Hall of fame coach Pat Summitt—the winningest college basketball coach of all time—has died. When she took over as head coach of the University of Tennessee Lady Volunteers women's basketball team during the 1974-75 season, women's basketball was little more than an afterthoughtâ. That it blossomed is thanks in large part to the efforts of Summitt and her coaching contemporaries, including Harvard University's Kathy Delaney-Smith and Bentley University's Barbara Stevens. This story, which examines the transformation of women's basketball during the years when Summitt was building the University of Tennessee women's basketball program into a perennial powerhouse, was originally published in April 2015, ahead of the NCAA Women's Final Four.
This weekend, four college basketball teams will square off in the Final Four. And Kentucky, Duke, Michigan State, and Wisconsin are not among them -- well, at least not the women’s teams. For quite awhile, men haven’t been the only game in town and it took no small effort to make it that way. This, in condensed form, is the story of how women claimed their place on the court.
In the 1960s, the basketball that women played in high schools and colleges would, today, barely qualify as a sport.
Harvard’s women’s basketball coach Kathy Delaney-Smith, who played the now outmoded 6-on-6 game in high school explains: “So there were three guards and three forwards. And the guards were the three players who shot and the forwards were the three players who defended. So the defenders never played offense and the offense never played defense.”
Delaney-Smith continues: “And you could not cross half court, because it wasn’t healthy for a woman to run the full length of the court, because we had our periods of course.”
Oh yeah, and there was one other little difference. “We were not allowed to dribble,” Delaney-Smith adds.
Despite scoring 1,000-points for her Newton High School, that is where Delaney-Smith’s playing career ended, nevermind her love for the game. As she recalls: “And I marched into this Bridgewater State College, the premiere college for health and physical education, they did not have a women’s team, they had a basketball club.”
But in 1971 came a watershed moment: the passage of title IX. So when Delaney-Smith took her first coaching job that year, at Westwood High School, the women would be playing full court, 5 on 5 – a game she never once played.
“Scared to death I read books,” Delaney Smith says, “I ran in my office, I read a book and ran out in the gym and pretended I knew what I was doing."
She figured it out. At Westood, Delaney-Smith would compile a 204-31 record, including six undefeated seasons and a state title. In her time there, she also fought to transform the landscape for women’s basketball. Her first battle: the heavy woolen hand-me-down field hockey kilts that her team wore as uniforms.
“And I’m like that’s ridiculous, no. So I filed four different lawsuits at Westwood, to get us uniforms, they wouldn’t let us practice equally,” Delaney Smith says. “We marched in on a boys team in the locker room to get our locker room back. I mean there was just no respect for girl athletes at all.”
Now consider Barbara Stevens, the winningest Division II women's basketball coach in history, who has been the head women’s basketball coach at Bentley University for almost 40 years.
Thanks to federal legislation referred to as Title IX and crusaders like Delaney-Smith, Stevens played 5-on-5 basketball in high school and by the time she got to Bridgewater State, just a handful of years after Delaney-Smith graduated, not only was there a women’s team, but they were good.
“I was also one of those players that was a star in high school,’ said Stevens. “And then I look around and I’m one of many stars from their local communities, so I sat the bench a lot.
In those years, the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) -- not the NCAA -- governed all women’s college athletics. But in the early 80s, the NCAA came calling, and Stevens, by then the women’s basketball coach at UMass, found herself on a committee to decide whether joining the NCAA was the right move.
Says Stevens. “I felt like a traitor, to be honest with you at that time.”
Stevens recounts that the discussions were intense - and emotional: “There were those who saw great benefits in the NCAA, a much more powerful organization much more visible, more access to TV, and then there were those who had established the AIAW who were running things saying no once they take us over that will be it. we’ll get put back to where we were.”
The NCAA would win the day, and take women’s college sports under its umbrella.
In 1982, 43 years after the first men’s tournament, the NCAA held their first women’s postseason tournament. With it has come exposure that couldn’t have been imagined in the 1970s, but Delaney-Smith says, that doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been a double-edged sword.
Delaney-Smith is very clear: “We’re still having to go to home sites, and is that fair competition? No its not, and now they’re talking to expand the men to ninety-whatever and rein back the women because the early rounds are blowouts. Everything is because of money and that’s how the NCAA rolls.”
In the 1970's and 80s, when trailblazers like Delaney-Smith and Stevens were inching the needle forward for women's college basketball, there was no playbook to follow. It took the tenacity of countless coaches, athletic directors, administrators, and players. Stevens, reflecting on how far women’s basketball has come during her career, points to the countless men and women who helped make it what it is today – but also the battles still to be fought.
“Even still,” Stevens reflects, “you’ve got guys that just don’t think that women belong, but we do. We do.”
And if anyone needs proof, flip on ESPN this Sunday night. There are a couple of games scheduled that promise to be superior 5-on-5 basketball.