In a recent blog post, I wrote about Billie Jean King … how nervous I was to talk to her in 1999, even though by that point, I’d been interviewing people for 15 years. It was because of the high regard I had for her, of course, and the gratitude for what she’d done for women and athletics in general.
Because BJK’s message was never just about how knocking down stupid sexist barriers and stereotypes would help women. It was about how it would help men, too. To that end, she’s always credited Riggs for being first the perfect foil and then – when he lost the match – the perfect gentleman.
He made no excuses, he didn’t try to minimize what she did. He said, “She was much too good. I underestimated her.” And the two would remain friends until his death in 1995.
I told BJK my memory of her match with Riggs – about discussing it the day after it happened with my fellow third-graders at recess, about how proud I felt of her. And then I said that she’d probably heard stories like this so many times that she was sick of them.
But she said, no, she didn’t get tired of talking about it. And she said she was glad people kept writing about it, too. Because every time there was a story about it, somebody somewhere might be learning about it for the first time.
I thought about that Saturday upon seeing the crowd of 12,906 at the Oklahoma-Baylor game in Norman. Many people know that 19 years ago, in March 1990, Oklahoma’s women’s basketball program was dissolved. A little more than a week later, after facing much criticism, the school reinstated the program.
It’s a familiar story to those who’ve followed the sport for a while. But women’s basketball gets new fans regularly who, understandibly, know very little of its history. Plus, there are youngsters who aren’t old enough to remember all the attention Oklahoma got for its run to the 2002 Final Four, when the “Lazarus program’s” story was told by many media outlets. But now, they are old enough to be interested in the sport and likely would be very surprised to hear that not all that long ago, Oklahoma did away with women’s basketball.
Why did they make that decision? Well, this may sound flip, but it truthfully sums up the attitude at the time by those who favored abolishing the program. They thought it was a waste of money.
Oklahoma was a pretty good program from 1980-87 under coach Maura McHugh, who didn’t have a losing record in her tenure. Her best team was in 1985-86, when the Sooners were a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They beat Vanderbilt before falling in the Sweet 16 to eventual national champion Texas.
Things went precipitously downhill in 1987-88, when Valerie Goodwin-Colbert took over the team. She went 32-51 in three years, the last one being a 7-22 season in 1989-90.
However, the record really was worse than the team itself actually was. The Sooners went 2-12 in the Big Eight, but seven of those losses were by eight points or less. They had their blowout defeats, sure, but they also had times when they scared even the top teams in the conference.
On Feb. 24, 1990, the Sooners lost to league regular-season champion Missouri at Columbia, 89-60. Then just a week later at the Big Eight tournament in Salina, Kan., Oklahoma won one of the most stunning games I can recall in following Big Eight hoops. The Sooners beat the top-seeded Tigers 80-77 _ going from a 29-point loss to a 3-point victory against the same team in back-to-back games.
OU’s season ended then with a loss to Oklahoma State on March 4. Yes, it had been a brutal season, record-wise. But there was some light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel with this OU team.
However, near the end of March, Oklahoma announced it was eliminating the program, saying there was no interest in it. The team’s average attendance for home games then was 65. School and athletic department leaders suggested the budget for the team _ which then was $280,000 _ was money that could be better put to use to improve other women’s sports. That, supposedly, was their main motivation. Or so they said.
In retrospect, it was an amazingly short-sighted move by the university, one that now seems almost like a grim fairy tale from long, long ago. Remember when the “bad guys” killed women’s hoops at Oklahoma?
Except … these weren’t really “bad” guys. They were just people who, when it came to women’s athletics, lacked both the desire and the fortitude to invest in how to make a troubled situation improve. They came up with what seemed to them the easiest solution: just get rid of it.
There were, of course, visionaries and devout supporters of the program at the university, such as now-retired administrator and coach Marita Hynes, who were mortified at this decision. It drew wide-spread criticism, including from the coaches gathered at the Women’s Final Four in Knoxville, and the program was reinstated the first week of April.
I was working for the Columbia Daily Tribune back then, and had seen plenty of OU-Missouri women’s games since I’d first moved to Columbia, Mo., in 1983 for college. I’d even driven down to Norman a couple of times for their matchups. To say I was shocked upon hearing that Oklahoma was doing away with its program would not cover it. I absolutely couldn’t believe it.
This was a state with a rich tradition in girls’ high school basketball, where the six-on-six game had flourished. How could they do this at OU?
One of my most vivid recollections of the elimination was listening to KFRU, a radio station in Columbia, after the announcement. A sportscaster named Dave Hunziker was doing his radio show, taking call-ins to discuss hot topics. (Dave is now the play-by-play guy for Oklahoma State football and men’s basketball, by the way.)
Dave had gone to Mizzou’s journalism school the same time as I did, so he was about 23 years old in 1990, but already a radio veteran. Some guy called into his show and said more or less, “It’s only women’s basketball. It’s in Oklahoma. Who cares?”
And Dave pretty much just went off. He said he did care. I don’t want to say I remember word-for-word what he said. But I believe I can accurately convey the sentiments he expressed, because it impressed me how passionate he was. Dave was a Missouri native and had that love of basketball that many Midwesterners do.
Basketball was so important to the Midwest, and he couldn’t imagine a major university _ especially in this part of the country _ eliminating its women’s basketball team. He said the sport was growing every year, and no matter what problems it was having, the solution wasn’t eliminating the program.
I thought then, “I sure hope more people feel that way.”
They did, and Oklahoma learned from its mistake. Then six years after the elimination/restoration, the university struck gold by hiring Norman High’s Sherri Coale as coach – a decision derided by many because she had not previously coached at the college level.
Coale has been to one Final Four, and this season has a team that appears a strong contender to make the program’s second trip that far. Oklahoma could have searched the world over and not have found anyone better-suited to run that program.
Games like Saturday’s – a full house of fans, a nationally televised broadcast on Fox Sports, a team that is undefeated in the Big 12 – are such a dramatic juxtaposition to what once was at Oklahoma that it’s almost impossible to capture it in words.
And it’s important to retell this story periodically, even for those who already know it so well. That’s for a few reasons:
*-Because it’s an uplifting story: Even when something looks to be hopeless, there is always a chance to change things _ if enough people who care come together.
*-Because it’s a cautionary story: Never assume we won’t see something like this happen again. Especially now, in what appears to be the worst overall economic times many of us have lived through, there are going to be cutbacks in everything. Women’s sports will have to go through belt-tightening, too, and that’s to be expected. But we have to be vigilant for situations where the economy just becomes a handy “excuse” for schools to lessen their commitment to women’s and girls’ athletics.
*-Because it’s a story to reinforce empathy: Or at least it should be. Men’s sports, especially wrestling, have been hit hard by budget cuts in the past 20 years, too. Often, they have blamed Title IX. The wrestling community, in particular, became virtually an adversary of women’s athletics.
And that’s a horrible shame, because their anger is misplaced and drives a wedge between them and the very people with whom they should be allies.
So when I think of Oklahoma almost losing its women’s hoops team, I also think about the sports programs that have been lost and the pain those athletes, their families and their fans go through. I don’t agree in any way with their attacks on Title IX; I believe they are very misguided. But I do understand when people lose something important to them, they get angry.
I wish the cutbacks that have been made in men’s sports such as wrestling, swimming and diving, track and baseball would never have happened. But what’s occurred at Oklahoma since 1990 is all the more proof that women’s athletics is not and never was their enemy.
Oklahoma’s women’s basketball program is an inspiration, period.