By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – It was Pat Summitt’s third year as Tennessee’s head coach and her team was making its first-ever appearance in the AIAW National Tournament. Playing in the third-place game, it was an upset when the fifth-ranked Lady Vols pulled off a 91-71 victory against Immaculata College that March day in Minneapolis, Minn.
The Macs, subject of a new movie “The Mighty Macs” currently in theatres, were the first team to set the standard in modern-day women’s college basketball. Under the direction of head coach Cathy Rush, the primary character in the film, the Macs posted a seven-year record of 149-15 (.909) and won the first four AIAW national titles in the sport of women’s basketball.
That game against Tennessee would be Rush’s last game as a college coach. Delta State, under the legendary Margaret Wade, won its last national championship that year.
Though the Lady Vols wouldn’t win their first national championship for a decade, it was if on that night, the torch was symbolically passed to them and teams like them (Louisiana Tech, Old Dominion, USC).
“I fondly recalled when we played the Immaculata Mighty Macs in the consolation finals of the 1977 AIAW Final Four,” Summitt said in an endorsement of the movie. “They were the veteran team who had hung all the banners. We were a newcomer on the national scene. Our Lady Vol team was elated to have defeated one of the toughest teams in women’s hoops in the 1970s.”
I went to see the movie this weekend and, like many people, left feeling inspired by the message in the movie. But it also got me thinking about how much those of us in the Southeastern Conference owe to the accomplishments of Rush and her teams.
For many years, the SEC has set the standard when it comes to women’s athletics. Consider these facts: SEC women’s teams have captured 77 NCAA Championships, including 33 such titles since the 2000 season alone.
In the sport of women’s basketball, since the 1982-83 season, SEC teams have been ranked in the AP poll for 532 consecutive weeks and have been ranked a total of 2,469 times. Overall, league teams have been ranked 607 consecutive weeks and have made a total of 1,444 top-10 appearances and 801 top-five appearances overall.
The SEC has led or shared the lead of NCAA Tournament bids 21 times in the 30-year history of the women’s NCAA Tournament and lead the nation with a 335-172 (.661) NCAA record.
Teams fly in charter aircrafts, travel in coach buses, stay at the finest hotels and eat at some of the best restaurants.
That’s quite a change from Rush’s team that didn’t even have a home gymnasium in which to play or proper uniforms in which to compete. The coaches had to drive the athletes to competitions and finding the money to make NCAA postseason appearances was often a struggle.
Those same things happened to SEC teams back in those days as well. The league didn’t sponsor a women’s basketball conference championship until 1979-80. That reminded me of an article that I once read about former great LSU head coach Sue Gunter, who was one of the real pioneers of the sport and women’s athletics in general.
She described a scene in the mid-1970s where her team had entered the AIAW Tournament as the No. 1 seed and had lost to Texas-Arlington, coached by the legendary Jody Conradt, who went on to great success at the University of Texas. These are two coaches who at the end of their careers garnered lucrative contracts and had their games regularly televised on ESPN and other national networks.
Here’s an excerpt from Gunter’s perspective in that story.
After the game, we went into the pressroom. Jody went in first and I went in second and when I came out, Jody was waiting for me and she said, “Sue, I need to talk to you.” I said, “Ok, fine, what?” Now remember none of us had any money or anything in those days. She said, “I did not expect to win this thing. I checked us out of our rooms and I don’t have enough meal money. How much money do you have with you?” I think I had $300 or $400 in cash and I gave that to Jody, along with our rooms, and Jody gave me a personal check in exchange for the cash and we went on about our ways.
That was what life was like in mid-1970s women’s athletics. But the teams of that era didn’t let themselves be defined by the things that they didn’t have. And because of that, we have reached a point where women’s sports receive national attention, regularly compete in front of large crowds and travel comfortably.
Female athletes in the SEC are receiving unprecedented exposure due to a one-of-its-kind television contract with ESPN and regional partners. This season alone, the conference features a 57-game television package for women’s basketball and regular television coverage of volleyball, soccer, softball and the conference’s Olympic sports.
When we begin SEC Basketball Media Days on Thursday in Hoover, Ala., media outlets from across the southeast will crowd around Summitt with their microphones and voice recorders to hear what the Hall of Fame coach will have to say about her 38th season at the helm of the Lady Vols. Her remarks, as always will generate national attention.
Summitt, and many that coached alongside her including Gunter and longtime UCLA head coach Billie Moore, deserve much of the credit for elevating women’s athletics to their current standing. And, as any of them would tell you, there is still work to be done.
But, next time you watch an SEC women’s basketball game, keep in mind that we owe a little of that credit to Rush and her teams – for dreaming big, and not being afraid to dream.