By Skip Myslenski
NUsports.com Special Contributor
National Girls & Women in Sports Day was Wednesday, Feb. 6, but Northwestern will celebrate this special event on Sunday, Feb. 10, prior to the NU women's basketball game vs. Ohio State. NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski takes a look back at how opportunities for women in sports have grown over the years, speaking with NU head women's basketball coach Joe McKeown, a 20+-year coaching veteran, former NU women's basketball All-American Anucha Browne and NU senior shortstop Emily Allard.
He was now back in Philadelphia, his hometown, and looking for work, any kind of work coaching basketball. This was the summer of 1980 and here he heard that over in New Jersey, over there across the bridge in the small town of Pemberton, both the men's and the women's job were vacant at a two-year school called Burlington County College. So he applied and an interview was arranged, but when he arrived for it this is what he heard. "We already filled the men's job," he heard. "Do you want the women's job?"
"Sure," said Joe McKeown, now the head coach of the 'Cat Women.
He smiles out from a chair in his office as he relates this tale, and that smile remains rooted there as he recalls this very different time. "We had five players," he is saying now. "We had a tryout. I don't think they had won a game the year before. So I was pulling people out of the hallways, saying, 'Hey, come play for us.' We had six players. But I had a girl in the middle of the season elope, get married. So we were down to five. I remember finishing games with three players. Players would foul out, we would run triangle-and-none defenses, box-and-none defenses. We won six or seven games, had a lot of fun.
"I remember in practice, I would practice with them. We didn't have anybody else. We didn't have enough people to practice. We would play three-on-three all the time, or two-on-two, or run five-on-zero. Our biggest player was probably 5-foot-9. We'd have kids double-dribble all the time. We'd tell the refs before games, 'Don't call that today. Don't call double-dribbles. We didn't mean it.'"
So the skill set of today compared to then?
"The skill set today, the training that goes into it, the strength-and-conditioning, the treatment they get, the scholarship money-- I remember that team, we didn't have a budget. My salary was, I think, $400. The lady, I said, 'What's our budget?' She said, 'Your salary.' So we'd stop at diners around Philly and New Jersey, or go to McDonald's. If I had 20 bucks in my pocket, we'd feed the whole team. If I had 15, we'd stick with the dollar menu. That's how it was."
In the fall of 1981, as McKeown prepared for his second season at Burlington, Anucha Browne began her freshman year at Northwestern. She had grown up in Brooklyn and, while in elementary school, had lost herself in figure skating. But she had sprouted to 5-foot-10 in the ninth grade and so then, at that borough's St. Saviour High School, she turned her attention to basketball and track.
No, she recalls now, she was never criticized or ostracized for her involvement in sports, and then she explains why. St. Saviour was an all-girls school and at them, she goes on, "Girls are empowered to be who they are, to have confidence in their abilities, to have confidence in their talents. It was the best place I could be."
Here she pauses, chuckles and then she goes on, "Being tall is probably what made me most uncomfortable. But when you become an athlete, you're surrounded by other athletes. You're comfortable with each other. You're comfortable being powerful. You're comfortable sweating. All of that helped, being in a positive environment relative to playing sports."
It helped too that her mother, a former player herself, had supported and encouraged her participation, and that as a runner she was tutored by a man named Fred Thompson. He, in those days, was a legendary figure, a practicing attorney who espoused women participating in track; who founded and financed Brooklyn's famed Atoms Track Club; who produced Olympic medalists at that club; and who, finally, helped coach the U.S. women's track team at the 1988 Games in Seoul. "I do realize it was a lot different experience for other women," she will say now. "But I was always surrounded by strong, confident women."
So she herself was that in that fall of 1981 and now she set off on her remarkable 'Cat career. She would be an All-American as a senior. She would twice be named the Big Ten's Player of the Year. She would set an NCAA record by scoring 30-or-more points in six straight games. She would, not insignificantly, be part of the 'Cat team that earned an invite to the 1982 national championship tourney, the first women's basketball tourney run by the NCAA. (Until then, the governing group was the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women.)
This is not insignificant since Anucha Browne is now the Vice-President of Women's Basketball Championships for the NCAA, the caretaker of that tourney that will kick off again come March. "When you talk about (the) 32 years (that have passed), women's basketball has grown by leaps and bounds," she will finally say, speaking from that perspective, and then she offers the numbers that support her claim. At that first tourney, she says, the total attendance for its 19 sessions was a mere 20,000. But at last spring's tourney, she goes on, that number was 200,000.
