For 30 years, Brian Hofman made a big impact on the court as an assistant coach for ONU Volleyball. He retired from coaching at the end of this season, but his influence in women’s sports is just beginning. Only now, he’s making a mark on the academic side.
The director of ONU’s sports management program, Hofman is engaged in two significant research projects in the field of women’s collegiate athletics. His first project is exploring the impact that motherhood has on the careers of female coaches in NCAA Division I and Division III. His second project is a book detailing the history of women’s sports at ONU.
“I’ve always loved coaching and I’ve always been a big advocate for girls and women when it comes to coaching,” he explains, “so that’s what prompted my desire to do the research.”
Hofman grew up in Iowa, a state ahead of the times in giving girls the chance to compete athletically. Iowa was having state tournaments for girls’ sports in the 1920s, Hofman notes, while in most other states, girls had limited opportunities to even play a sport until the tide changed after the passage of Title IX in 1972.
Some of Hofman’s fondest memories from high school involve sitting in the bleachers watching volleyball matches. Because Iowa didn’t have divisions for girls’ sports, many matchups were reminiscent of the “Hoosiers” movie, where small country schools competed—and won—against larger, better equipped schools.
Hofman’s love for the game inspired him to play men’s club volleyball at Iowa State where he met Coach Kate Witte. Witte recalls that Hofman evolved into an excellent player by teaching himself the game. Because of that, she says, he developed “an amazing ability to understand how to teach the various skills of volleyball and a self-awareness of how to break down volleyball skills at any level.”
Witte was so impressed with Hofman that when she took the head volleyball coaching position at Ohio Northern University in 1991, she hired Hofman two years later as her assistant coach. Between Iowa State and ONU, Witte and Hofman worked together for over 30 years, until Witte’s retirement from ONU in 2019.
Hofman started as a graduate assistant at ONU, obtained his master’s degree from Bowling Green State University and his Ph.D. from the University of Toledo, then spent most of his career in a dual coaching/professorship role. He transitioned to the sports management program in the Dicke College of Business three years ago. With that transition, he was no longer on contract as an assistant coach, but he continued in that role on a volunteer basis.
With his deep institutional knowledge, he felt he could be an asset for new head coach Katie Kuhn, BA ’09. He knew Kuhn well, having coached her when she was a star player for ONU Volleyball and having worked with her as an assistant.
Kuhn was grateful for Hofman’s support, explaining that he’s been one of the most influential people in her life.
“Brian is full of humor and knowledge and I am blessed because he shared both of those sides with me,” she says. “He bridged a transition for me and this program and for that I’ll be forever grateful. He truly worked behind the scenes putting out fires, creating opportunities and challenging me as a young coach, doing things that so many people will never see or know.”
Witte adds that Hofman was the best kind of assistant coach— “loyal, hard-working, reliable and trustworthy.” He particularly excelled at game strategy, coaching middle hitters and recruiting young women to ONU’s volleyball program.
“He had a great understanding of what type of student-athlete would fit into the volleyball program and the academic programs at ONU,” says Witte. “He always had the best interest of the ONU volleyball players, staff and program in his heart. He is one of the most giving and generous human beings within the ONU volleyball program and the entire ONU community.”
Soaking in history
During his time as an assistant coach, Hofman helped to grow ONU Volleyball into a powerhouse in the NCAA Division III. He also had a front row seat for the evolutionary transformation of all the women’s sports programs at the University.
“Having been at ONU for 30 of those 50 years (after the passage of Title IX) I got to experience a lot of the struggles and the changes,” he says. “I got to meet the former coaches who actually started the women’s athletic programs at ONU. Even Helen Ludwig, when she was alive, traveled to almost all of our volleyball matches.”
Describing himself as a “history buff” who considered becoming a history teacher, Hofman treasured those conversations he had with the pioneering female coaches at ONU. His desire to ensure that their stories didn’t get lost to history is what prompted his idea for the book.
“I realized this is a very important part of history that is soon going to be gone because these women who were part of the early movement of Title IX are in their 70s or 80s, or in Helen’s case, gone,” he says. “I want to get their stories told before they are all gone, because what I’ve discovered is that in their time, these women were ignored or taken for granted. Their voices weren’t heard.”
Hofman started the research for his book in the summer of 2021 and his goal is to complete the manuscript by the end of summer 2024. He’s conducted multiple interviews with former coaches, including two of the three pioneering early female coaches—Sheila Wallace Kovalchik and Gayle Lauth. He also interviewed the children of the late Helen Spar Ludwig, BSEd ’44.
“They (these three coaches) referred to themselves as the ‘triumvirate’ at the time, because it was those three against the world,” he says.
Additionally, he is conducting oral history interviews with 8-10 ONU female student-athletes from each decade, starting with the 1960s. Invariably, some interviews uncover new information that leads him down new paths of inquiry, which he happily embarks upon.
What’s impressed him the most so far in his research is the tenacity of Lauth, Kovachik and Ludwig. They fought many battles behind the scenes, but never brought those struggles to the attention of their players. They also strived constantly to elevate the professionalism and level of play in women’s sports.
“It was always ‘what can we do to help ourselves grow’ and ‘how can we improve opportunities for our players,’” he says. “It (women’s sports) started at a very grassroots level before it started to grow and get better organized.”
These ONU coaches, added Hofman, really set the foundation for what ONU has today. Thus, as Hofman’s research reaches into the recent decades, the stories he hears are less about struggles, and more about triumphs.
“Those chapters on the latter years will be about the successes our females have had, because we’ve had some awesome things happen for our female athletes,” he says.
He hopes his upcoming book will serve as an important reminder of the courage and sacrifice it took to achieve those gains.
“Stories replace stories and we move on and we forget where we came from,” he says. “I’m beating that drum and saying we must aways remember our history and what it took to get to the success of today. We could just as easily lose that success if we stop fighting for progress.”
Another research inquiry
Before he turns his full attention to the book project, however, Hofman plans to complete his research study on the challenges of juggling motherhood with collegiate-level coaching.
He laments the many talented female athletes he knows who passed on collegiate coaching careers because they wanted to have a family and didn’t believe they could do both well.
“I think it’s awesome when women can coach women, because it is really important to have those role models,” he says. “Yet I see how hard it is (to coach and be a mom) and I’ve had those hard conversations with friends of mine.”
Coaching isn’t a typical 9-to-5 job and requires many evenings and weekends, he says. “So, you’re missing your kids’ bedtime, their sporting events or school play because you are coaching.”
Through his interviews with female coaches at several NCAA Division I and III institutions across the country, he wants to identify the support structures that institutions can put into place to provide a better work-life balance for mom coaches. He’s also looking for other themes, strategies and support systems that may be in place to help women be successful outside of the institution.
A work in progress
Fifty years after Title IX, women’s sports are still a work in progress, adds Hofman. “It’s grown so much and will continue to grow, but there are still many inequalities.”
Recently, though, he felt inspired to spotlight the progress. He invited all the individuals employed by ONU that impact women’s athletics to gather for a picture. In his book, he plans to prominently feature the two photos: a photo of the small but mighty “triumvirate”—Ludwig, Lauth and Kolvachik—juxtaposed with the modern-day photo of 30-plus ONU coaches, assistant coaches and support staff.
“I want to show the audience that from these three women, we’ve become this really large, dynamic and diverse department of female coaches and supporters,” he says. “And when you think it started with just three, but now 50 years later, we have a large mass of people supporting women’s athletics It makes me so proud to know that what was unimaginable at the time to Helen, Gayle, Sheila, and those early female athletes in 1972, has become an incredible and unprecedented achievement for female student-athletes and coaches today—all because of them.”