GROWING UP in Glenolden in the early 1970s was fun. There was the neighborhood, which consisted of blocks of houses and streets of rowhomes with lots of kids to play with everyday. I was lucky; on my street were all boys. So, I had two choices ... learn to play sports with the boys or stay in the house and help my mother clean. The latter was not my first choice.
Sports won out and won my heart. I loved competing and I loved winning. What a neat feeling that was, but the neighborhood was as far as I was socially allowed to climb in the athletic world during my first years in sports. No self-respecting parent would allow their daughter to engage in a public practice at an outdoor court playing basketball with all guys. Not to mention, those guys were older than the young girl. It just was not the acceptable practice of the times. The name attached to such a female was not the most flattering: tomboy.
The rule was simple: Boys played sports and girls participated in intramurals and extracurricular activities. End of discussion; actually, there never was a discussion, it was just how it was back in the day.
But the discussion was beginning to take place in 1971 in the form of a new organization called the AIAW (Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women). Donna Lopiano would spearhead this objective with sound business practices and a real democratic system for rulemaking. (As a summer reading assignment, I encourage every young girl reading this article to Google Donna Lopiano.)
The first AIAW national basketball tournament was held in March 1972 in Normal, Ill. Tiny Immaculata College would be allowed to participate in the tournament and would win it all. Seeded 15th and with only eight players and a savvy young coach, Cathy Rush, Immaculata College would walk away with the championship.
On June 23, 1972, this little piece of legislation was passed called Title IX. In part, it read: "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance ... "
For the rest of college athletics, this was a positive. However, for Immaculata College, Title IX brought only a negative impact. Immaculata was an all-women's college; there was no discrimination or lack of participation for women because there were no men.
Immaculata would go on to win the next two championships in 1973 and 1974. As other institutions of higher education provided "funds" for their women's athletic programs, Immaculata would gradually be moved to the back of the pack. But the complete and total enforcement of Title IX was not immediate and the NCAA was not happy with the whole idea of women becoming a major factor in the business machine of college athletics.
These feelings were evidenced by the actions of the NCAA to file a lawsuit in 1976 in an attempt to have Title IX overturned. When March Madness rolls around each year it is important to remember the tournament didn't always look the way it does today.
The players on those three Immaculata championship teams would later continue the "discussion" for women's rights in their career paths and further the chance for other young women to compete at the highest level.
The AIAW would play its last championship in March 1982. Rutgers would defeat Texas at the Palestra. Mary and Patty Coyle (MVP) would be the backcourt while June Olkowski and Chris Dailey would handle the forward duties. I had turned 30 years old just days before I would coach this team to the final AIAW championship.
After the 1973 championship, a writer from Sports Illustrated came to Immaculata to do a story on our team. We thought we really had hit the "Big Time" now. UCLA was the champion on the men's side and we were the natural comparison. The two respective centers on each team were Bill Walton, who was going on to make millions in the NBA, and Theresa Shank Grentz, who was going to be married and teach sixth grade.
The question begs: "Would I trade places with the players of today?" I would have to think about my answer for all of about a heartbeat. The answer is no. My time was then; I had the chance to dream great dreams and to see my dreams become a reality. I had the chance to put my signature on my work. We won championships that were never supposed to happen. We did it first. We started something and we lived the whole process that had a real chance to make a difference in a person's life today. My coaching career oversaw my time at three major universities and 10 years with the USA Basketball program. I am grateful for the opportunity.
Looking back over my years in sports, we have come a long way, but we have to continue to be watchful of the opportunities for women. A young girl from Glenolden received the chance to become a champion because some very brave and intelligent women championed a cause ... who is today's champion?