Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

A Guru Retrospective: Looking Back Over Four Decades Of Title IX Impact On Basketball

By Mel Greenberg

Far more insights have been opined throughout the weekend on the 40th anniversary of the landmark Title IX federal legislation that inherently gave women the right to compete in sports at publicly funded institutions when the bill became law in 1972.

But the Guru thought he should weigh in with something because of his having been around the growth of women's basketball along the way in the Title IX era.

It hasn't been all Title IX in terms of the women's growth, though the amendment to the 1972 Education Acts bill certainly was the primary major factor in propeling the growth of the sport.

Coming off his undegraduate years as a Big Five men's fan at Temple University here, not far from where the legendary Dawn Staley. now coach of South Carolina, spent her formative years, basketball had always been embraced by men and women and in terms of the women.

This area -- city and suburbs -- traditionally was a hotbed for the gender.

The high schools had stellar girls competition and of course out in the suburbs there was that small women's Catholic college Imaculata, which won the first three national championships under the former Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW).

Hall of Famer Cathy Rush was the coach.

Before that, Carol Eckman at then-named West Chester State College, the alma mater of one Geno Auriemma, in 1969 decided to run an invitational tournament consisting of just collegiate women's teams.

The Golden Rams won that first title -- on a day, incidentally, that the Temple men's team of which the Guru was the basketball manager was winning the then-fashionable NIT in New York City.

It worked so well, two more were held elsewhere and that led to the formation of the AIAW, where Immaculata beat West Chester.

Last fall a movie called the Mighty Macs, now in DVD, finally made it to theater screens where the story of the first championship, ironically in 1972 several months before Title IX became a reality, was well received.

In local AAU competition, Mike Flynn had already been in business several seasons running the powerful Blue Star program featuring his Philadelphia Belles that still exists.

A young coach at another suburban collegiate institution -- C. Vivian Stringer -- was developing a program at Cheyney, though with limited resources.

Meanwhile, though the Guru, following his move out of Temple and down the street to The Philadelphia Inquirer, which is in its final days on North Broad Street before moving elsewhere in Center City, still hung around the Owls' men's team and eventually began to cover some of their games.

But at the same time elsewhere near the Temple athletic department, which had fielded women's teams for several decades but not in a merged setup, powerful individuals in the physical education building such as Carole A. Oglesby, now at National College in La Jolla, Calif., were becoming a force behind the move to Title IX, th0ugh former Indiana Democractice U.S. Senator Birch Bayh was not necessarily focusing on sports, per se, when he sponsored the legislation.

Oglesby became one of the first AIAW presidents and a few years later another notable became involved at Temple -- Alpha Alexander who today is an administrator at Morristown East High, about an hour East of Knoxville in Tennessee.

These were some of the backdrop people and settings the Guru quickly came to know when in the fall of 1975 Jay Searcy arrived from the New York Times to become sports editor of The Inquirer.

Today he is actually retired down at Knoxville.

Searcy had written a Women In Sports weekly Sunday column at the Times and asked the Guru to pick up his work at The Inquirer, though the Guru at that time had other duties and was still years away from becoming a formal member of the writing staff.

Some of the Guru's early stories beginning after 1972 were already being written as a result of some of the effects of Title IX.

Hall of Famer Theresa Grentz, for example, the former star center of Immaculata coaching St. Joseph's, was hired away an hour to the North where Rutgers made her one of the first, if not very first, coaches who could hold the position and did not also have to teach physical education or some other courses.

Contrast that with Penn State, at that time, and this little tale the Guru has in his long history of experiences.

Pat Mesier, who was one of the Guru's first voting coaches, had been imploring the Guru to come up to Happy Valley for a big game with Immaculata because she sensed a victory against the national power.

She invited the Guru to stay over her house but on the morning of the game Mesier first had to teach a dance class, come home to feed her young toddler breakfast while going over the game plan.

But Penn State did pull an upset that day and joined the poll for the first time and became a mainstay most of the 36 seasons.

Today Mesier is a successful overall athletic director at the University of Hartford.

