Breaking the Surface

After nearly 10 rocky years on the job, UM Women's Athletic Director Chris Voelz finally has plenty to smile about.

Just as professional athletes inevitably must learn how to play hurt, University of Minnesota Women's Athletic Director Chris Voelz has adjusted to administering her department with a wounded reputation. As she heads into the 10th year of her rocky tenure, Voelz has been involved in lawsuits over her actions that have cost the UM nearly $1 million in settlements. She has endured an investigation by the federal Office of Civil Rights into a lack of opportunities for female athletes at the school, even as she has been pilloried in the local media for pushing too hard for women's programs.

Describing the past decade as an uneasy adolescence for her department, she acknowledges her own naïveté over how fast and effectively she could implement needed changes. But, drawing on her experience as a four-sport collegiate athlete, she adds, "You get used to having setbacks and then going back to practice the next day."

That tenacity has finally begun to produce some tangible dividends for Voelz and her department. Having suffered through a costly lawsuit in order to install the volleyball coach she wanted, she has seen the UM squad reach the NCAA finals two years in a row. The Gopher women's soccer team, added by Voelz in 1993, placed third in the Big Ten last year and competed in the first round of NCAA finals. And the women's ice hockey team, added by Voelz just this year, drew one of the biggest walk-up crowds ever to Mariucci Arena at its first game last November.

Diana Watters

Beneath the wins and losses is a structural integrity that is a product of Voelz's thorough approach. The student athletes participating in women's sports at the U are in their fifth consecutive year of maintaining a 3.0-or-above departmental grade-point average. Facilities have been built or upgraded and budgets have been clearly defined so that when a sport is introduced it is given ample support and time to flourish. Clearly, Voelz is in this for the long haul.

Like most female athletes of her era, the 48-year-old Voelz learned to improvise and cajole opportunities in a culture that did not value competitive sports for women. After a childhood playing touch football and other games with her brothers and their friends, she discovered no organized sports for girls at the Chicago-area high school she attended. In response, Voelz became president of the Girls Athletic Association, and bent the GAA rules to create maverick teams with coaches and games. She went on to Illinois State University, where she competed in volleyball, basketball, softball, and golf, and eventually became one of the first women ever to be inducted into the school's Redbird Hall of Fame.

After graduating from ISU, Voelz taught physical education and coached all three girls' sports at a high school in Park Ridge, Illinois, while working toward her master's degree in education, which she eventually received in 1974 from Northern Illinois University.

Voelz says she knew that to really make a difference in the lives of women athletes she had to get into the administration of college sports. Ten years after taking a job as the head volleyball coach at the University of Oregon, she was the associate athletic director there, overseeing an $8.9 million budget, and ripe for a more prominent position at another school. When she interviewed for the UM job, Voelz says she had a job offer in hand from the University of Rhode Island to become only the second woman, after Mary Alice Hall of San Diego State, to direct both the men and women's athletic programs at a major university.

If she was to be dissuaded from taking the URI job, Voelz needed some assurance that Minnesota was supportive of Title IX, a law stipulating that schools receiving federal funding must provide equal opportunities for both genders to participate in school activities, including sports. Specifically, Voelz says, "I told them if I needed to come to work every day and fight for Title IX with my own institution, it wouldn't work." After considering two dozen candidates during a two-month national search, the university's search committee choose Voelz for the job.

After accepting the UM offer, Voelz says, "I got calls on the one hand that said, 'How dare you turn down the Rhode Island position, you could have opened the door for us all.' And other people called and said, 'Thanks for making women's sports a priority.'" Voelz says she preferred the University of Minnesota opportunity because she believed that in the Twin Cities, women's athletics had a chance to become as well-known, well-financed, and well-attended as the men's programs.

Instead, Voelz has made less progress and encountered more resistance than she anticipated. She admits that her own lack of readiness for what was ahead was also to blame. Speaking of the state of women's athletics when she took over, she says, "I thought they might have been better than they were in 1988, but the fact is they didn't have a top-10 team. I should have known, but I was so idealistic." Coping with the U's enormous bureaucracy was also part of the learning curve. "There has never been so much reading, so many meetings, or so many constituents I had to answer to."

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