After 15 years as head coach of the women's hockey program at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, former Canadian Olympic coach Shannon Miller will be gone after this season.
The reason given by the university was money – or lack thereof.
“Coach Miller was the highest paid NCAA Division I women’s hockey coach from the most recent survey data we had,” UMD athletic director Josh Berlo told the Duluth Tribune. “UMD is not in a position to sustain that. Athletics needs to make tough decisions in tough financial times and this was one of them.”
Miller isn't the only women's hockey staffer headed out the door. Two assistant coaches – Laura Schuler and Gina Kingsbury (both Canadians), and part-time director of operations Jen Banford also will not have their contracts renewed.
There was no news on the fate of the third assistant coach, Brandt Nicklin.
Kingsbury, an Olympian at the 2006 Winter Games in Torino and, like Miller, a native of Saskatchewan (Miller has been a dual U.S.-Canadian citizen since 2012), was just hired last July. Schuler, 44, was an original member when the Canadian national women's squad was formed in 1990, and played on Miller's silver-medal winning squad at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano. She has been with the program since the 2008-09 season.
The news came as a big shock to Miller's former player in Minnesota, Sochi Canadian Olympic women's team captain Caroline Ouellette. Ouellette played three seasons in Duluth, and ranks third on the team's all-time scorers' list.
This is very shocking... the most successful NCAA coach of all time with 5 NCAA National Championships does not... http://t.co/2FZmu5vDp5
— Caroline Ouellette (@couellette13) December 16, 2014
Miller is the only coach the women's hockey program at that school has ever known. She arrived in 1998, and quickly led the Bulldogs to the NCAA title in 2001, 2002 and 2003, the first three years of its existence., then again in 2008. The last championship came in 2010, though, and the seasons since have been relatively lean times.
She earns three times the average of the other six women's sports coaches at the university make, and twice what the coaches in the five men's sports earn. The average annual salary for an assistant coach in women's sports at the university is just over $25,000.
In the three seasons since that last title, Miller's teams have failed to make the NCAA tournament and were an aggregate five games over .500.
Miller's program has struggled against an in-state rival, powerhouse University of Minnesota, which reached the NCAA final last season (and where the coach, Brad Frost, reportedly makes half what Miller earns). Another powerhouse team, Wisconsin, also plays in Duluth's conference, the WCHA.
The Bulldogs were 0-7-1 against those two teams last season, and are 0-3-1 so far this season. But after a slow start, they have rebounded, currently boasting a 12-5-3 record and certainly in the mix to end the NCAA tournament drought. But it appears to have come too late for Miller.
Women's hockey is not a revenue-producing sport. And despite the team's long history of success, attendance at its games is sparse and expenses probably outpace revenues by more than 10-1.
Miller told the Duluth Tribune that her last conversation with university officials was over the summer, and that she would have been quite willing to take a pay cut if asked.
“I grew up in a single-parent family, I understand the budget, I understand the recession and I’m open to a win-win. I expressed that to the athletic director and the chancellor. I thought that’s what we would end up doing eventually, but there were no other conversations," she told the Tribune.
The news comes during a scheduled break in the season, with the team's next game not until Jan. 6. In a Twitter exchange involving Bulldogs captain Zoe Hickel and the athletic director (above), it was expressed that the timing was hardly the best – not that there is ever a good time, but right before Christmas, and with the players in exams? That's probably at the bottom of the "best time" list of options.
“I am extremely shocked and saddened by this news, as is our entire staff and team,” Miller said, in a statement released by the team. “But we are committed to staying here to coach these great young women for the rest of the season and to a national championship.”
A national search will take place following the 2014-15 season (how much will THAT cost?)
"We remain committed to supporting the Bulldog women's hockey program, Berlo said in the statement.
In the meantime, the five-time NCAA champion coach will be a lame duck.