Former women’s director battled stigma, inequality

Chris Voelz received an award for her ‘life work’ in athletics.
October 11, 2011

Reading the name “Chris Voelz” under a list of athletic administrators didn’t shock anyone in the 1980s. The surprise came when a woman showed up.

“I got through the door because my name was Chris,” Voelz said.

Years before Voelz became the longest-tenured women’s athletic director at the University of Minnesota, she battled the stigma that women did not belong in athletics, let alone athletic administration.

“There were many times I’d call to meet with fellow administrators,” Voelz said, “and they thought the secretary was calling.”

The staunch Title IX supporter and leader in women’s athletics received a lifetime achievement award from the National Association of Collegiate Women Athletics Administrators Monday in Pittsburgh.

Prior to taking a job with Minnesota, she served as senior associate athletic director at the University of Oregon, where she often had to remind people who she was.

 “They would see me when the meeting was scheduled and ask, ‘Well is Chris going to be here?’” she said. “And I’d have to tell them, ‘Well actually I’m Chris Voelz.’”

Her “life work,” as she calls it — she insists it was never a job — has included not only being the women’s athletic director at the University of Minnesota from 1988 to 2002, but co-authoring the definition of gender equity that the NCAA has used for almost 20 years to date.

A clean slate

Her humble beginnings as a volleyball coach for the University of Oregon quickly brought her to the peak of the sport, as she eventually became the president of the American Volleyball Coaches Association.

“At that time, I thought I should be serving more than 13 or 14 women,” Voelz said. “I really had this bigger drive for social justice.”

She then moved up from coach and president and became the senior associate athletic director at Oregon. After Voelz left, she received two job offers in one week.

She had the choice between becoming the women’s athletic director at the University and becoming the overall athletic director at the University of Rhode Island.

She chose the Twin Cities.

 “I remember the president at Minnesota telling me, ‘We are investing in women and we really want somebody to take us to the next level,’” Voelz said. “I wanted that responsibility. As soon as you took the job at Minnesota, you automatically became a spokesperson for women.”

Before she signed the contract, Voelz demanded that the hundreds of thousands of dollars the women’s athletic department had in debt be eliminated. The administration told her they would give the bill to the men’s department, she said.

Voelz told them no.

“I am not starting my career here with the men having to pay the women’s bills. I know you have discretionary dollars that could easily make this debt disappear.”

The University wiped the debt and hired her in 1988.

Voelz turned that clean slate into a whole new infrastructure for women’s athletics. She was vital in building the University Aquatic Center in 1990, as well as the Sports Pavilion in 1993.

The Aquatic Center is home to the men’s and women’s diving teams; and the Sports Pavilion houses the women’s basketball, gymnastics and volleyball teams, and the men’s wrestling and gymnastics teams.

“Chris was a whirlwind when she came to the U,” long-time friend and advisory council member Peggy Lucas said. “Women’s sports were under the radar and she single-handedly changed that.”

Voelz solicited some of the largest donations in school history for Ridder Arena in 2002 — the first of its kind built exclusively for collegiate women’s hockey — which also includes the Baseline Tennis Center for the men’s and women’s tennis teams.

Aside from those landmark facilities, Voelz led the effort to build Elizabeth Lyle Robbie Stadium for soccer and Jane Sage Cowles Stadium for softball in 2000.

 

Voelz faced with adversity, too

Within her time at the University, Voelz encountered many opponents to Title IX, including wrestling coach J Robinson who opposed extra funding and the expansion of women’s athletics.

Title IX of the Education Amendments — commonly referred to as “title nine” — of 1972 protects people from sex-based discrimination in education programs and demands equal opportunity in athletics.

When the departments merged in 2002, President Mark G. Yudof announced he would cut three sports — men’s gymnastics and men’s and women’s golf — to coincide with the athletic department merger.

Those sports were reinstated quickly and many question the validity in Yudof’s announcement.

“It was a distracter,” Voelz said. “People rallied to save the sports and quickly forgot about the merger.”

When the departments merged, Voelz went to Yudof and told him it was not the right time.

“The women have a great following and that passion for women’s sports will never be the same if this merger goes through,” Voelz said. “He told me ‘Well if you can’t get along, we have to merge you.’”

Yudof declined comment for this story.

Voelz says that when she took part in the NCAA Gender Equity Task Force to write the laws on gender equality for all collegiate sports, she received a lot of friction.

