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NCAA Celebrates 20 years of women's championships

Sept. 10, 2001

By Kay Hawes
The NCAA News

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- Twenty years ago, women's intercollegiate athletics were practically an afterthought. A magazine devoted to women's sports could not be purchased on a newsstand, and a young boy wouldn't be caught dead wearing a jersey with a woman's name on the back.

Oh, how things have changed. Mia Hamm, Janet Evans, Lisa Leslie and Marion Jones are household names. Elite female athletes play professional basketball in the WNBA and professional soccer in the WUSA. The women's teams from the United States are expected to bring home a sizeable haul of medals in most sports in every Olympics, and young girls -- and boys -- were proud to wear Hamm's No. 9 at the 1999 Women's World Cup and again at the 2000 Olympics.

Also 20 years ago, the NCAA had just began to sponsor women's championships. But since then, an incredible number of opportunities have opened up to women. The NCAA now offers women the opportunity to compete in 43 championships in 19 sports, and more than 145,000 female student-athletes participate annually in NCAA intercollegiate athletics.

It certainly has been 20 years to remember.

An unusual beginning

Most of the student-athletes -- female or male -- competing in this year's NCAA championships probably don't think twice about the NCAA offering championships for women.

But the NCAA did not offer women's championships for the first 75 years of its existence. In fact, an NCAA rule actually prohibited female student-athletes from competing for NCAA championships.

In 1972, when Congress adopted Title IX, a federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in education, that NCAA rule prohibiting women was still on the books. In 1973, when the NCAA rescinded the rule on advice of its legal counsel, the first woman competed in NCAA championships. Her name was Dacia Schileru, and she was a diver from Wayne State University (Michigan) who entered the College Division Swimming and Diving Championships.

When the NCAA passed legislation to create women's championships -- first in Divisions II and III at the 1980 NCAA Convention, then in Division I at the 1981 Convention -- it was very controversial. The Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) had governed women's intercollegiate athletics since 1971, and its leadership was not interested in handing over the reins to the NCAA, which it saw as male-dominated and rife with a variety of ills that the AIAW had thus far avoided.

But the NCAA championships began and the AIAW closed its doors. The AIAW filed and lost an antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA, and the Association continued to govern women's athletics and sponsor women's championships.

(For more on the history of the AIAW, see the following articles from The NCAA News: "Women's sports enter NCAA arena," December 6, 1999, and "General Grant," May 21, 2001.)

A quiet entrance

The first women to play a real role in an NCAA championship did it so quietly that their names were unknown even at the time. The first title in NCAA rifle, the Association's first men's and women's combined championship, was won by Tennessee Technological University in 1980. The NCAA logo at the time featured a man, and the news reports of the victory failed to mention the woman on the Tennessee Tech roster: Elaine Proffitt.

The other schools' rosters had women, too, and their pictures also were in the championships program. If you didn't have a copy of the program or see the roster sheet, though, you'd never have known. There were no news stories -- either by The NCAA News or any other media outlet -- announcing their presence.

Similarly, when women's NCAA championships began in earnest in fall 1981 and spring 1982, the results simply began appearing in NCAA publications.

Even the first Division I Women's Basketball Championship -- it wasn't called the Women's Final Four back then -- had simply a small write-up in The NCAA News, with no photograph. The News staff at the time had to take what photos it could get, and the NCAA's relationship with NCAA Photos -- which captures every NCAA championship in every division -- wouldn't begin until 1994.

In 2001, the Women's Final Four drew a sellout crowd of 20,551 in St. Louis, the ninth consecutive sellout in Women's Final Four history. Almost 600 media credentials were issued, and fans paid $100 a seat and $10.50 for a program.

In 1982, a souvenir program for the finals of the Women's Basketball Championship was $2.50, and 9,531 seats were sold for the final game between Louisiana Tech University and Cheyney University of Pennsylvania.

A few dozen members of the media came, which was a small miracle attributable to the hard work of the staff at Old Dominion University, host of the event in Norfolk, Virginia. Old Dominion had partnered with the local newspaper, The Virginian-Pilot, and had even bused in school children to see the game.

Debbie H. Byrne, now associate athletics director for public relations and marketing at Old Dominion, was the sports information director at the school in 1982 and 1983 when it hosted the championships. Byrne has served as the moderator of most of the press conferences at the Women's Final Four since 1982.

"I remember those first few years well," she said. "Let's just say the media got a lot of personal attention. But really, the fact that the NCAA had recognized women's championships meant a lot. We garnered more attention, even from the media, than the championship had ever had. It gave women's championships status and a new level of success to be associated with the NCAA."

Nora Lynn Finch, now the senior associate athletics director and senior woman administrator at North Carolina State University, was chair of the Division I Women's Basketball Committee for the first seven women's championships. She remembers that the committee was told that this would be the Association's highest-profile women's championship.

"Women's basketball was the flagship sport in the eyes of the NCAA, and the Division I tournament was the flagship championship," she said. "The idea was that we would mirror the men's championship and we tried as best we could."

Finch wore a lot of different hats back then, as she was assistant director of athletics at North Carolina State and also Kay Yow's associate head coach of women's basketball. Her dual role as a coach and administrator was helpful because under the previous AIAW structure, a committee made up of coaches, not athletics administrators as in the NCAA championships, made the tournament selections and seedings.

As chair of the committee, it was Finch's job to respond to the media's inquiries about the tournament selection.

"That first press conference was more of a one-on-one between me and the AP reporter," she said. "It seemed like we knew most of the fans personally, and there were no lines for concessions."

Because the women's championship was "grandfathered" into the NCAA's contract with CBS at the time, the championship game in 1982 was broadcast, though no other games in the tournament or the regular-season were aired on national television.

When the NCAA entered into its relationship with ESPN, the championship really took off, Finch said.

"People think that if it's important, it must be on TV," Finch said. "TV coverage in the nineties was paramount. There was some growth in the '80s, but nothing like has transpired in the '90s and since. I think ESPN coverage has been the single-most important thing to help the women's (basketball) championship."

Finch also credits television exposure with helping young girls become excited about sports.

"Obviously, Title IX started it all, but I think the coverage of the championship encouraged the growth of girls' basketball," Finch said. "It's important that girls see women play and have role models. Now, the quality of play truly is light years ahead of where it was 20 years ago. It used to be that only a handful of schools would compete for the women's championship -- now it's more like 20."

Building a new team

As the Association added and expanded its women's championships, it set about hiring more staff to administer and promote them.

Cheryl L. Levick, athletics director at Santa Clara University, was hired at the NCAA in 1983 to be assistant director for women's championships under Ruth M. Berkey, who was NCAA assistant executive director and the Association's first director of women's championships.

"It was a fun and exciting time," Levick said. "It was women's sports in its infancy stages. Our first goal was to take women's basketball and highlight it to show what women could do if given the opportunity."

At the time, Levick was one of about five people who had responsibilities for administering women's championships in the NCAA. Now, 17 different NCAA administrators have some kind of responsibility for women's championships.

"It's been so exciting to see the growth of women's championships and see the societal acceptance of them," Levick said. "Women's championships and women's athletics are the norm now. It's nice to see them take their proper place in our culture."

Levick and others also know that while it is hard to deny that there has been anything but tremendous progress in women's intercollegiate athletics, there also has not been the kind of progress in some areas -- particularly in media coverage, coaches' salaries and resource allotment -- that many thought would have happened by now.

But if the first 20 years are any indication, those challenges are likely to be overcome, just as the early challenges were two decades ago.