Big Ten Success Prior to 1981
Big Ten member universities have been a standard of excellence in women's athletics even before official conference and NCAA recognition. Prior to the Big Ten's official recognition of women's athletics, several universities were represented by teams that competed in more than 16 sports against conference and non-conference opponents. Women participated in basketball, bowling, cross country, fencing, field hockey, golf, gymnastics, lacrosse, rowing, softball, swimming, synchronized swimming, tennis, indoor and outdoor track and volleyball for up to 10 years before the Big Ten and NCAA officially sanctioned championships in the 1981-82 academic year.
Before that year universities throughout the nation participated in the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) in 20 different women's sports. Even then the Big Ten was well represented by a total of 21 national champions. Wisconsin proved to be a dominating force in rowing, wining four-consecutive National Women's Rowing Association (NWRA) Championships from 1975-1978. Not to be outdone, Ohio State took five out of six titles in synchronized swimming between 1977 and 1982. Illinois was the Big Ten's first-ever AIAW Champion in 1970 when the Illini took home the outdoor track and field title in 1970, while Michigan State added a national championship to the conference's resume in 1976 and Indiana brought home the tennis crown in 1980 to add to the Hoosiers' dynasty.
As one of the pioneers of women's athletics, Penn State dominated AIAW Championships across the board, winning a total of nine national titles in four years, which is the second-highest total in pre-1981 women's athletics. The Lady Lions won three-straight titles in lacrosse (1978-80), two each in fencing and field hockey in 1980 and 1981, and one each in bowling (1979) and gymnastics (1978).
In conference play, swimming and tennis are two of the oldest women's events, with as many as nine teams participating in the 1971-72 academic year. A non-sponsored swimming championship among league schools was held at Indiana that year, and the Hoosiers held onto home-pool advantage to win the meet. Throughout the next 11 years, before official Big Ten recognition, participation within teams grew rapidly, and the field was expanded to 10 teams. In tennis, three-time individual champion Sue Selke of Michigan State led the Spartans to two-straight league titles in 1973 and 1974. Ohio State then took the reins and went on a five-year streak of being the best among league schools before Indiana began their dynasty in 1980 and went on to win 12 consecutive titles when conference play officially began in 1982.
Softball is one of the sports that has grown most rapidly since 1977 when six Big Ten schools participated. Now, 25 years and a national champion later, all 11 universities compete in a nationally renowned conference that consistently produces teams among the best in the country. Michigan State led league opponents in the early years of the sport, putting together an 18-6 record in the first five years of existence.
On the court beginning in 1976, Ohio State dominated women's basketball on the national scene as it compiled a 99-18 record in its first three years and were undefeated against other Big Ten schools. One of the most popular women's sports after the Title IX movement, eight conference universities quickly added basketball to their repertoire, and the Big Ten remains a national power today.
As Big Ten universities continue to set a high bar in women's athletics, it is important to remember past champions and participants who paved the way for today's greatness. Many of those players didn't get the recognition that is now offered to female athletes, but their contributions to the Big Ten, NCAA and women's sports in general have been invaluable.