bumps. Her boss, Laurier head coach Michael Faulds, says she’s made a difference, while the only difference receiver Marcus Arkarakas notes about having a female coach is that he’s gotten stronger following her instruction. It may be coincidence, but the team is much improved this season too, making the playoffs and ranking in Canada’s Top 10 near season’s end.

You might think Luciani would look to pioneering women coaches like Welter and Hammon for inspiration. But it’s really her own competitive nature, fueled by cutting remarks she heard from a coach years ago — that she was “too fat and too slow” to ever amount to anything in sports — that drives her now, just as it did when she was a player. “That was a turning point,” she says. “I took it as an opportunity to prove him wrong and say, ‘Eff you!’ ”

Succeeding as an athlete among your own gender, though, is one thing. Convincing a group of alpha males that you’re credible as a coach is another. Luciani’s first attempts came at a facility near Toronto co-owned by Wes Clark, a talent evaluator for the NHL’s Maple Leafs, where she was charged with training scores of elite hockey players. Clark says he challenged her to develop the “presence” needed to get buy-in from skeptical male athletes. That required overcoming her usually nonconfrontational personality. “It’s kind of cool because I didn’t know I had that in me. … I put those coaching shoes on and it’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m the strength coach! You’re going to listen to me!’ ”

Back on the field at Laurier, it’s clear that message is getting through loud and clear. She blows her whistle, and her gasping and grunting players take off once again.

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