Dec. 19, 2012
This story originally appeared in the 2012 Big Ten Football Championship Game Program
When women’s athletic director Christine Grant settled behind her desk in her new office at the University of Iowa in 1973, she knew the fight for some semblance of equality for women athletes in the Big Ten was not going to be an easy one. She was sure of this because of where her office was located. It wasn’t in just any old spot in the Iowa women’s gym.
It was in the kitchen.
“Our president, Sandy Boyd, had just elevated 12 women’s club sports straight to varsity status, which to me was astonishing,” Grant said. “But we had no place to put people for a brand new varsity program, and they had to put me somewhere, so I ended up literally in the kitchen. I had a desk, but I also had a stove and a sink. Occasionally, one of secretaries would call and say, ‘Christine, would you put on my soup, please?’ and I did.”
Placing a Big Ten women’s athletic director in a kitchen sounds bizarre, laughable and demeaning today, but, metaphorically, it turned out to be the perfect place to start a cultural revolution.
For from those days nearly 40 years ago have sprung unimaginable growth and success: NCAA titles for the conference in everything from basketball to field hockey, softball to volleyball. Dynasties have been created: Penn State volleyball, Northwestern lacrosse, Minnesota and Wisconsin ice hockey, among others.
Standout athletes have made their names on the playing fields of the Big Ten: runner Suzy Favor-Hamilton won nine NCAA individual titles at Wisconsin and represented the United States at the 1992, 1996 and 2000 Olympic Games. The Big Ten’s female athlete of the year award is named in her honor. Katie Douglas helped lead Purdue to the 1999 NCAA women’s basketball title and won her first WNBA title as a member of the Indiana Fever this fall. Tara VanDerveer played her college basketball at Indiana in the 1970s, was the head coach at Ohio State in the 1980s and coached the gold-medal-winning U.S. Olympic basketball team at the 1996 Games in Atlanta.
Collectively, the Big Ten became the first conference in the country to voluntarily adopt participation goals for female-student athletes as part of its four-phase Gender Equity Action Plan in 1992, and, years later, the ground-breaking Big Ten Network (BTN) actually showed more women’s events than men’s during the 2011-12 school year: 549 for the women, 548 for the men.
To understand the stunning advances made by women in sports in the Big Ten, it’s helpful to know where it all began. When President Richard Nixon signed Title IX into law on June 23, 1972, it mandated that high schools and colleges no longer discriminate against women in any educational program, including athletics. Universities around the country, not just in the Big Ten, had to scramble as Iowa did to begin to obey the new law. In some ways, the conference served as a cornerstone for the legislation. Indiana Senator Birch Bayh, who introduced Title IX in Congress as its author and chief Senate sponsor, was pictured jogging with four Purdue female student-athletes not long after the law was signed. It was a rag-tag group, wearing the most basic gym shorts and sweatsuits of the day.
That was the uniform of the woman athlete in those early years, Grant said. “Literally, we had one set of jerseys in that first year, so athletes from different sports shared them. With 12 sports as diverse as gymnastics and basketball, it took a lot of creativity to get the necessities for all of our sports. We had a laundry, obviously, and it was used nonstop.”
Grant’s budget that first year was a grand total of $30,000. “That was for everything. There were no coaches’ salaries. We got time off from some of our other responsibilities to coach.”
The Hawkeyes women’s basketball team played in a gym that was not regulation-sized. “Between the sideline and the wall, there was no space,” she said. “But we had to play there because our women’s team was not allowed into our main field house.”
A few years later and a couple of hundred miles away at Northwestern, Mary Murphy was beginning her career as a standout basketball player and two-time captain for the Wildcats from 1977-80. “I would have to raise my hand during practice to say I really had to leave to go to my job checking off students’ names in a dormitory cafeteria,” said Murphy, now a basketball analyst for various networks, including BTN. “My scholarship covered my tuition, but not my room and board, so I had to have a job.”
By 1986, Murphy was back in the Big Ten as head coach at Wisconsin. “There was a huge difference in those few years in terms of opportunities for women in sports, number of scholarships, everything. You even had the ability to sit down at a restaurant with your team rather than going through the drive-through. And we were flying then, or taking buses, rather than piling into vans.”
In the 1980s, Grant was no longer alone as a Big Ten women’s athletic director. Merrily Dean Baker had been hired to do the same job at Minnesota in 1982, later becoming the first woman to run an entire Big Ten athletic department at Michigan State from 1992-95.
These two pioneers joined the conference’s 10 male athletic directors at their regular meetings. One time in the mid-1980s, at a joint meeting with the Pac-10’s athletic directors on the West Coast, Baker accompanied a few of her counterparts on the golf course, playing in a foursome with Michigan’s Don Canham, Purdue’s George King and Wisconsin’s Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch.
They stepped to the tee of a par three built into the side of a mountain.
“Don sliced his tee shot into the woods,” Baker said. “George did the same thing. Then Elroy got up and hit it the other way, into the middle of a lake.”
Now it was her turn. “I hit it well and could tell it was close to the pin, but we couldn’t see it from the tee.”
When they reached the green, they found the ball six inches from the hole.
“There was a great reaction,” Baker recalled. “Elroy started bowing to me, saying, ‘You make it, Merrily, you’ll get anything you want.’
“I made it,” she said. “No problem.”
The men cheered for her and on they all went to the next tee. It was just one hole on a golf course, but a decade after Grant had been relegated to her kitchen office, Baker knew that, slowly but surely, things were changing for the better for women in sports in the Big Ten.
Christine Brennan is an award-winning sports columnist for USA Today, a commentator for ABC News, PBS NewsHour and National Public Radio, a best-selling author and a nationally-known speaker. She received her undergraduate and master's degrees from Northwestern University, where she is a member of the Medill School of Journalism Hall of Achievement and has won NU’s Alumni Service Award. Both the NCAA and the Women's Sports Foundation honored her this year in celebrations for the 40th anniversary of Title IX.