Setting the Stage for the Story to Continue

July 27, 2007

Throughout the 2006-07 season, the Big Ten Conference celebrated its 25th Anniversary of Women's Championships.  By way of a comprehensive website, public service announcements, television interviews and weekly features, Big Ten fans had an opportunity to learn the stories surrounding these female athletes over the past 25 years.

In the early weeks of the campaign we revisited the Big Ten's gender equity plan and "Dream Big" marketing initiative that was developed to increase sport participation in young girls.  Fans learned of the inception process in 1991, which brought Penn State to become the conference's 11 school.

We learned of the initial vote to implement women's championships in the Big Ten through the eyes of former conference commissioner Wayne Duke and Dr. Christine Grant of Iowa, who played important roles in that historic vote on Sept. 30, 1981.

Early in the campaign we were touched by the story of Michigan soccer player Judy Coffman.  She was born without a left forearm and hand, but yet used her disability to help others all while excelling in a sport where arms and hands are not a prerequisite.

During the fall season, current student-athletes were interviewed during the Big Ten's volleyball package on Comcast SportsNet Chicago.  The exposure to these talented individuals were so well-received, the Big Ten arranged a total of 21 television interviews throughout the season, including the women's basketball telecasts, which highlighted several Big Ten Champions and NCAA finalists.

Toward the end of the fall, we focused in on the impressive dynasty surrounding the Penn State women's soccer team and revisited the success had by the 2001 NCAA Champion Michigan field hockey team.

In November, the month of giving thanks, we were given insight to the long and successful journey of former Illinois and current Minnesota volleyball coach Mike Hebert, who is now on a path to beat his Parkinson's Disease.  We also saw how thankful Purdue's Brittany Dildine was when she learned that after helping her Boilermaker volleyball team to a top-10 ranking, she could turn in her kneepads and lace up her sneakers to play for the school's top-10 basketball team.

On three occasions during the campaign the Big Ten turned its attention to several successful women's programs that are not officially sponsored by the conference.  We learned about the NCAA Championships that Minnesota and Wisconsin ice hockey have earned, the success Indiana and Michigan water polo has endured, and the recent dynasty of the Northwestern women's lacrosse program, which has won three consecutive national titles.

During basketball season, we learned that being a woman and being tall, was actually pretty cool.  We came to understand how early Iowa's Megan Skouby (6-6) and Ohio State's Jessica Davenport (6-5) found success as Big Ten Freshman of the Year honorees.  Weeks later, we found another tall talent in Michigan State's Allyssa DeHaan (6-9), who would also go on to capture the conference's top freshman honor in 2007.

We had the opportunity to learn more about some of the dominant dynasties that have showered the Big Ten scene over the past 25 years.  We were brought back to the beginning when Ohio State captured six-straight titles in basketball and became the first true powerhouse in Big Ten women's hoops.  In the early 1990s, Illinois women's track and field surged to the top of the Big Ten for first half of the decade and has recently returned to that form.  Michigan gymnastics has created a dynasty over the past 16 years, winning 14 Big Ten Championships, including the 2007 title, and we were there to experience it.

During the spring, we hit the courts and learned over two weeks exactly what the Big Ten tennis scene has looked like over the past quarter-century.  Indiana and head coach Lin Loring captured nine-straight conference championships from 1987-95, and had the streak tied in April when Northwestern completed its nine-year dominance on the tennis courts, having won each Big Ten title since 1999.

Several Big Ten coaches, past and present, began their careers on the sideline after successful stints as a student-athlete. At the start of the campaign, a total of 32 former Big Ten student-athletes were shown leading by example as head coaches of women's sports in the conference.  Among those featured were Illinois golf coach Renee Slone, Northwestern soccer standout Stephanie Erickson, basketball coaches Lisa Stone of Wisconsin and Purdue's Sharon Versyp, Penn State track and field director Beth Alford-Sullivan, Ohio State gymnastics coach Carey Fagan and Michigan State golf coach Stacy Slobodnik-Stoll.

The 25th Anniversary promotion also gave us all a closer look into the emerging national dominance of Big Ten softball.  Highlighted throughout the season was the 2005 NCAA Champion squad from Michigan and the 2006 national runner-up Northwestern.

We turned our attention in late summer to the conference's annual awards and learned more about four former competitors from Indiana, who were given honored with the Big Ten Sportsmanship Award.  We took a look back at former Medal of Honor winners from the campuses of Ohio State, Purdue and Wisconsin, and later sat down with Badger track legend Suzy Favor-Hamilton and discussed with her what it means to have her name of the Big Ten's Suzy Favor Female Athlete of the Year award.

Toward the end of the campaign we put the focus on things that are being done on our campus and in the world by Big Ten student-athletes.  What a moving story we heard when we learned more about what former Michigan volleyball player Annie Maxwell is doing as the Chief Operating Officer of Direct Relief International -- one of the nation's biggest charities.  She has worked for President Bill Clinton at the United Nations and as an intern for Bill Gates Sr., co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  And yet it all started in Ann Arbor on the volleyball court.

Across the conference, Big Ten schools are constantly funding the creation or renovation of facilities that are home to our women's sports.  Whether it is the nation's first-ever women's ice hockey arena on the campus of Minnesota, indoor golf practice facilities at Illinois, Northwestern and Purdue, a brand new field hockey venue at Indiana or a Michigan softball field, which is currently undergoing renovation, all signs are showing the commitment Big Ten schools have to their women's programs.

And now...we look ahead to the future.  What is going to be in store for Big Ten women's athletics and how will the story continue?

With the advent of the Big Ten Network, the first national television network owned by a collegiate conference, women's sports will be exposed to unprecedented coverage and will only improve the strides for equality the Big Ten has taken over the past 25 years.  The Big Ten Network will cover more women's sports than ever, including basketball, volleyball, field hockey, soccer and softball, as well as Olympic sports such as track and field, swimming and diving and more.

The conference has also committed to "event equality" for men's and women's sports within the first three years the Big Ten Network is on the air.

"The Big Ten has an incredible history of supporting gender equity and this announcement signals our continued dedication to women's athletics," said Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany. "The Big Ten Network's commitment to `event equality' is a first in the history of a national sports network. Combined with the compelling athletic competition, university-produced programming and alcohol-free advertising policy, this announcement positions this enterprise as the most balanced and equitable sports network in America today - one in total alignment with the values of our great universities." 

Big Ten Network President Mark Silverman also agrees with the vision and commitment made toward women's athletics.

"The network's commitment to airing an unprecedented amount of women's events sets a compelling example for other networks - and conferences - to follow," he said.  "As women's sports increases in popularity across the country, the Big Ten Network will be well-positioned to expand this appeal more broadly than ever before."

The history of Big Ten women's championships over the past 25 years was proudly celebrated in the 2006-07 campaign, but the commitment to women's athletics will never end.

The Big Ten has enjoyed telling many of the stories from student-athletes, teams, coaches and administrators who have made the past 25 years a success and have certainly set the stage for "the story to continue."

It is clear that with the new partnership between the Big Ten and the Big Ten Network, a new era and a new story is set to be told.