COLUMBIA, Mo. _ Robin Pingeton is wearing a long-sleeved gold T-shirt with “Mizzou” on it … just a few week ago, of course, all her casual athletic gear would have been in the Illinois State hues of red, white or black.
But that’s how it works in the coaching business: When you take a new job, you must instantly “become” that new school because that’s now your identity and what you are selling to recruits.
In the Missouri women’s basketball offices, now populated mostly by the newcomers, there are two framed jerseys representing the best of the Tigers’ past. Pingeton, MU coach now for a week, can’t possibly be expected to know these women. She and her staff are still getting to know the current Tigers who’ll play for them next season.
But I know who the former wearers of those jerseys are. The old-timey (the 1980s is old times!) sleeved, collared jerseys are still strangely familiar to me, the Nos. 33 and 42 never forgotten. Joni Davis finished her career in 1985, Renee Kelly in 1987. They are 1-2 in career scoring for Missouri, and Kelly is the program’s leading rebounder, with Davis fourth on that list.
For someone who attended Missouri from 1983-87 and actually paid close attention to women’s basketball – not that there are a lot of us in that group _ Davis and Kelly remain the program’s royalty. Because I saw them play many, many games in person – the only way I could see them, because the Tigers were never on television _ I know they were really quite talented.
Davis finished with 2,126 points but would have had more had she played when the 3-point shot was in use. Of her 910 career field goals, I would guess a significant portion were from what’s now 3-point range or close to it. Davis was from the little town of Highland, Kan., in the northeast corner of the Sunflower State, about a half-hour west of St. Joseph, Mo. Pony Express territory. She always wore barrettes, with tape over them, to keep her hair back.
Kelly was from Augusta, Ga., where she still lives. She always wore kneepads and was a workhorse on the low block. She would say things like “Goodness gracious” or “Oh, my heavens” when talking to reporters about if a game had, for instance, been particularly physical.
Davis went to the NCAA tournament all four of her seasons; Kelly went three of her four. Missouri didn’t make the field in 1987, Kelly’s senior year, and she was eight points shy of breaking Davis’ school scoring record. The Tigers could have gone to what then was called the NWIT (National Women’s Invitation Tournament) and is now the WNIT. But the school opted not to go to the event, which from 1969-1996 was held in Amarillo, Texas.
While I don’t recall Kelly ever saying anything about that – it was not her personality – some of her teammates were upset about it. They were angry that the school wouldn’t give Kelly a chance to break the record, which she almost certainly would have done with one more game.
Bubbling under the surface, but not hard to discern, was their wondering if it had been a white player from a Midwestern small town that close to breaking the record of an African-American player from the South _ instead of the other way around _ would Missouri’s administration have found the cash to send the team?
I empathized with them. All I had to do was look around at my classes, including giant lecture halls filled almost exclusively with people who looked exactly like me, to imagine how marginalized black students might have felt at Missouri then.
It was not a racially diverse campus, not that Mizzou was alone in that. There has at least been some progress made in the last two decades. Minority students make up about 11 percent of the total student body there this academic year, and I think it was closer to about 3 percent when I was an MU student.
In my time there, the big “issue” _ to the extent that there was one on what I felt was a politically apathetic campus (again, not unusual in the ‘80s) _ was a debate about the fact that the University of Missouri system had investments in South Africa. Some groups erected symbolic “shanty towns” on Francis Quadrangle to protest and called for the University to divest.
So, it was not at all a huge stretch for me back then to agree with the players who saw at least some racism element in the decision not to go to the NWIT. In retrospect, though, I would say, overall, it was probably more a matter of the athletic administration not wanting to spend one penny on women’s hoops that they didn’t absolutely have to.
In 1987, Mizzou had an athletic department consumed by two things. MU had seen the football program descend into an alarmingly fast and near-total collapse. The men’s basketball team had to bounce back after the high of finishing first in the Big Eight four consecutive years (1980-83) in the “Stipo and Sunvold” era, but by ’87 the Tigers were on top of the Big Eight again.
So with their worries about trying to salvage football (which wouldn’t happen for a long time) and their excitement of men’s basketball being back in the NCAA tournament after a two-year absence (although it would end up being a short stay; the No. 4 seed Tigers were upset in the first round by No. 13 Xavier) … let’s face it: Missouri’s athletic officials probably didn’t take any time to debate about the merits of the NWIT. It was more likely just, “Please go away until next fall when we might pay attention again.”
This all may seem like excessive gazing at ancient history, but you will almost always find the explanations about the present really can go back in a connect-the-dots fashion to the past.
Missouri’s women made the NCAA tournament every season in the event’s first five years of existence, 1982-86. The Tigers have made it in the NCAA field only four times since.
In other words, for the first five years, the Tigers “batted 1.000” in making the field. For the last 24 seasons, they’ve “batted .167” _ and that’s about as dramatic a contrast between success and failure as you could illustrate.
