Jory Collins was announced as the new head coach of the North Dakota State women's basketball program last week. Thus ended an era in Bison history. Whether that's good or bad, for some, rests solely on whether Collins wins games at an acceptable clip. But the closing of this chapter is worth noting.
Collins is a man. He is the first male to coach NDSU women's basketball since Paul McKinnon had the job for two seasons ending in 1979, when women's athletic director Lynn Dorn replaced him with Amy Ruley.
That makes it the end of 40 years of women -- Ruley, Carolyn DeHoff and Maren Walseth -- coaching women's basketball players at NDSU. In the 53 years NDSU has fielded a women's basketball team, a female has been coach for 51 of them. McKinnon is the only other male to coach Bison women's basketball.
This is significant because women have been losing ground in coaching in the Title IX era. In 1972, when the landmark federal gender-equity legislation passed, women were head coaches of more than 90 percent of women’s college teams across two dozen sports. Now that number has decreased to about 40 percent, according to a New York Times report in 2017.
NDSU was a holdout as those numbers flipped, at least in women's basketball. That was wholly because of Lynn Dorn, the women's athletic director at NDSU for 37 years who retired in 2015. Dorn, a veteran of the early days of women fighting for scraps in college athletic departments, admits she leaned toward hiring women to coach the Bison women's basketball team.
"I'll tell you that right out. I was very committed to hiring a woman," Dorn said. "I think it was an important part of my job. I wanted to continue to foster the growth of women in sports. I saw that as one of my important roles."
Dorn's comments could be viewed as a mini-version of the impassioned comments given recently by Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw. At the women's Final Four in March, McGraw was asked how important she takes her role as an advocate for female coaches in a profession that's increasingly populated by men.
McGraw's answer was epic, although not universally popular. She said, among other things in a two-minute monologue, that she'd no longer hire men as assistant coaches.
"When you look at men's basketball and 99 percent of the jobs go to men, why shouldn't 99 or 100 percent of the jobs in women's basketball go to women?" McGraw asked.
"Girls are socialized to know when they come out, gender roles are already set," McGraw said. "Men run the world. Men have the power. Men make the decisions. It's always the men that is the stronger one. And when these women are coming out, who are they looking up to to tell them that's not the way it has to be? And where better to do that than in sports?"
Ruley was one of Dorn's first hires and it worked out OK, given the 671 games and five NCAA Division II national championships won by the Bison under Ruley. Dorn's subsequent hires of DeHoff and Walseth were not successful as the NDSU women's program descended into near-irrelevancy in the decade-plus since Ruley retired.
Dorn has taken some criticism for the DeHoff and Walseth hirings. Carolyn and Maren were clearly not cut out to lead programs and recruit to the necessary level.
Then again, could any coach following Ruley live up to her standard? And it always felt like DeHoff's and Walseth's teams were being held to the glory days of the 1990s, even as the Bison so far from that mark that the comparison was foolhardy.
Neither DeHoff nor Walseth could get the Bison past the "remember when" stage.
The hiring of Collins seems like a clean break from the past and maybe that's what the women's program needs. But nobody should forget totally that Dorn, Ruley and NDSU women's basketball were for decades seen as groundbreaking in terms of success, attention and adulation. They were, in many ways, ahead of the curve when it came to the progress of women's sports.
When Dorn hired Ruley, the move was noted in a five-paragraph story on the third sports page of the July 12, 1979 edition of The Forum. The tiny headline read, "Two Bison coaches named." Ruley's hiring shared space with the hiring of a women's tennis coach.
When Collins was hired, it was at the top of the Forum's sports page and the news led the local TV sports casts. The reason for that attention was not Collins nor athletic director Matt Larsen nor anybody else currently at NDSU. It was because of the foundation built by Dorn, Ruley and others.
In the 40 years in between the hiring of Ruley and Collins, the Bison women's basketball team was regularly the biggest and most interesting story in North Dakota. That road was paved by the women who came before. That should not be forgotten, even as Bison fans look forward to a new era in women's basketball.