A decade after the NCAA ran its first Women's Basketball Tournament, Emily Allard was born in the California town of Antioch. She was, from the start, drawn to sports, and at the precocious age of four she was already out on the diamond and playing softball. "I was the tomboy, or one of the boys, or the one who came home with grass stains on her pants, things like that. But I don't think it (her playing sports) was ever frowned upon, and I never let that (what was said) effect me," she remembers. "I just knew in my heart that this was what I was good at, that it was going to take me far, and that I loved doing it. So no one was going to stop me from that no matter what they said."
She was free to dream, then, free to imagine possibilities unavailable to those from generations so-recently past. Women had begun playing full-court basketball just 21 years earlier. (Until then they had played a six-on-six game where three players stayed on one side of the half-court line as defenders and three stayed on the other side as scorers.)
And Title IX, which opened up athletic opportunities for women, had been enacted just 20 years earlier. ("I truly am a product of Title IX," Anucha Browne will declare in our discussion, and then she shares these figures. At the time of its enactment, some 30,000 women were participating in intercollegiate athletics. Now there are 200,000.)
And Ann Meyers had gotten the first athletic scholarship awarded by a Division I school (UCLA) to a woman just 17 years earlier. (The 'Cats now have women on scholarship in 11 different sports.)
And just eight years earlier, at the 1984 Games of Los Angeles, women had finally been considered sturdy enough to compete in the Olympic marathon.
But already all of that was ancient history and so, as her skills grew along with her body, Allard could hold onto her dream, could nurture her dream, could pursue her dream freed from many of the prejudices and handicaps confronted by her predecessors. There was, we wonder, never a discouraging word? "That's very true. I was very fortunate," says Allard, a senior, star and shortstop on the 'Cat softball team. "I think people understood the work I put in, and the potential I had, whether it was in athletics or in the classroom, and they just wanted to do anything they could to help me get where I was headed.
"I do not come from a wealthy family. But my parents found the means necessary to get me where I needed to go, especially when I got older and started playing travel ball and that college scholarship was looming. I think they knew that I would ultimately save them hundreds of thousands of dollars by forking over $1,500 so I could play on the best travel team that I could. I think those sacrifices just made me appreciate what I had so much more, and in the end it really worked out. They haven't had to pay a penny and that's opened numerous doors for our family."
Last Wednesday, for the 27th time, National Girls and Women in Sports Day was celebrated. On Sunday afternoon, before the 'Cat Women face Ohio State at Welsh-Ryan Arena, that occasion will be observed at an event featuring ESPN's Sarah Spain, who will give its keynote address and lead a roundtable discussion. "People my age and in my generation have a lot to pay back to the people who came before us, especially the women who came before us," Allard will say during our talk.
"I don't think we really understand what others had to go through and I think days like this, where they're honoring women and girls in sports, is kind of eye-opening for my generation. I don't want to say I'm oblivious to it. But I will never truly understand what other women did to pave the road to today."
Today is surely not a perfect world for women in sports. It is, in fact, not a perfect world for anyone. Yet the road traveled by female athletes is long enough to stretch back to the Ancient Olympics, which are idealized even though women could not compete in them and married women could not even attend them. (If they did and were caught, they were thrown to their death off Mount Typaeum). Women were banned too when the Modern Games began in 1896 and they were not allowed to compete in track-and-field events until 1928; but that year, at the conclusion of the 800 meters, a number of competitors collapsed, controversy arose and they would not again run that far at an Olympics until the 1960 Games in Rome. Twelve years later, in Munich, they were finally considered strong enough to compete in the 1,500 meters, and then 12 more years would pass before the United State's Joan Benoit won the first marathon gold medal awarded to a woman.
McKeown, in turn, was on a road of his own, driving his Burlington team to games in one of the school's minivans ("You just hoped you didn't run out of gas," he remembers), then driving again in the late '80s after he took over New Mexico State in his first head job. This time he would navigate a 15-passenger Econoline van, guiding it the 275 miles from Las Cruces to Tucson for a game with Arizona; then guiding it the 126 miles from Tucson to Glendale for a game with Arizona State; finally guiding it the 400 miles from Glendale back to Las Cruces and home. (Utah, Brigham Young, Wyoming and Colorado State were also on the team's schedule; on those occasions, they would fly to Salt Lake City, rent three minivans, drive to the various outposts and, he recalls, "Hope you didn't crash in the snow.")
