A Tip-off in Big Ten Tournament History
Feb. 27, 2007
When the Big Ten women's basketball teams converge on Conseco Fieldhouse this week, the changes the postseason event has undergone since the conference's first tournament 25 years ago will be unmistakable.
Every ball will bear the Big Ten logo. Every game will be on TV. The winner will get a trophy.
These changes - some big, some small - may seem like commonplace practices in the modern March Madness era of college basketball, but the history of women's athletics continues to be written with every tip off and timeout in the 13th Big Ten Women's Basketball Tournament.
Since 1976, women's teams from Big Ten schools had competed against each other in tournament form, but the winner wasn't officially recognized as conference champion. When the Big Ten began officially sponsoring women's championships during the 1981-82 season, the inaugural women's basketball championship was born as a three-day, single-elimination tournament.
The discussion among Big Ten coaches to revive the conference event actually started in spring of 1987, but the idea was quickly suspended after the coaches reached a split vote with worries that they would not even be able to change the schedule for another two years.
The following year, then-coaches Bud VanDeWege (Michigan), Don Perrelli (Northwestern), Nancy Darsch (Ohio State), Lin Dunn (Purdue) and Mary Murphy (Wisconsin) formed a committee to investigate what they would need to do in executing such an event.
After Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany met with the group and the school's women's athletic administrators in 1991, it became clear that the 1994-95 season would be the most realistic goal for the modern-day tournament's initiation. Two years later, the coaches moved forward in full-speed with unanimous support of their postseason proposal.
On March 3, 1995, all 11 basketball squads gathered at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis for the first edition of the modern Big Ten Women's Basketball Tournament to determine the conference's automatic qualifier to the NCAA Championship.
But today's version of the conference tournament is quite different from that original event. The 1982 edition, like the teams' meetings in unofficial tournaments since 1976, was played in the middle of the regular season schedule.
One of the primary purposes behind the 1995 tournament, was to kick-start the teams into "tournament time" as they prepared for the NCAA Championships.
"Very few schools had even played each other before they met in the tournament," said former Michigan State mentor Karen Langeland, who coached the Spartans from 1976-2000 and was the only coach to participate in both the modern-day tournament and inaugural edition in 1982. "The conference tournament gives teams that finished at the bottom of the Big Ten some incentive and reason to play at the end of the season, because they've got as good a shot as anyone to win some games, possibly winning the tournament and getting an NCAA bid."
After the tournament's second year in 1996, a record six Big Ten squads advanced to the NCAA Tournament. In 2002, the Big Ten again boasted six NCAA Tournament-bound teams while three more participated in the WNIT.
Purdue, which dominated the event from 1998-2000 and again in 2003 and 2004, has not missed an NCAA appearance since the conference tournament's inception. In 1999, the Boilermakers propelled themselves to the top of the women's basketball world, winning the University's first national championship after claiming their second straight Big Ten Tournament title in dominating fashion.
In 2004, Minnesota made a bracket-busting run to the Final Four. Michigan State clinched its first Big Ten Tournament crown in 2005, and then advanced to within one win of the national title before falling to Baylor in the championship game.
With March Madness right around the corner, the Big Ten Tournament sets the stage for any capable Cinderella.
"I think the tournament is great for the conference," said Dunn, who coached Purdue from 1987-96. "It's great for the teams that are first, second and third, and it's also great for the teams at the bottom."
In 2002, the glass slipper fit just right for the tournament's Most Outstanding Player Heather Cassady and the fifth-seeded Hoosiers. The lowest seed to win the tournament since Purdue did so as a No. 5 seed in 1998, Indiana took out No. 4 Iowa in an overtime thriller before shocking regular season champion and top-seeded archrival Purdue en route to the title game. Then the Hoosiers sealed their fairy tale fate with a 75-72 upset of second-seeded Penn State to secure their first NCAA Tournament trip in seven years.
Said then-Hoosier head coach Kathi Bennett in her post-game press conference, "I have never been more proud of a team in my whole life. To do what they have done - to win three games in four days - is something very special. It is almost indescribable what they have accomplished. They sought greatness and went out and got it."
But for female athletic programs as a whole, the Big Ten Women's Basketball Tournament set quite a unique precedent.
