Women among coaches from Day 1 in The Alliance
By Doug Miller
She hears it all the time. She’s groundbreaking. A true pioneer. She shattered the glass ceiling. She made a bold move toward changing a sport forever.
And now she’s in a league that’s doing the same.
Dr. Jen Welter, a defensive specialist coach for the Atlanta Legends of the Alliance of American Football, is preparing for her team’s schedule, which begins Feb. 9 in the inaugural season of a new, exciting spring league that was created to offer opportunities for players and coaches alike.
It’s a perfect fit for Welter, who is no stranger to forging uncharted ground. After all, she was the first woman to coach in the National Football League. And she’s helped blaze a trail that has seen two more women – Lo Locust and Jennifer King – land coaching gigs with Alliance teams.
But at the moment, Welter doesn’t have time wax poetic or ponder the greater significance of what it means to be a female coach in what has long been the very male sport of professional football.
She’s too busy.
“You’re drawing up the cards, you’re putting together installs, you’re making coaching decisions,” Welter says. “You’re doing the work, and if you’re doing it right, the rest of it comes. It’s not like you sit here and pontificate.
“Some days are easier than others. And don’t get me wrong: the fact that I was the first is wonderful and I love the opportunity to speak on it because I don’t think things change if people aren’t aware.
“But when you’re in the trenches, it’s all about job performance.”
And in the upcoming inaugural Alliance season, Welter won’t be the only female coach being graded on job performance. Locust is hard at work as an assistant defensive lineman coach for the Birmingham Iron. And King is working as an offensive assistant for the Arizona Hotshots.
Hines Ward, the former NFL wide receiver who now serves as The Alliance’s Head of Football Development, has helped spur on the league’s commitment to diversity and interviewed all three coaches. He was blown away.
“It was a new experience for me, having never played for a female coach,” Ward says. “They command respect with their knowledge. It’s not surprising, given that they played and coached. But what really stood out to me more than anything was their passion for football. They just love the game, and that’s what you need.
“I couldn’t be prouder. I’m super-excited to see how they grow as coaches in The Alliance.”
Any conversation about female coaches in pro football must start with Welter, because she was the first. She had a long and decorated football career playing on several pro and semi-pro teams and winning gold medals as a player at the IFAF Women’s World Championship in 2010 and 2013. She also coached men and even played against them in Champions Indoor Football before being hired by then-Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians to coach inside linebackers during the NFL team’s training camp and preseason in 2015.
She met now-Atlanta head coach Brad Childress while on that job, and as soon as Childress knew he’d be at the helm of an Alliance team, he called up Welter and told her to get ready to coach again. Now she’s back on the field doing what she does best: using her passion for and knowledge of the game to master the Xs and Os while leaning on her doctorate in psychology to help facilitate another crucial element of success: connecting with players.
“Great coaching is great people skills and the ability to identify talent, identify differences, and maximize the return on people by putting them in places they can succeed,” Welter says. “In terms of a situation, everybody has a different learning style and you have to really realize what is going to help that player.
Some really need that personal trust first. Some people need to be hyped up. Some people need to see a blackboard. Some need it on paper. Some just need to run it. It’s not one-size-fits-all.”
Locust and King agree, and they’re seeing it every day now as minicamp days bleed into nights and playbooks are being written and the rosters full of new and exciting talent are being evaluated and molded on the fly.
Locust brings her own unique backstory to the job. She grew up a Steelers fan in Harrisburg, Pa., but didn’t get a chance to play football until she was in her 40s. She played for a team in Harrisburg before getting injured and starting in coaching. Soon enough she was coaching high school, arena, men’s semipro and showcase, and then the NFL’s Women’s Careers in Football Forum. A diversity fellowship led to an internship with the Baltimore Ravens and a crash course in big-time ball.
“I learned everything there,” Locust says. “The technical aspects of the game, how much goes into prep, watching film and practicing, meeting, watching more film … it’s all an ongoing self-evaluation and opponent evaluation process happening at the same time. It’s intense. It’s a grind. But it’s awesome.”
Now Locust has her plate full at minicamp with a new team in a new league. She wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I don’t look at it as anything other a job I have to do the best I can,” Locust says. “I only look at it in segments – a day at a time, a practice at a time. I try and keep my head down and coach the guys up with whatever I know.”
The same goes for King, who has already had pro experience working with the Carolina Panthers an opportunity that arose from the NFL Women’s Forum.
King is a football player with 11 years of full-contact experience – a quarterback and receiver for a championship team, the New York Sharks. She also coached a USCAA Division II national champion women’s college basketball team at Johnson and Wales University in Providence, R.I., a job she left to pursue this opportunity in football, her first love.
Now she’s grinding away with the rest of the Hotshots coaches, trying to unlock the secret to a winning first season.
“I think it’s been great,” King says. “It’s a league of opportunity. And for someone in my position, that’s all you ever ask for. And then it’s up to you once you get it. It’s great for coaches and for players as well. Show what you’ve got and learn and grow.”
For Arizona general manager Phil Savage, bringing King aboard was a no-brainer. After all, he already had medical trainer Sarah Johnson and strength and conditioning staffer Kate Engard on board.
“Our philosophy is to find the best people regardless of gender,” Savage said. “We are proud to have not only Jennifer, but Sarah and Kate as part of our team for this inaugural Alliance season.”
The Alliance of American Football is a fresh concept, a bold undertaking and a chance for everyone involved to build something lasting and great
It makes perfect sense for women to be involved, and as the first one to coach in the men’s pro game, Welter is thrilled to keep carrying the torch.
“The trick is to be as great as you can be in any capacity in any moment,” Welter says. “When I’m coaching those guys, that’s the only thing that matters.
“And when I’m talking to a little girl that thinks it’s cool that I’m playing or coaching football, that’s all that matters.”