What happened? Clearly, a lot of dynamics in the sport changed. Coaching salaries changed (dramatically, and not necessarily for the good of the sport or athletic departments as a whole). Talent level and the talent pool changed. Media coverage changed.
And yet, I would say something didn’t change enough. And that was the real interest/concern that Missouri either would or could devote to its women’s basketball program.
In terms of the past decade or so, this really isn’t a knock at athletic director Mike Alden and his staff. I’d say his track record in terms of hiring coaches, improving facilities, providing resources, etc., has been quite good. At Missouri, everything starts with football – always has and always will. And as football became healthier and more vibrant, it was a rising tide that lifted all boats … or most boats.
However, women’s basketball seemed to have a hole that could, at most, be only temporarily patched. It still seemed floundering at best, and sinking at worst.
The last time the Tigers won a conference title was in 1990, when they were the Big Eight’s regular-season champions. Then they promptly lost to Oklahoma in their league tournament opener … yes, the same Oklahoma that then had its entire women’s basketball program disbanded for a little over a week before criticism brought the school to its senses.
Since that 11-3 league mark in 1990, Missouri has had a winning conference record four times. That’s right, four times in 20 years … and two of those were marks of 8-6 and 9-7 _ both a win away from .500.
So the Nos. 33 and 42 jerseys in the Missouri offices are symbolic of a lot more than just the accomplishments of these two terrific players from a quarter-century ago. They also point out how Missouri hasn’t had anyone since who’s done better.
Of the program’s top 10 career scorers, only two – No. 3 Julie Helm and No. 7 Evan Unrau _ played in the Big 12 era. Same goes for the top-10 rebounders: No. 2 Kesha Bonds and No. 3 Unrau.
In the 1985 NCAA tournament, when Davis was a senior and Kelly a sophomore, they lost 85-84 in overtime at what was then known as Northeast Louisiana, now Louisiana-Monroe. It was a first-round game when the tournament was still 32 teams, and the Tigers were an equal match for the team then called the Indians (now the Warhawks).
Louisiana-Monroe went on to the Final Four that season. And I’ve always seen that as Missouri’s best team, one that really could have made the same run to the Final Four had the Tigers hosted the first round and the regional, as UL-Monroe did that year.
Even more so than the 2001 MU team that upset Georgia on its home floor in the NCAA second round before falling in the Sweet 16 to Louisiana Tech, the 1984-85 Tigers were legitimate Final Four contenders.
Oh, and it’s also notable that in the entire history of the NCAA tournament for women, Missouri has been host to a grand total of one game – a 1986 first-round victory over Arkansas. After that win, the Tigers were shipped off to Austin, Texas, as sacrificial victims to face the undefeated Longhorns squad that won the national championship.
While all of this is specific Missouri history, it’s quite relevant to what it says about the overall history of Division I women’s basketball. It shows you how some schools like Mizzou once had a women’s hoops program with value, but didn’t actually value it.
And if people had any questions about why the Tigers haven’t gained any real traction in attendance while most of the other Big 12 programs have, all they have to do is look at those aforementioned stark numbers: four winning league records in 20 years. Why should people have come out to watch this program?
It’s too overwhelming to suggest that Pingeton and her staff are going up against all of that in trying to change the atmosphere at Missouri. But it’s only fair to them that everyone recognizes what’s gone on before them. And, again, there are other places in the country where staffs have come in and faced similarly dispiriting histories. All of this speaks to the struggles to increase parity and raise attendance.
One last anecdote from my long-ago days at Missouri. The women used to play hoops “doubleheaders” with the men, which was a never a good idea. Especially playing after the men. You cannot possibly be unaffected as a player when you’re warming up in an arena that’s mostly emptying out.
But playing before the men wasn’t great, either. Such as a time when the women went into overtime, delaying the men’s warm-ups a bit. Later in his press conference, men’s coach Norm Stewart – as few others could – offered some of his darkly comedic, witheringly patronizing remarks about it.
Stewart said that he had, at some point recently, looked up to the Hearnes Center rafters and noticed the women had some banners up there for their accomplishments, as if this came as a pleasant surprise to him. He thought they should be commended for that … but come on. For heaven’s sake, surely everyone understood that nothing should ever get in the way of the men’s team warming up at the precise time it was expecting to do so.
One of my friends and I couldn’t help but laugh and then construct an entire fake dialogue of what Stewart might have been saying while the women were out on the court completing their game. We imagined him asking athletic officials why the women were still playing, then wondering why they couldn’t just stop when their “time” was up. And, upon being told they actually did have to finish the game, Stewart asking why they couldn’t do that somewhere else.
That’s how it was at Missouri when, let’s face it, not that many people would have even raised their eyesbrows at Stewart’s baffled irritation in waiting for the women to finish. But there’s irony, here. Then, Missouri had a good program.
Now, when there really is more support and commitment, the new staff has its work cut out to even rise to the level of “not bad.”
Upcoming, Part 2: What’s next, and what do “married with children” and religion have to do with it?