With a little more than a decade committed to improving its programs for female athletes as of 1995, the Big Ten took a huge step by implementing the women's postseason basketball championship before even considering a similar event for its men's teams.
In December 1996, after seeing the first-year success of the women's tournament, the Big Ten council of presidents voted to institute a postseason men's basketball tournament. That plan became a reality on March 5, 1998 - three years after the first women's tournament game.
"The Big Ten has always been a leader in supporting its women's programs, improving the quality of training women now receive," said current Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, who led the Buckeyes to the title in the inaugural tournament. "The increased interest from the fans, and especially the media, is phenomenal compared with what we received back in 1982."
Before the tournament began, Big Ten women's basketball had been a national leader in many categories. But it was the unique conference community that had potential to put the Big Ten above and beyond its peers with the new postseason affair.
During the 1993 and 1994 seasons, the conference teams drew a then-NCAA-record average of 2,926 fans per game. The Big Ten's total attendance - 427,136 - also marked another national standard.
Andrea Williams, the Big Ten's Associate Commissioner of Branding and the women's basketball tournament director, said that as a former student-athlete herself, the awareness of the community completely changes the experience for the players.
"That's key to the overall experience of the tournament. We want to leave a footprint on the city of Indianapolis," said Williams. "We don't just want to come in, have a couple of games and then ship back out. We want to make sure that we include the community, especially the youth there locally.
"We want to make sure that we put butts in the seats. If you ask a lot of players, they would rather play in a full house that might be against them than in an empty house."
But ticket-buying fans weren't the only audience keying in on Big Ten women's hoops. In 1991, two conference teams played in the first regular-season women's basketball game aired on network television when Iowa took on Georgia and Purdue faced Auburn in the Big Ten-SEC Challenge in a CBS doubleheader.
The tournament's introductory year also marked the fifth straight season that the Big Ten featured a Game of the Week for women's basketball with a conference game airing on SportsChannel Chicago each Sunday. The conference's broadcast exposure reached new heights in 1993, when Iowa and Ohio State faced off in the Final Four. The following year, Purdue joined the viewing party in the 1994 Final Four. All of this set the national stage for the Big Ten Tournament, which had its first championship game aired across the country on ESPN2.
The tournament found a home in Indianapolis - the host city for 12 of the 13 Big Ten Tournaments and the conference's annual Tip-off Luncheon in the early 90s - and the fans followed. An average of 4,000 flocked to Hinkle Fieldhouse for the first tournament, followed by a steady, 15-percent increase the next year. The event moved to the RCA Dome from 1997-99 and spent one year (2001) in Grand Rapids, Mich., before settling in at the Circle City's Conseco Fieldhouse.
In 2004, a tournament record 9,417 fans turned out for the fourth session with second-seeded Purdue taking on third-seeded Ohio State. At last year's event, the teams squared off in a thrilling championship game that marked the fifth time in 12 years the Big Ten Tournament crown was decided by a pair of teams ranked in the nation's top 15. Ohio State emerged victorious, claiming its first tournament title with a new event-record 38,638 fans watching throughout the four-day event.
Two months after the new attendance standard was set, the Big Ten announced both men's and women's tournaments return to Indianapolis through the 2012 season.
Before the 2006 tournament, the Big Ten formed an exclusive three-year marketing agreement with Xbox, making it the presenting sponsor of the Big Ten Women's Basketball Tournament in 2006, 2007 and 2008 to take the conference's devotion to furthering women's athletics to new heights.
"The Big Ten takes pride in being a leader in the promotion of women's athletics, becoming the first conference to voluntarily adopt participation goals for female student-athletes in 1992," said Commissioner Delany during the announcement. "Since that time, Big Ten institutions have created in excess of 2,000 new opportunities for women student-athletes and established 28 new teams. The commitment of Xbox Live to the Big Ten Women's Basketball Tournament will help us continue our support of women's athletics while ensuring a truly memorable experience for each of our 11 schools and their players, coaches and fans."
As the next era of the women's tournament continues, Williams says the conference's first and foremost goal is the same as it always has been for every sport - giving the student-athletes the best postseason experience they can have.
"For some this is it - the postseason play is their last game or their last opportunity to get to the NCAA Tournament," Williams said. "For others, they're going to be continuing on, so it's just a stepping stone. You want to provide an experience that they're going to remember for a lifetime."