During a lunch break, the men of the group circled around her and said, “Look Chris, we need you to move the women in a different direction.”

After she didn’t budge, according to Voelz, one of them said, “Do you like Minnesota? I hope so, because you will never get another job in college athletics.”

There were four male athletic directors during Voelz’s 14-year tenure: Rick Bay (1989-91), McKinley Boston (1992-95), Mark Dienhart (1995-99) and Tom Moe (1999-02).

Voelz’s furious desire to build a new infrastructure for women’s sports led many to believe at the time she was the reason sports such as Gopher men’s baseball have been playing in the same stadium for the past 40 years.

NCAA President Mark Emmert recently held a meeting of three women, which included Voelz, to discuss paying collegiate athletes.

 “We told him these are educational institutions; you give them tutoring, great coaching, food, housing, free education, but you do not pay them,” Voelz said.

The right way

Voelz’s creativity led to innovations in such facilities as the Sports Pavilion, where she made changes in the way score was kept.

Before every game, the public address announcer would ask the audience to “look at the scoreboard on the east end of the Pavilion. There you will see the active GPA for Gopher women’s athletics,” Voelz said.

“It was the only scoreboard in the nation that had that,” Voelz said. “We kept score of the right things.”

During her 14-year tenure, the women’s athletic program saw more than 25 consecutive semesters of 3.0 GPA or higher.

Another highlight was the hiring of legendary volleyball coach Mike Hebert, one of the best coaches in Gopher history. Hebert coached Minnesota to three Final Four appearances during his 15-year tenure before retiring in December 2010.

Voelz also added women’s hockey, soccer and rowing — the 10th, 11th and 12th women’s sports at the University.

“All of those people mad about Title IX should have been thanking me,” Voelz said. “As long as we were adding sports, the men didn’t have to drop any.”

Another signature of the Voelz era was hosting seven NCAA national championships, the most famous of which was the 1995 women’s basketball Final Four.

“By that time, the NCAA had immense confidence in us,” Voelz said. “We were doing things with the women’s tournament that they hadn’t even dreamed of.”

At the time, Linda Mona and Peggy Lucas were serving as co-chairs for the 1995 Final Four under Voelz.

“Chris built a phenomenal dynasty for women’s sports in Minnesota,” long-time friend and coworker Mona said. “I say Minnesota because she affected high schools and other colleges. She changed the way people thought of women’s athletics.”

In 1999, years before Voelz left Minnesota, the Star Tribune listed her as No. 22 on a list of Minnesota’s 100 most important sports figures of the century — a list that included men and women, players and coaches alike.

Voelz made it a point to surround herself with advisers who were not only as driven as she was, but as qualified.

“Chris knew how to align herself with the right people,” Lucas said. “Besides some of the greatest female leaders in the Twin Cities, she worked with a lot of men who wanted to see women’s athletics prosper.”

When the Gopher women’s hockey team began in 1997, Voelz did not want to just add another sport.

“We wanted to do it the right way,” Voelz said. “Nike gave us a better deal than the men’s hockey team on apparel and equipment, because here they saw Herb Brooks and Rob Ridder were on my advisory group.”

In 2002, when University President Mark Yudof announced that the men’s and women’s athletic departments would be merging due to budget problems, Voelz rallied with her closest advisory group, nicknamed “the posse,” to prevent it.

“We were sort of her ‘kitchen’ cabinet,” Mona said jokingly. “We worked night and day to present to the Board of Regents against merging.”

But the trend was against them. Minnesota was one of only five schools in the nation that had separate athletic departments.

“There may have been a time [to merge],” Voelz said. “But that was not the right time … considering the uncertainties in the men’s department and the solid place the women were in.”

After months of campaigning, Voelz conceded and decided, along with then-men’s athletic director Tom Moe, to not apply for the new position.

“It was not to be,” Voelz said. “It was two presidents later, and I had very little institutional memory. At that point, the entire program needed a fresh start.”

Now, Voelz continues to play a role in collegiate athletics from afar. She owns and operates her own athletic consulting firm and works with the Women’s Sports Foundation as their Leadership Gifts Officer.

“I’m most proud of the fact that we had scholar athletes,” Voelz said. “We had a culture where the young woman was valued. There were outstanding women who became tremendous leaders because they did not have to be number two.” 

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