"We went undefeated and our motto was, 'We're going to Sizzler.' We went to Sizzler, for eight bucks you could feed everybody," he also says of those days, thinking back to one of his teams. But already, in his sport, a corner had been turned, and leading the advance were names of renown. Meyers, a four-time All-American at UCLA, had signed a contract and gotten a tryout with the Indiana Pacers in 1979. Cheryl Miller, a USC All-American and the sister of Pacer guard Reggie, had led the U.S. women to a gold medal at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. Lynette Woodard, a former Kansas All-American, had become the first woman to play for the Harlem Globetrotters in 1985 and, a year later, Nancy Lieberman had become the first woman to play in a man's pro league when she joined the USBL's Springfield Fame.
"I think those pioneers like Ann Meyers, Cheryl Miller, they had personalities. They understood how to get things done," McKeown says, thinking of those driving forces. "They didn't say, 'You have to give us.' That's what helped grow women's sports too. Not just making demands. You needed to know how to talk to people, how to deal with people, and I think a lot of coaches in our game in the '80s started to get better at that too. That really helped us."
The Scribbler, some 42 years ago, was a young Sports Illustrated reporter assigned to do a story on a female distance runner at UCLA. He does not remember her name. But he does remember she told him this. She told him that her sorority sisters demanded that she use the back door when she returned from her runs; if she didn't, if she came in all sweaty through the front door, she would embarrass them in front of their dates.
"Wow. Oh, wow. I can't imagine that," Emily Allard will say when that perspective is offered up to her. "That's hard. It's got to be hard. Especially when it's part of who you are. Man. I don't know. I don't know what I would have done. I've never faced anything like that."
Allard, in fact, faces a far different reality, a reality that not only accepts a woman who sweats and strains and comes home with grass-stained knees. It can also, on occasion, view those pursuits as assets, which in her case was proven just last summer.
She had to make a choice back then, a choice between accepting an invite to the U.S. national team tryouts and taking the internship she had been offered in the marketing department of Wilson Sporting Goods. "That was really big for me. It was something outside of sports, furthering my career," she says of the latter, and more was at work here as well.
"I also had a couple nagging injuries, I guess you could say, and it was a decision to be ready for next season or play on the national team. My commitment has always been here to Northwestern and it was something I had to do for myself and my team and my health, not my own glory. . . I never imagined turning down an invitation to play for my country. But it was something that had to be done. . . At the time, it was a very hard decision for me to make. But I think it was the right one."
The internship, we wonder now, does she think her involvement in sports helped her land that job?
"Yes," she says flatly. "Being an athlete, especially in softball, it helped me be more relevant to their company. That's what they are, a sporting goods company, especially for baseball and softball. So it all kind of fell into place and it was the most-incredible experience of my summer."
"Women are now celebrated for being involved in sports. . .and they've shown to be better leaders and more effective effective in the workplace because of their team experiences," Browne will say days later. She offers this coincidentally, without prompt, with no knowledge of Allard's experience, and here she continues, "Companies very regularly reach out to universities and ask if they can point out graduating, high-potential student-athletes. They realize they have the core leadership skills needed at their companies."
Joe McKeown is again smiling. He and his 'Cat Women now travel to away games on either chartered busses or planes, and his players' skills and experiences are as far removed from what he confronted at Burlington as their uniforms are from the floor-length dresses worn by the first women to play basketball. They now enter their sport at the earliest of ages, hone their talents with diligence and passion, and--when the time arrives--are recruited as assiduously as any of their male counterparts. Their roster is now complete enough to hold spirited practices, their productions are now mottled only rarely by double-dribbling, and now they eat not at a McDonald's or a Sizzler, but at a training table or a fine hotel restaurant.
But, we wonder, does Joe McKeown ever think back to those old days, back to those days of cheap eats and endless van rides, and this is when he offers up that last, final smile. Then, eyes twinkling, he says, "Everyday. Everyday, everyday, everyday. And especially when we're on a charter flight coming back from Ohio State or wherever."