EDITOR'S NOTE: This article previously incorrectly stated that Natasha Novak spoke with Head Athletic Director Jamie Pollard. She spoke with Senior Associate Athletic Director Chris Jorgensen. It also stated that Tyrone Willingham was fired from his position at Sanford. Willingham left his position. The errors are now corrected. The Daily regrets these errors.
Article updated at 1:20 p.m. on Nov. 5.
Think about Iowa State Football. Who is seen as the driving force behind the program's success? Brock Purdy? Matt Campbell? Breece Hall?
While all three of those answers have been vital to the success of the Cyclone's football team over the last two years, some impact doesn't have to come onto the field for its impact to be felt.
Every day, four women impact the lives of players and the day-to-day operations of the Iowa State Football team but go about their days virtually unknown to the common fan.
Erica Genise, Natasha Novak, Meaghan Hussey and Erin Hinderaker are those women. Each has a different journey of how they got to work for Iowa State Football but all share the common thread of what it means to be a woman in the predominately-male world of football.
With over twenty years in football administration, Genise has seen it all and knows what it takes to be a woman in the male-dominated sport.
After graduating from the University of Iowa in 1993, Genise began her career in football working as a coaching assistant for the Minnesota Vikings from 1993-97.
Once the running backs coach for the Vikings, Tyrone Willingham, took a head coaching job at Stanford in 1997, Genise's path in football began to take off.
After Willingham left as head coach at Stanford in 2002, he took Genise and the rest of his staff to Notre Dame, where Genise would assume the role of Director of Football Operations — a role most women had never been given before.
Genise said that when she got the position, many from outside the university were confused and shocked.
"Someone would call and they would want to talk to the director of operations so I would get on the phone and they would insist they needed to talk to the 'real' director and I couldn’t convince them otherwise," Genise said. "That’s their problem, if they wanted to get something done they needed to talk to me."
Genise said that when she received the position from Willingham in 2002, she was only the second woman in a "Power-Five" school in that spot — the other school being Nebraska.
After Genise's first year on the job as director of football operations, the director of football operations took a job in the Nebraska athletic department, leaving Genise as the only woman in a "Power-Five" program with the title.
“Before women started coming more into football I don't think coaches were saying ‘I’m not hiring any women,’ it just never occurred to them to hire women," Genise said. "They were just never exposed to women in that kind of capacity. Most women have never played football, so that “puts us at a disadvantage,” but that can be easily overcome; I’m not coaching football so I think if you get beyond that and ask ‘What does your football director of operations do?,’ Does that need to be gender specific? — no, it really doesn’t."
Once again, Genise would follow Willingham after his staff got fired in 2004 at Notre Dame. Genise said over time she had to realize that football is a results-based business and when she got fired, it only meant that the coach was being fired but she had to tag along due to being on his staff.
Willingham accepted a head coaching job at Washington in 2004, only to be fired once again four years later.
After Willingham and Genise got fired at Washington, Genise made one of the toughest decisions in her life: She left football.
Genise left football for four years for one main reason-she missed her family. At the time of her firing in 2008, Genise's son was four, leaving Genise feeling she had missed out on too many important moments in his life while being in football.
Genise expressed that football takes a toll physically, mentally and emotionally- particularly at higher levels of the sport. Genise said after being fired so many times, she wanted he family to be stable.
“I really had to do a lot of soul searching at that time; it was probably one of the most difficult periods of my life to figure out ‘what do I really want to do, where do I want to be,’" Genise said. "As much as I love sports and love football, I didn’t want to live that lifestyle anymore."
Once Genise left football behind she returned to her hometown in Mason City, Iowa, as a 'leap of faith.' Genise said that it took a lot of support and time to figure out how her background in football could translate into finding a job outside of athletics.
She found a job in economic development — a career field she admits she knew barely anything about — but was content with never going back into football again.
"I thought I was done with athletics forever," Genise said. "I wasn’t looking to get back in."
That was the plan for Genise, until an old contact from Iowa State Athletics reached out to her — offering her a chance to get back into football in a completely new position.
According to Genise, the stars aligned in Ames, as the job gave her everything she was looking for when she left football.
Genise said that working at Iowa State offered her the chance to be a part of a football experience again engage in a university community and be involved in diversity she was missing in Mason City.
“It was a chance to still capture that life balance that I needed but also be back in football again, so that’s what really attracted me and I’ve never regretted it for a moment," Genise said.
Genise said the job she was offered was described as a hybrid between an operations assistant and office manager. Her main responsibilities include, but are not limited to, making sure the office runs effectively by handling almost all of the football program's finances, signing off on all expenses, helping with budgeting and scheduling events.
