Back in July, soon after she was hired to be Austin-East’s defensive line coach, Alyson Pointer was heading to eat dinner with her dad and stepmom to tell them the news.
She was nervous and hadn’t told anyone. Her father, Richard, had been an assistant football coach for over 10 years in East Tennessee, from middle school to high school.
“I expected my dad not to be approving of this,” said Pointer, 26. “I was really like, ‘Oh my god, my dad’s going to be, not mad, but I guess weirded out by the fact that I accepted this.'”
But when she told him, her dad said, “‘Oh my gosh, that’s awesome.'”
Pointer is the first woman to be an assistant football coach in the history Knox County Schools. She is one of three women across the state known to be on a football coaching staff this season, along with Constance Luttrell, the defensive coordinator at East Robertson, and Cheryl Wilson, an assistant at Glencliff. Luttrell and Wilson are coaching in Middle Tennessee.
In the past few years, seven women have been hired as full-time NFL coaches. Katie Sowers, an offensive assistant on 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan’s staff, became the first woman to coach in the Super Bowl. Sowers was one of three women who had full-time NFL coaching jobs last season.
“Coach Pointer being the first woman assistant coach in Knox County is a huge moment,” said Erin Whiteside, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Tennessee who studies gender in sports and sports media. “Football has a history of not only being hostile to women, but being a sport that really allows for the display and celebration, of what we can call a hyper form of masculinity, where exhibitions of strength, dominance, aggression and violence are celebrated, and these are characteristics that we often associate with men.”
Pointer never really thought of being a coach. She grew up playing softball and basketball, and when she was in high school at Oliver Springs, she was in the marching band, performing at football games on Friday night. It wasn’t until after she was hired that she found out she had made history.
“I was really surprised. Honestly, I didn’t think it would be me,” she said. “I’m 26. It’s 2020. I would have thought it would have happened years ago. There’s other pro leagues that are having women coaches, and we’ve had a lot of ground-breaking coaches like Pat Summitt. So it’s like, ‘Why weren’t we accepted into sports earlier?'”
‘Her eyes lit up’
Three years ago, Pointer and then-defensive coordinator Antonio Mays were proctoring an exam at Austin-East. At some point, Pointer mentioned that she played rugby for the Knoxville Minx, a women’s team.
At that time, then Austin-East coach Jeff Phillips was looking to see if any teachers at the school would be interested in joining his coaching staff. Mays asked her if she would be interested in coaching football.
“Her eyes lit up,” Mays remembered. “I saw that passion in her eyes. I learned a long time from my grandfather and from playing football: the eyes don’t lie.”
She grew up an Alabama fan, spending every season watching multiple college football games on Saturdays and NFL games on Sundays. And she often had football players in her classes at Austin-East, where she would often talk to them about her rugby team. And they would ask her to come to games on Friday nights.
Pointer wasn’t hired back then. But in June, after Phillips resigned because he and his family were moving to Georgia, Mays was promoted to be the new coach. He remembered the conversation he and Pointer had in 2017, so he asked her if she would join his coaching staff as a volunteer coach.
She said yes.
But after two coaches resigned over the summer, Mays asked Pointer if she would join the staff as a full-time assistant coach.
Again, she said yes.
“The last thing I was thinking of was being progressive. I’m not trying to do any of that,” Mays said. “I had a need. She fulfilled that need. Leadership doesn’t have a gender and leadership doesn’t have a race. Leadership is a quality, and I saw that in her.”
‘Women can do it’
At a practice recently, Pointer watched as the defensive linemen were scrimmaging against the offensive linemen. In between one of the reps, she corrected the stance of one her defensive linemen: His feet were too narrow, and she helped him widen his base so he would be more explosive.
Her coaching duties include breaking down and watching film, focusing on her defensive line’s stance during games and practices, and making sure the players are doing what they are supposed to do on a given play.
“Like any other coach, I feel like she’s a mentor, not only to me but to everybody else on the team,” said senior Tayon Wright, who plays defensive line and linebacker. “Her being a female really shows a different demographic of people, like, no matter who you are, you can come out and you can do anything you want.”
Pointer doesn’t like bringing attention to herself. She views herself as a coach. After one of Austin-East’s practices, Mays gathered the team in a circle. Earlier in the practice, he called her “Ms. Pointer,” instead of “coach Pointer.” He apologized to her in front of the team.
She isn’t sure if she wants to be a head football coach. Her main goal is to start a new rugby program in Knoxville. But she also has another goal.
“I don’t want this to be seen as like a huge groundbreaking thing,” Pointer said. “I want it to be seen as more of an acceptance that women are here. Women can do it.”