NCAA athletics: Women 25 years later

 by James Schmehl
 published on Tuesday, August 1, 2006

Kelley Karnes / THE STATE PRESS
ASU head coach Charlie Turner Thorne meets with the team during a timeout Nov. 8 against Team Concept at Wells Fargo Arena.
Sheila McInerney has been the ASU Women's tennis coach for the past 22 years.
Ashley Lowery / THE STATE PRESS
Lisa Love began her position as ASU's 21st vice president of University athletics on July 1.

It took 25 years for former ASU women's golf coach Linda Vollstedt to move up to the fifth floor of the Intercollegiate Athletics building.

For years, Vollstedt was relegated to a basement office, and her status, even after leading the No. 12 Sun Devils to a first-place conference finish her first year as coach, was just about as low.

"[I was in] an old locker room converted into an office," she said. "That was just the way it was. My neighbor was the [former] softball coach Mary Littlewood -- it was normal."

Vollstedt remembers thinking, "I am only the women's golf coach."

Her thinking, and that of many others, has changed drastically in the years since. Women's sports still don't draw the crowds and fan support that many men's sports do, but they have come a long way in terms of recognition, acceptance, student scholarships and pay for coaches since 1981.

That was the year that the NCAA began sponsoring national championships in women's sport, providing increased athletic and academic opportunities for female athletes. It was perhaps the most significant boost to female college athletes since the passage of Title IX in 1972 made it illegal to discriminate in athletics or academics based on gender.

The NCAA now sponsors 44 women's championships in 20 sports, providing more than 150,000 women with the opportunity to compete for national titles each year.

The University of Connecticut hosted the first women's Division I championship sponsored by the NCAA on Nov. 21, 1981. The latest women's sports to be given such recognition were rowing in 1996, ice hockey and water polo in 2001, and bowling in 2003.

The NCAA is urging its 1,020 member colleges, universities and conferences to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the first women's championships. Promotional kits have been sent out with various suggestions on promotions and activities.

ASU Media Relations officials say they don't plan anything special, but that doesn't bother Vollstedt.

She said she doesn't need a celebration to recognize the significance of what has happened in women's sports over the past 25 years.

The way it was

In 1971, the year before Title IX was passed, fewer than 300,000 girls participated in high school sports. Today, that number has reached roughly 3 million.

The number of women's college teams has nearly doubled in the last 20 years. Coaches are paid better, and far more scholarships are awarded to female athletes.

But the changes were not immediate.

"Coaches of women sports began to be treated similarly to men, but it took a long time," said Vollstedt, a former Sun Devil student athlete standout in women's golf from 1964-68 who returned to ASU after graduation to coach.

She said that nearly two decades passed before she noticed any significant change in how the general public perceived women's athletics.

"In the mid to late '80s, there was change," Vollstedt said. "Prior to the NCAA's sponsorship of women's championships, Title IX was in effect, but it wasn't being enforced."

ASU women's tennis coach Sheila McInerney agreed. She said that it wasn't until the NCAA got serious about women's sports that equality began to take hold.

"Once the NCAA started sponsoring women's sports, it allowed other universities the opportunity to compete," she said.

McInerney, who recently finished her 22nd season at the helm of the women's tennis program, has led the Sun Devils to 18 NCAA Sweet Sixteen appearances and eight quarterfinals.

She said things were far different for her as a female athlete than they are for women today.

"The kids who used to play were often called tomboys because of people's perception that girls didn't play sports," McInerney said.

As a standout tennis player, she said she had to "bust myself" just to be noticed.

"Long ago, if you were a female and you were passionate about sports, you were called a tomboy and you weren't respected," Vollstedt added. "Fathers are now proud to say their daughters are on the softball team. There's been a turnaround culturally; we now can really appreciate the female athlete and competition has gotten tougher."

That appreciation has translated into more teams and more fans.

The 2006 NCAA women's basketball championship game, in which Maryland defeated Duke, 78-75 in overtime, was the most viewed women's contest ever aired on ESPN.

And -- perhaps more significantly -- earlier in the tournament, Tennessee's Candace Parker slammed herself into NCAA history when she became the first woman to dunk in an NCAA Tournament game.