Genise said that when she first came to work at Iowa State, Coach Paul Rhoads needed most his work handled by Genise or someone else on staff. This included calendar arrangements or weekly schedules. Rhoads coached for the Cyclones from 2008-2015.
Coach Campbell doesn’t use a traditional secretary like Rhoads did and Campbell handles most of that stuff on his own. Genise said.
Once Campbell became head coach in 2015, Genise said she began to realize that women were hard to find in football staffs. Beforehand, Genise said she focused on her own work with blinders on and never cared about what people were doing besides her own work. She said her environment caused her to never think about a scenario where women would be around.
Genise said fitting in is important for women, but if you are trying to be someone you’re not, people in this industry will notice right away.
“You want to be 'one of the guys' in order to fit in, but you can fit in and not be 'one of the guys'," Genise said. "A lot of times you still have to prove yourself, but you do that by doing your job, not by being like the men around you."
Even though she is one of two women in Iowa State's football program, Genise said she has never been mistreated or seen as different than her male coworkers. Genise said Iowa State's staff values a friendly culture, leaving little room for mistreatment and discrimination against women.
The invisible wall of 'male vs. female' is something Genise said young women must overcome by being patient.
Genise said that for women to break barriers in football, it will take persistence and a willingness to take any opportunity handed to you. Younger generations want to be at their dream job right away but Genise said the best way to start is getting your foot in the door.
"It just takes a program to say ‘hey we have a woman here who does a great job with operations, cool, let’s make her the director of operations,’ which would be kind of a ‘wow’ decision and a lot of coaches just aren’t there yet," Genise said.
Working in Iowa State's football program for three years, Novak knows about the patience Genise is referring to. Novak graduated from Iowa State in 2018, working two years in Iowa State Football as a student and then one year unpaid after graduation.
Novak works as a recruiting assistant, assisting with official and unofficial visits, handling mailings to recruits and managing the student assistant program.
Once she graduated, Novak said taking a job in the football department would go against the typical outlook on life with a five year plan approach.
Derek Hoodjer, Iowa State football's director of player personnel, approached Novak the summer after graduation and asked her if she would be willing to stay on staff unpaid. Hoodjer would look for a position if one came about, but until then, Novak would be working unpaid with no promise of a job in the future.
Novak and her family had reservations at first, as the prospect of taking this big of a risk after college was out of character for Novak.
“I had always been the person with the ‘five year plan,’ Novak said. “I had a twenty year plan about reporting and here I am about to give up a job with real money to work unpaid and have no end-all of when I was getting a real-paid job. My parents struggled to understand it, my friends struggled to understand it, but I loved it, I didn’t feel like I was ever at work and it paid off.”
The payoff came after Novak was initially told no to the idea of her getting a full-time-paid job after she worked a year unpaid. Senior Associate Athletic Director Chris Jorgensen called her into his office and explained after talking with Head Athletic Director Jamie Pollard, they would not have a job to offer her.
Novak said Jorgensen told her the reason she couldn't get the job was because the athletic department just didn't have a job available at the time and would be unable to make a position available.
Novak said after the rejection, it was the hardest day of her life — but she had support right away.
Hoodjer had known Novak was having a meeting with Pollard and texted Novak immediately after the meeting that if she couldn't find a job at Iowa State, he would find her one somewhere.
10 minutes after getting home from interview, Hoodjer had sent her 10 contacts from different schools.
"Even though I knew I wasn’t getting the job, I kept working just for references because it’s all about connections in football," Novak said. "I knew going to get a job in football being a female was going to be really hard as you can tell our whole staff has two.”
Novak didn't have to wait long for another chance to come about at Iowa State.
The same week of being told no from Pollard, head coach Campbell stopped her in the hallway and said to Novak 'Stop applying for other jobs, I’m not letting you leave' — a gesture that would quickly turn into Novak's opportunity.
A little over a week after, Campbell invited her into his office and offered her a full-time job that he essentially created specifically for Novak.
Novak officially joined the full-time staff as a paid employee this March.
“What we do, everyone in the office — not just us — it’s thankless work; we are the ‘behind the scenes people’ — we are the thing that helps it run," Novak said. “They are honestly some of the best people I’ve been around, especially not having any family in Iowa; they’ve become my second family and the players have become my little brothers."
From being invited to Easter with other staff members to babysitting Campbell’s kids, Novak said the family aspect of the football department is real.
Being a woman in the recruiting side of football comes with plenty of unfair criticism, especially from outside her football family at Iowa State.
