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As Charlotte’s coaches conference showed, women are following in Jen King’s path

Torrey Smith remembers his 2018 season with the Carolina Panthers, back when he was the savvy veteran receiver on an offense replete with potential.

He remembers a coaching intern from that year and the promise she offered, too.

Jennifer King.

“She was with Carolina, and I made sure that I gave her the most respect so that these guys who were younger than me when I was here would recognize that she belongs here, that she’s qualified, and that she’s learning just like everyone else,” Smith recalled to The Charlotte Observer on Wednesday. “And to see where she is now, in her journey, I’m extremely proud of her and what she’s able to accomplish and where she’s going.

“She knows this game. She’s going to challenge you. And she’s going to help you be better.”

Smith shared this story a few moments after serving on a panel for the NCAA/NFL Coaches Academy, a three-day conference that was held this week in Charlotte.

A few hours later, King was officially announced as the run game coordinator for the Chicago Bears — the first female coach in the franchise’s history. She is now one of 12 women in full-time coaching roles on nine NFL teams.

Aug 27, 2022; Baltimore, Maryland, USA; Washington Commanders assistant coach Jennifer King stands on the field before the game against the Baltimore Ravens  at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jessica Rapfogel-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 27, 2022; Baltimore, Maryland, USA; Washington Commanders assistant coach Jennifer King stands on the field before the game against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jessica Rapfogel-USA TODAY Sports

To Smith, the writing that more women football coaches will enter the college and pro ranks is on the wall. It’s what’s best for the game and for everyone, he said.

“I love the idea of women leading in this sport,” Smith, a two-time Super Bowl champion, added. “We live in a society that consistently tells women what they can’t do, or that they’re second fiddle. (And) when it comes to football, which is the ‘manly’ sport, people act like women didn’t have a place in there. I tell those people: ‘I see coaches all the time that coach at a high level that didn’t play, physically, in the NFL. Some guys coach at a high level and didn’t even play football.’ Right? Or were GMs and didn’t even play football.

“So I think there’s more than enough space for women. The arguments that people use in the past is something that doesn’t work.

“It’s about what you know.”

And this week in Charlotte, that was on display.

Carolina Panthers wide receiver Torrey Smith (11)n celebrates a long play against the Philadelphia Eagles. Smith learned during his time in Philadelphia that ball distribution can really help an offense be successful, as long as players are unselfish.
Carolina Panthers wide receiver Torrey Smith (11)n celebrates a long play against the Philadelphia Eagles. Smith learned during his time in Philadelphia that ball distribution can really help an offense be successful, as long as players are unselfish.

Charlotte showcases future football coaches

The 2024 iteration of the annual coaches academy featured over 40 high school and college coaches engaging in professional development. Those coaches heard from a handful of keynote speakers — including Smith, N.C. State head coach Dave Doeren, Carolina Panthers head coach Dave Canales and others.

One of those keynote speakers was Heather Marini, the quarterbacks coach for Brown University. Marini became the first female position coach in Division I football history when she was promoted to her current role in March 2020 and remained the only female position coach in D1 in 2023.

Marini said she was introduced to football late — when she was 18 years old — and that she “fell in love with football after she’d fallen in love with coaching.” She still plays the sport competitively with the Boston Renegades of the Women’s Football Alliance.

“There are thousands of women playing football, not just here in the U.S. but around the globe,” Marini said. “And one of the things that really solidified my career path in football was being part of the NFL’s Women’s Careers in Football Forum. Not only did that introduce me to the coach I work for right now, but when I first showed up and there’s 220 women from 20 different countries who love football, and you’re like, ‘Oh wow, football has a place for women.’”

Marini’s story, much like that of King, is an inspirational one to current and aspiring football coaches. And she’s used her position to connect with other women in the industry. That includes the three women coaches who attended the three-day conference in Charlotte — Dayna Moneta (assistant offensive line coach for Williams College), Sophia Lewin (wide receivers coach for Kutztown) and Ashley Cornwell (offensive line coach for Oberlin College) — all of whom knew Marini prior to this week.

This fact reflects the small world they find themselves in. According to the NCAA database, there were 23 female assistant football coaches (not including graduate assistants) in 2023 across all Division I, II and III programs in the country. That number is up from 2022 and 2021 but down from 2020, when there were 45.

Increasing that number requires time. It also requires investment, which is one of the purposes of the academy.

“I think it’s cool that we get to be involved in the development side,” Lewin said. “That we get to be involved, that we get to go to forums, get to be a part of the academies, and that we are a population of people who the NCAA and the NFL want to develop. It’s important that we are part of the people they want to see succeed.”

‘She knows the game. That’s our coach.’

Still, there is plenty of progress to be made — and plenty of milestones to build upon.

“Our body of work,” Lewin said, “is way more important than our bodies, but it’s because of what Jen King and Lori Locust (now with the Tennessee Titans) and all the coaches who came before us have done — what they did when they got the job is why we’re here.”

Added Moneta: “It becomes normal when it’s, ‘She knows the game. That’s our coach. Period.’”

When asked how far away a future with a women college football head coach is, there was a hopeful consensus among the coaches.

“There are plenty of qualified women out there for jobs,” Marini said.

She noted that other sports are going through a similar evolution; women are coaching more in men’s basketball, for instance.

“It’s probably further away than it should be,” she added. “But it’s going to happen pretty soon.”