"The last five years have grown, drastically," McInerney said. "Candace Parker is dunking -- enough said."

A personal voyage

McInerney had the talent as a tennis player to play at any university she desired, including Stanford, the nation's powerhouse in women's tennis from 1976-80. But family funds were limited and McInerney opted to attend USC - the only university to offer her a full scholarship.

"The reason I didn't go to Stanford was because they didn't offer a full-ride --tuition, room and board," she said.

In 1991-92, institutions awarded an average of $372,800 in scholarships for women. As of 2002-03, the same institutions awarded an average of $1,388,100 -- a significant increase, which McInerney said will continue to grow over time.

"In the past, women had to be superb in order to get great recognition," she said. "Now they've realized that there is other talent that hasn't been noticed.

"Today, there are 325 Division I tennis programs and 200, if not more, give eight full-ride scholarships," McInerney said. "When I played, there were only a few good teams: Duke, Notre Dame and Stanford."

McInerney, who captained USC's squad her senior season, received the Trojan Spirit Award, voted for by her teammates, four times. The Trojans won three national championships during her collegiate career, and she was the national collegiate doubles runner-up three times and a singles semifinalist in 1977.

McInerney collected six United States Tennis Association national titles and was a member of the 1977-80 USTA Junior Federation Cup team. As a professional, she played on the major international tour, earning a world ranking in the top 75. She also competed at three grand slam venues -- Wimbledon, the French Open and the U.S. Open.

Bridging the salary gap

Hired as a part-time employee at ASU, Vollstedt said her salary in 1980-81 was "about a fourth of what the men's golf coach [George Boutell] made."

Boutell, who was in his fifth year as the men's golf coach, led his team to a second-place finish in the Pac-10 the same year Vollstedt's team finished first.

Under Vollstedt's direction, the Sun Devils own twice as many NCAA championships, six, as any other women's golf program in the nation -- a feat Boutell failed to accomplish.

"When I first started [coaching], there were some coaches who actually coached two women's sports," Vollstedt said. "Many of the women's sports were second fiddle to the men's programs."

Over the years, the salaries of head coaches for women's athletics slowly gained ground on the men.

Still, as of 2002-03, Division I schools paid top women coaches about one-third less than head coaches in men's sports. The average salary for women coaches was $410,200, compared to $660,500 for the men, according to 306 institutions that responded to the NCAA's 2002-03 Gender-Equity study.

The gap is still far too large, many supporters of women's athletics say.

ASU basketball junior Emily Westerberg said colleges simply aren't complying with the law.

"Our coaches work just as hard," she said. "I've seen the sacrifices our coaches have made. It seems like coaches of women's sports are fine with being paid less, even though they know how much work they put in."

Recently, the Arizona Board of Regents approved an agreement through the 2010-11 season for ASU women's basketball coach Charli Turner Thorne. The deal states that Turner Thorne will receive a $260,000 salary starting in April - close to a $40,000 increase from her previous contract.

In comparison, ASU men's basketball coach Herb Sendek will earn approximately $900,000 to $1 million, according to published reports.

Turner Thorne said women's sports still have a long road to travel before they are equal to men's.

"We're still in our infancy," Turner Thorne said. "We're centuries behind our counterparts."

Turner Thorne, who played basketball at Stanford from 1984-88, said she doesn't know when women's sports will be treated with the same respect as men's. But she said she does foresee more women filling head coaching positions in men's sports.

"Us moms raise our sons," she said. "Why can't we coach them too?"

One stumbling block on the road to success is the fact that universities generate far more revenue from men's sports, especially football and basketball, than from any women's sports. The institutions reporting gender-equity figures to the NCAA said they earned average total revenues of $8,480,900 for men's sports and $1,522,100 for women's sports in 2002-2003.

How quickly things have changed

Vollstedt is no longer the ASU women's golf coach, but after her retirement in June 2001, she was brought back to serve as the director of golf marketing and promotions at ASU.

She has a nice office with a sweeping view of the campus -- six floors up from where she started.

While she's working at her desk, she often glances out those windows, and she remembers what it felt like to be in the basement.

"When I look out the window, I can see everything that has changed," Vollstedt said. "It'll be interesting what I can see 10 years from now."

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