Two of her famous hires were former UConn star Jenn Rizzotti for basketball with the Hawks and, previously, as a UConn official in the athletic department, she helped bring Geno Auriemma on board.

Another school that made an early commitment to go big-time in all women's sports was Maryland. One of the Guru's first games covering Immaculata was highlighted, after another easy win, by Coach Rush taking aside the media on hand to let us know she had been invited by the Terrapins to interview for the coaching job.

But Rush decided the job deserved to go to Chris Weller, who had been the assistant to Dottie McKnight, another of the early pioneers, and went on to a distinguished career in 27 seasons.

A few years later, after Immaculata's title game run ended in 1977 with losses in the semifinals and consolation to LSU, which had an Australian player who became the mother of WNBA Seattle Storm star Lauren Jackson, and to Tennessee, Rush could sense the wave coming as large schools with athletic scholarships available would push others aside.

An early joke about the new opportunity used to be one of a father deploring his daughter to forget the piano and forget playing with dolls, get outside and pick up a basketball.

Obviously, the idea of free tuition had its appeal and women historically, unlike the men, have overwhelmingly stayed focused on academics while pursuing basketball competition.

One of the early things Searcy did to the Guru after arriving at The Inquirer, was harrange him for several months to begin a weekly women's poll, which eventually became the Associated Press women's rankings, then voted by coaches. Since 1994-95 a media panel has voted.

The Guru mentions this in terms of the poll because the rankings became a way to illustrate the impact Title IX's effect on the landscape.

For example, the very first poll had such schools near the top as Immaculata, Wayland Baptist, Delta State, Queens College, William Penn, Southern Connecticut and several others.

By the end of the first season of the poll (1976-77), more schools regularly associated with football such as the ones mentioned, along with North Carolina State, which made an early commitment, and Penn State, among others, began to be the ones with consistent rankings.

Another early project Searcy gave the Guru, who did not have a byline at the time, was to write a series on the coming of athletic scholarships for women.

Incidentally, the series ran with a big display in the Los Angeles Times while in the Guru's home paper -- well, that chapter will be left off here until the Guru gets around to writing his memoirs.

But, in the course of interviewing and researching the series, the Guru was told time and time again that while scholarships were one byproduct of Title IX, the real effect of the law will be seen down at the elementary and secondary school levels.

The reason is that young girls would now begin to get the benefits of better coaching, etc. Forecasters continuously predicted that the true oustanding female athletes of the future, for the most part, were a decade or two away.

Indeed, there became a trend where almost every season, even among the high profile teams, entering freshmen classes were consisting of more talent than the senior classes, who were departing.

And sure enough, though basketball had seen such great stars as Nancy Lieberman, Ann Meyers Drysdale, Theresa Grentz, Marianne Stanley, Carol Blazejowski, Lynette Woodard, and Cheryl Mller early on, it was the summer of 1996 that things blossomed when the Olympic Games in Atlanta marked the achievement of women who had been Title IX babies, so to speak.

That success fueled several pro leagues in women's soccer, which was short-lived, and two in basketball -- the American Basketball League, which lasted a month into its third season before going bankrupt, and the WNBA, which is still alive today.

Though the small salaries in the WNBA are often criticized when compared to the NBA and women's pay overseas in the winter, the financial figures are like millions compared to failed efforts at pro leagues in the 1980s.

But the Leibermans, Meyers-Drysdales, and Blazejowskis, who played then, including a future WNBA president named Donna (nee Giles) Orender, as well as some of the coaches then in charge, like one Doug Bruno, the longtime mentor at DePaul, it was more about the love of the game than the hardships of pay and arena settings.

Of course, media coverage grew until the economic climate in the newspaper industry began to cause a decline of print coverage, though the internet is a somewhat quality replacement for what had existed.

But back then, Title IX was part of a total women's movement and papers were anxious to draw female readers. Who knew more of them were interested in reading men's sports, which has been noted in several stories this past weekend.

Stil, the market following women's sports is now sizeable, especially considering role models exist for young girls to emulate and the role models are female instead of the Michael Jordans, Larry Birds and Magic Johnsons that they grew up wanting to be like.

