McMaster's football program is offering apprenticeship program for two female coaches

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Corey Grant is looking to follow Bruce Arians' lead.

The reigning Super Bowl-winning coach has never been afraid to think outside the box. In 2019, Arians added two female coaches to his Tampa Bay Buccaneers staff, saying he's always been one to hire the best available people, regardless of gender.

It's an approach Grant is helping bring to McMaster University, which has established two apprenticeship football coaching positions for women. Grant, a former CFL receiver, is not only the Hamilton university's offensive co-ordinator but also the athletic department's equity, inclusion and anti-racism lead. The apprenticeship is his pilot project.

Grant got the idea last summer after participating in Zoom calls with Maral Javadifar and Lori Locust, Tampa Bay's assistant strength and conditioning coach and assistant defensive line coach, respectively.

"I learned a lot from them," Grant said. "After the Super Bowl (which Tampa Bay won 31-9 over Kansas City in February), I was like, 'Why can't we do that? Why not, and why hasn't that been done?'

"I think the game is changing and evolving. I think more people in the room and a more diverse room brings more ideas, new ways and better ways to do things . . . having more voices and a more diverse room not only helps our program but football in general."

The program will run Sept. 1 to Dec. 4 with the successful applicants expected to commit 15-20 hours weekly coaching in practices and games. The two women will receive an honorarium for their participation.

McMaster won't be the only Ontario university with a female assistant football coach. In May, Carleton head coach Steve Sumarah added Nadia Doucoure as the Ravens' assistant receivers' coach.

Doucoure became Carleton's first female coach, but women have been blazing a path into football for some time.

Javadifar and Locust are among eight female NFL assistant coaches and last February, Sarah Thomas became the first woman to officiate a Super Bowl game. Canadians Mary Anne Turcke (chief operating officer) and Samantha Rapoport (senior director, diversity, equity and inclusion) are both league executives.

Last month, the Philadelphia Eagles promoted Montreal's Catherine Raiche to vice-president of football operations, making her the highest-ranking female personnel executive in NFL history. Raiche began her pro football career with the CFL's Montreal Alouettes and Toronto Argonauts before being hired in 2019 as the Eagles' football operations co-ordinator.

Canadian Jo-Anne Polak became the first woman in North American pro sports to serve as a GM when she held that post with the CFL's Ottawa Rough Riders ('89-91).

Laurence Pontbriand is the CFL's manager, football and officiating development and in June 2019, Emily Clarke and Georgina Paull became the first female officials to work in a league game. Also, Reina Iizuka, of Mississauga, Ont., is a defensive back with the University of Manitoba Bisons while Shannon Donnovan is the executive director of Football Canada, the sport's national amateur governing body.

Grant said while football acumen will be a consideration for the McMaster apprenticeship, it won't be the most important factor.

"First and foremost we're looking for teachers, good communicators and good people," Grant said. "Coach (Stefan) Ptasek really stresses having good people around him so that's what we're looking for, to bring in good people who can help our student-athletes develop.

"These are coaches' positions."

Ptasek, who led McMaster to the 2011 Vanier Cup title, can't wait to welcome the two newest additions to his staff.

"I'm excited to see that change and happy to be a catalyst of that change," Ptasek said. "I think we (Ptasek and Grant) are both very privileged to have very strong women in our lives and know there aren't enough representatives in the football world.

"I can't tell you how excited I am to have strong female role models for impressionable 18-to-22 year-old men. I think that's an invaluable lesson to learn."

Sumarah said Doucoure has made a seamless transition to life at Carleton.

"It's been better than I imagined," he said. "I'll be honest, when we started this, even I had some hesitation of if this was going to be a good thing for our program.

"She and I had some frank conversations about, 'I don't want this to be recognized or seen as a token hire. I'm bringing you on staff because I want you to feel like you're a part of the staff. I want you to feel like you're contributing to the development of our program.' And she felt the exact same way."

Doucoure understands the significance of her appointment.

"I think Steve took a very big step by having a woman coach on his staff," she said. "The players will understand even more that football is more inclusive than any other sport.

"The words ‘football has a place for everyone’ is very true in my experience. I'm happy and proud to be involved in Canadian high-performance football with a great coaching staff."

Many young male players have never been coached by a woman so those at Carleton and McMaster will face a new reality. But Sumarah said coaches who're knowledgeable, good communicators and genuinely care about their players have no trouble gaining their respect.

"I think that's exactly right," Sumarah said. "We have a leadership group we brought in and talked about and it was such a natural fit for the players that they were like, 'OK, if she's the coach, then she's the coach and we're good with that.'

"I think we've built a very strong culture within our program that's allowed us to take this next step. It's not a leap of faith, it's actually just a step. We're going to give (Doucoure) little bites and if I feel like I'm right in this decision, she's going to be able to take on some bigger parts to the coaching component of it and be able to do more things on her own. That's the goal."

Grant and Ptasek both have young daughters.

"I want them to have a path," Ptasek said. "My little one, she'll let me know, 'That was a stupid play. Why do we keep running the ball straight up the middle to go nowhere,' and she's 12.

"I think with the emergence of things like flag football and how many females are taking the sport up, this is a natural evolution and something that needs to happen at more than just McMaster."

Added Grant: "This is really paving the way and breaking down barriers for them. We have our own women's program on campus and I'd love to see one of these women take on the role of becoming head coaches. There's nothing more powerful than a woman standing in front of the room coaching women in the sport of football."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 7, 2021.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press

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