“I get the ‘Oh you must get the recruits’ line and I am just like ‘that is not how we recruit’ because I get the recruits by making a connection with them and show them what we have to offer them as a university," Novak said. “I think the outsider has more of an issue with it than anyone on our staff does.”
When recruits come to Iowa State, Novak said her voice and opinion on the visit plays a big factor on who is scouted and who isn't. With Novak being younger than most on the staff, players come on visits and mainly want to talk to the coordinators and the coach, but act like themselves around someone like her, Novak said.
“If I mention ‘Hey, it wasn’t that great,’ they take into consideration because we recruit number one in your character," Novak said. "You can be a five star athlete with a one star personality and we won’t recruit you.”
While she worked as a student, Novak said she never thought about paving the way for other young women looking to get into football, but now she sees a big objective in front of her.
Now, with multiple female students working for her and Genise, Novak said that it is the whole staff's responsibility to break down the barriers for women.
“If we keep breaking down that barrier and we keep getting females into football it’s going to get easier, people are going to see us as more of an assent rather than a risk,” Novak said.
One of Novak's goals while working in Iowa State football is to one day make it to the position of director of on-campus recruiting. Giving a woman the title would mean a great deal to Novak, and she said that it would take a lot off the plate of the current director of player personnel.
"Seeing someone who is so powerful accept you like Campbell — it trickles down and helps everyone else see like ‘wait why was I thinking this job wouldn’t be OK?’," Novak said. “If you get the ball rolling, if you keep pushing the rock, it’s going to start moving, and once it does, there’s no stopping a big boulder rolling down a hill," Novak said.
Hinderaker may not work with just the football team at Iowa State, but she has changed the way nutrition is viewed and handled by the team since Campbell took over in 2015.
Hinderaker has been a dietitian for over 10 years and did her undergraduate and graduate work at Iowa State. Hinderaker graduated in 2004 and later received a certification in sports dietetics.
When Campbell's staff came on in 2015, Hinderaker's role went from 16 hours a week to a full-time job that required an overhaul of the entire nutrition aspect of football.
Hinderaker has more control over what types of foods the athletic department brings in. Right now, Hinderaker mainly works with caterers but once the new athletic performance center is built, it will be a more centralized dining hall.
Her main contact within the football team is strength and conditioning coach Rudy Wade. Wade and Hinderaker meet and coordinate the best plans for nutrition for specific players on the team.
The main objective of these conversations, Hinderaker said, is to choose players that need help gaining or losing weight and plan education that best suits each player.
“My athletes aren’t just a client or a patient, they’re an individual and I really want to see them succeed overall," Hinderaker said.
Hussey's journey began in Louisiana where she did her undergraduate work at LSU. During her senior year, the graduate assistant she worked for was an Iowa State alum. With Hussey looking for a different school to get a new job or a possible masters degree, he threw out Iowa State as an option.
Hussey took his recommendation and is now in her sixth year with Iowa State football as a full-time athletic trainer.
The typical work day for Hussey starts at 6:30 in the morning and ends around 7:30 at night five days a week.
Each day involves a lot of treatment for players, recording what each player did for individual rehab assignments and meeting with coaches to discuss the progress of players.
When it comes time for practice halfway through her day, Hussey watches on the sideline with a sense of worry rather than the excitement a typical fan would have. As the plays end, Hussey has one thing in mind-did everyone stay healthy?
“I’d say I watch plays a little differently than your average football fan," Hussey said. "The play happens and I say ‘did everybody stand up? OK great, next play’."
As with all trainers, Hussey is not hired by Campbell or his staff (trainers are hired by the athletic department), leaving no power dynamic the coaches can hold over trainers.
For Hussey, being a woman in football means she has to give out tough love more than others might have to. Hussey said she feels some players feel like they would be able to get easy standards of treatment from her, but that it's far from the truth.
Hussey said she is a shoot-it-straight kind of person, and by now, most players thank her for her tough support in stopping them from harming their future health.
"They might think, ‘she’ll go easy on me', but the players know by now that there is a lot of tough love with me, I’m a shoot-it-straight kind of person," Hussey said."
“It always kind of feels like we’re the grim reaper, like they see me coming it becomes ‘oh great, who’s hurt now?’"
For Hussey, helping players recover never really stops. Even if the season ends, the bowl game is over and the fans move on to another sport, Hussey is there every step of the way, making sure the players return to full strength to help Iowa State on the field once again.
“If someone has surgery and they’re out for the whole season, I’m still working with them every single day," Hussey said. "The fans and the coaches might not see them on the field for nine months but every single day I’m right there with them. When they make it back and they have their first big play, it feels like a victory for me too."