The athletes out of Title IX helped Connecticut win its first NCAA women's basketball championship in 1995 and coming just before the Olympics of '96, the national media organizations, print and broadcast, out of New York jumped onto the story after the Huskies had upset Tennessee during the season to become No. 1 for the first time.

And another thing that helped, something the Guru would point out in the early years on the circuit, is that just as the old guard male administrators at universities were not happy with the coming of Title IX, individuals on the women's circuit were told of media coverage:

Be patient. Soon young editors will come on board and they will have daughters involved with collegiate athletics and when that happens, there will be a sea change.

The Guru had his own experience in a positive sense back in the day when Dawn Staley was making Virginia into a powerhouse.

The daughter of a very high ranking editor at the Guru's paper had become the athletic trainer of the Cavaliers' women's basketball team, as well as a close friend of Staley's. As a result, well, the Guru will save that ditty for the memoirs.

Just let's say suddenly more scores than local were on the results page and more trips to Charlottesville for big games became commonplace.

The NCAA's sponsorship of women's championships also became a product of Title IX.

Just as the discussion noted the change in attitudes at newspapers, as teams began to gain profiles, suddenly athletic directors who ignored women's competition as a necessary evil of Title IX began to transform almost into cheerleaders.

By the way, there's the famous story of then-Texas football coach Darrell Royal and several of his prominent colleagues testifying in congress that passage would be the ruination of their sport.

But after the dust settled and Jody Conradt had made the Longhorns into a national title contender, Royal on more than a few occasions showed up at team cookouts.

On the other hand, for all the controversy in the past year involving the late Joe Paterno at Penn State, the Guru can say he was a major supporter of women's athletics, especially when he ran the department as athletic director.

He and the Guru often crossed paths when the Lady Lions played in old Rec Hall and Paterno once impressed the Guru's friends at CoSIDA, the college sports PR directors, when he gave the Guru a shoutout during a speech he made to the group at one their annual conventions.

But back to the point, since the AIAW operated on limited resources, ADs began to get the idea that travel costs could be saved and perhaps athletes could be given more attention in the then mega machine the NCAA was in terms of promotion.

And so the push was made to the NCAA to adopt women's competition and governance and, though it was a battle with AIAW at the time, the legislation was passed at the annual convention in Miami in 1981.

The Guru, who covered the proceedings, lightheartedly noted how several opposing sides he knew would argue on the convention floor in the morning and afternoon sessions and then dance with each other when socializing in the city where the NCAA convention was held.

It's funny that Senator Bayh has said that when he introduced Title IX he was more concerned with academic equality then athletics.

That's like back in the neophyte post-typewriter days in the newspaper business -- yes some of us actually had our little Olivettis (like owning an iPod) back in the day to take to press row with reams of five-part carbon paper to use to report the story.

Anyhow, after some early incarnations of equipment we used, Radio Shack came along and introduced TR-80s, those little eight-line screens also lovingly referred to as Trash 80s.

The last piece of hardware before computers began to sprout, Radio Shack toted the marvels of these device in terms of such businesses as finance among others.

But as an applicati0n to help produce journalism in remote settings away from the newsroom, the TRS-80 wasn't even on anyone's radar at the giant electronics corporation.

Today, of course, there are smart phones, PCs and Mac Books, iPads, the internet, twitter, facebook, social media conversation in other forms.

In other words, technology has evolved just as women's athletics has evolved.

At her recent induction at the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoville, Staley, who is now the coach of South Carolina after coaching Temple in her native city, had a discussion with the Guru about how technology and basketball has grown since her days as a Title IX baby at Dobbins Tech High in Philadelphia and playing basketball on the neighborhood blacktops at an early age.

"It's crazy how you chronicle how the game has evolved," Staley said. "When you talk about how much talent there is in the game today, you also have to talk about technology.

"Access to communicate. Access to seeing women's basketball on TV (and iPads, phones and computers). All those things have evolved," she added.

"I think we've evolved like technology. So it's a great thing that technology has evolved like us."

And by the time the next national Title IX birthday super-celebration occurs, either at year No. 45, or year No. 50, the capacity for growth will have been limitless.

-- Mel

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


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