Written by Chris Bumbaca
Lori Locust was one of these women once – a coach trying to reach the dream of working for an NFL team.
Now she’s an inspiration for the nearly 40 women whose heads nodded and faces beamed during some face time with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers assistant defensive line coach last Wednesday.
“I can see myself in a lot of the women that were on the call,” Locust told USA TODAY Sports. “I sat where they sat.”
The opening session of the Buccaneers’ “Women’s Summit for Careers in Football,” one of six events Tampa Bay will host specifically for women between this month and March 2022, featured head coach Bruce Arians, defensive coordinator Todd Bowles and Locust, all of whom dispensed advice on how to make it as a coach at the game’s highest level.
“This is, I think, really the ground floor of the potential of what the Bucs are going to be able to do not just this year, but going forward,” Locust said.
How to get that chance
The NFL has hosted a “Women’s Careers in Football Forum” since 2017. Since its inception, 118 women have been hired through the program.
But the defending Super Bowl champions are the first – and only — team to host a career forum specifically for women on the coaching side, NFL senior director of diversity, equity and inclusion Sam Rapoport said.
“One of the reasons the Bucs and the NFL target women is because historically it is a very disenfranchised group as far as football roles,” she told USA TODAY Sports. “So the idea is we don’t need to learn how to be women in football. We need to learn how to break into the industry and make the connections necessary to get that first opportunity.”
Take one look at Arians’ staff, and it’s clear diversity means something to him. He considers it a “duty” to ensure young coaches from all backgrounds have a chance. “More and more women are seeing opportunities and following their dreams,” he told USA TODAY Sports.
They certainly are. In addition to Locust, Jennifer King – an NFL program alum from the same class as Locust – became the first full-time, Black female assistant coach when the Washington Football Team made her assistant running backs coach. Katie Sowers was an offensive assistant with the San Francisco 49ers. Callie Brownson is the Cleveland Browns’ chief of staff and even stepped in to coach the wide receivers for one game. And Monday, the Denver Broncos announced Kelly Kleine as their new director of football operations.
In Tampa, the emphasis on women in football started with Darcie Glazer Kassewitz, the team’s co-owner who has been involved in the league’s gender diversity initiatives for years.
“I think we feel that slow and steady is really working,” she said in a recent ESPNW summit. “We’re constantly doing new things to bring tremendous awareness to the opportunities there are in the NFL for women.”
Those opportunities extend beyond on-field duties, but last week’s session revolved around coaching. The participants, mostly college-level staffers or assistants, watched NBC’s Cris Collinsworth moderate a discussion before the larger group split into breakout rooms with Arians, Bowles or Locust.
Bowles spoke of the importance of networking to gain that first crack in the professional ranks. He tries to keep up via email with anyone who reaches out, he said. And as a former head coach who may earn another shot with a different team, having a chance to interact with him only helps the women there on Wednesday.
“It’s all about networking and who you know and getting your face in front of someone,” Bowles told the larger group. “And then it comes down to getting to know someone and what their philosophy is.”
The NFL and Buccaneers connecting qualified candidates with people who could hire them down the road is not by accident. “Because they don’t need our help getting jobs,” Rapoport said. “They need help getting in the room so they could get the jobs themselves.”
“The more that people have clinics, the more they talk, the more they get to see the other side as far as their coaching ability and put in front of you, you hear what they have to say and hear their coaching ideas,” Bowles told USA TODAY Sports. “I think that develops a relationship, no different than the male side.”
In the more intimate setting, Arians was asked about coaching quarterback technique – “probably my favorite thing in coaching,” the 68-year-old said — and how to build culture. He told a story about legendary Alabama coach Bear Bryant telling him the importance of coaching in your own style.
“You have to be yourself,” he told the group. “You can’t change and try to be somebody else, because man, players see right through that. They know phony when they see phony. And yourself is good enough.”
Locust fielded questions about analytics, film study, gaining respect from professionals and how the NFL may be different from other levels in terms of the instruction required.
Participant Joy Tapajcik, who will retire from active-duty service in the Navy next month, has experience with the video and recruiting teams at the Naval Acadamy, her alma mater. She’s intrigued by player personnel.
Listening to Arians talk about a culture of accountability resonated, thanks to her experience in Annapolis.
“I want to be a part of that at the professional level,” Tapajcik told USA TODAY Sports.
Just let them do the job
One term Locust told the women to consider removing from their vernacular is often used to describe the coaching industry: “male-dominated.”
Male-prevalent? Sure. Male-saturated? That also works. It might be semantics, but Locust said she’s never felt “dominated.” There’s no need for women to position themselves in a “less-than” framework, she said.
The elimination of any patronizing language is a key step to achieving greater gender-equity.
“The Bucs have made that a priority of all of the initiatives that they direct toward women,” Rapoport said. Tampa Bay has also made a concerted effort to champion women of color, as women-specific programs generally tend to benefit strictly white women, she said.
The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida gave the NFL a “C” for its gender-hiring practices in the latest report released in December. The main NFL league office received a “B,” but “women are still seriously underrepresented in team senior administration positions and team professional administrations,” the report concluded.
Bowles said that when hiring, a coach’s priority should always be finding the right fit at the right time, regardless of gender.
“You make sure you’re hiring them not just because they’re a woman, but because they’re a qualified coach,” Bowles said. “I think they would want it that way as well.”
Locust agreed and added that once women establish themselves in the building, the expectation should be they are simply another member of the staff.
“Don’t filter around me, don’t not say things in front of me because I’m here … (women) just want to do our jobs,” Locust said. “We don’t want to be treated any differently.”
As an assistant position coach, Locust is there to complement defensive line coach Kacy Rodgers. She balances that support by being herself around the players and forming relationships in the meeting room and on the practice field.
For her generation of fellow females to consider their breakthroughs successful, Locust said they must reach back to go forward. Women must identify women for openings in all facets of the game – scouting, coaching, personnel – and then mentor the next generation.
“By the time all that’s happening, we’ll eliminate the needs for the labels of ‘female coach,’ ‘female GM,’ ‘female scout,’ and I think that’s really at the end of the day what we’re all shooting for,” Locust said. “Just to be able to come in, do our jobs and have winning teams.”