Women in Sports: The Long Road to an Exemplary Program
Published in Beloit Magazine/September 1993
By Paul Erickson
"I won't have jocks in my programs!"
With that, a female physical education instructor let then-athletic director Bob Nicholls know exactly how she felt about women playing varsity sports. Young women, she believed, should participate in physical education classes, not athletics. Varsity competition should be left to the men.
It's hard to believe that attitude existed at Beloit -- less than 20 years ago -- especially considering how competitive the Buccaneer women are today, what great facilities and equipment they have, and what interest they generate.
Most of the current female players have the same opportunities as their male counterparts in programs with budgets just as large as, if not larger than, the men's teams.
Once forbidden, women's intercollegiate athletics are now a very large part of Beloit College. But at Beloit, as in every campus across the country, it was a long time in coming.
Women have been actively involved in sports at Beloit for nearly 100 years. In fact, they shot baskets almost from the time women first came to the campus in 1895. Forming competitive teams, however, was another matter because it was simply not allowed. In 1897, a group of women asked to play a basketball game against UW-Madison. The request was delayed for a semester, then denied. Beloit females, however, were allowed to cheer for the men's teams for the first time beginning the next year.
In 1918, women were finally allowed to play in the men's gymnasium (in the current Smith Building) on Tuesdays and Thursdays for one hour. Beginning in 1920, the College let women play intramurals, consisting of basketball, indoor baseball, swimming, and tennis.
Mostly, however, women's athletic prowess was limited to physical education classes and some intramurals. When Nicholls came to Beloit in 1952, field hockey and synchronized swimming were intercollegiate sports, but nothing else was.
"Volleyball, basketball, and softball were played, but only as intramurals and only when there was enough interest," he said.
With the women's movement in the 1960s, athletics came under scrutiny. Why should men be allowed to play and not women?
In 1972, Title IX was passed, a breakthrough federal legislation that has changed the look of sports. Title IX of the Education Amendment Act said all educational institutions must offer the same athletic opportunities for females as they do for males. Therefore, if a woman wanted to play soccer, the school either had to allow her on the men's team or field a separate women's team.
Providing new opportunities costs money, however, something that Beloit did not have in abundance during the 1970s.
"Trying to begin new teams during that time was impossible," said Bill Knapton, the long-time men's basketball coach who also served as athletic director for a decade, beginning in 1976.
In addition, the women physical education instructors were not coaches and therefore did not want varsity athletics.
However, changes came about in both finances and attitudes. Soon the College was able to field teams, and the administration proved supportive. Volleyball and basketball were the first sports to begin intercollegiate play, in 1975-6.
"When Martha Peterson came [as president], she was interested in establishing a program for women," Nicholls said. "When Roger Hull succeeded her [in 1981], he changed our department's focus to athletics rather than physical education."
Beloit eliminated the physical education requirement, which mandated two years of PE courses, and the female physical education teachers moved on. The athletic staff then consisted entirely of coaches.
The administration definitely saw the recruiting advantages of giving women more opportunities.
"All over the country, there was a push to attract students, especially in liberal arts colleges," Nicholls said. "One way to do that was through a good athletic program."
"The College came to recognize how important women's athletics are," said Dean of the College Parker Marden. "We recognized the kinds of students we want increasingly have athletic backgrounds. Athletics are important parts of studnets' lives -- male or female -- because they teach so many good things, such as teamwork, leadership, and time management.
"Women are changing, and changing dramatically. They now play sports as youths, just as males always have. Beloit College had to keep up with them, and we embraced the changes."
Ed DeGeorge, who was hired as the football coach in 1977 and became athletic director in 1986, said, "We've always had a great men's basketball program, and we had a solid football program in the mid-1980s. We wanted to bring all of our programs up to the level of men's basketball. The area primed for success was our women's program. It was just coming into its own and had the ideal leader in Pam Samuelson."
Samuelson joined the staff in 1985 as head volleyball and softball coach as well as women's athletic coordinator. She, too, saw the program's enormous potential.
"We were near the bottom of the conference in every sport, but the administration made a commitment to get to the top," she said. "That was important."
Besides creating Samuelson's position, the College also committed to building the $6-million Sports Center, one of the finest NCAA Division III facilities in the country, and resurfacing the outdoor track at Strong Stadium. In addition, the athletic department hired some other top talent.
"We hired full-time people, and it's made a difference," said Knapton. "People like Pam, Barb Hebel, and then Mimi Walters as basketball coaches; they're outstanding."
The school had the facilities and coaches. Excellent student-athletes soon followed. All things added up to success -- in a hurry.
The 1989 volleyball team qualified for the championship pool of the conference tournament, and the women's basketball team, under the direction of Hebel, made the four-team league tournament for the first time that winter. In the spring, the softball team became the first Beloit team to win the North Division. Jim Strieker's soccer program won the next two division titles, in 1991 and 1992, and Walter's basketball squad placed third last winter. The cross country team, under Dan Copper, was second last fall, for its highest placing.
The real shining example of the program, though, is the tennis team. History Professor Bob Hodge has led his troops to an 85-27 mark in nine seasons, including a remarkable 67-8 over the last six campaigns. During that span, his team's grade-point average has been between 3.2 and 3.5. It seemed fitting that his players won the school's first overall title.
It won't be Beloit's last.
"It's been fun to watch the progression," Samuelson said. "We've seen the down side and how much we've improved. We are certainly not where we ultimately want to be in terms of numbers of championships, but we've really progressed.
"It's incredible. We have kids in the volleyball program right now who would have been starters five years ago but don't see much court time. That tells you how far we've come."
(Note: The writer acknowledges his debt to Hail the Conquering Coed: Women at Beloit College, 1895-1905, by Liz Renner '92, published by Beloit College Archives.)