MORGANTOWN — Forty years ago a drive by women for equal rights that began in 1848 with the first women’s rights convention held in Seneca Falls, N.Y., stretched into the nation’s schools with the passage of the federal law that would guarantee equal rights in education and other public school-sponsored activities to women.
Who knew it would lead to 4-foot, 8-inch Mary Lou Retton and 6-foot, 8-inch Brittney Griner gaining immortality? Who knew it would give a man — of all Earth’s creatures — named Geno Auriemma a path to the Basketball Hall of Fame?
What started as a revolution is now in the midst of its evolution into the kind of equality the pioneers dreamed of achieving.
Certainly at the time there had been some great women athletes like Babe Didrikson Zaharis, Althea Gibson, Jackie Joyner-Kersey, Billie Jean King, Sonja Heinie and Wilma Rudolph, but mostly women in interscholastic and intercollegiate sports had no opportunity to excel.
Kittie Blakemore was there when Title IX was passed and, along with Martha Thorn, would help create a women’s athletic program at West Virginia University that consisted of women’s basketball, women’s tennis and women’s gymnastics.
Blakemore coached the basketball team, Thorn the tennis team, and after a year Linda Burdette would take over the gymnastics team from Nanette Schiable, all of them leading their teams out of the dark ages and into the modern era, an era where there is such acceptance that Mike Carey, a man, coaches the women’s basketball team; and Jason Butts, a man, coaches the women’s gymnastics team.
In all, the school now fields more women’s teams (nine) than men’s (six), with rifle being a coed sport.
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Women’s basketball has a rich history at West Virginia, one that includes Georgeann Wells-Blackmore, the first woman to ever dunk a basketball in competition, all the way to a team that Carey is nursing into national prominence, and it all begins with Blakemore, who recently recalled the early days.
“We were hoping it would pass because we knew that was the only way we would have a chance at women’s sports at WVU. At the time, we had no sports for women,” said Blakemore, who lives in retirement in Virginia. “We were hoping it would go where it has gone, but we didn’t know it would go this far.”
The key to success was to get women’s athletics to be put under the umbrella of the athletic department rather than the school of physical education, and Blakemore says it could not have been done without the influence and help of Dr. Wincie Ann Carruth, chairman of the women’s physical education department.
When Title IX came in, WVU was the only school in the state that did not have intercollegiate women’s sports, and it wasn’t easy.
“We were teacher-coaches and being paid the school fee,” Blakemore recalled. “We started on a very small budget and were able to increase that to what it is now, which is phenomenal.
“It didn’t always go smoothly, but I knew we weren’t going to quit,” Blakemore continued. “We were going to make this work and would eventually get better and better and that the salaries would get better and better. Never did we consider quitting or stopping.”
There was, as there always is in revolutions, a lot of swimming against the current.
“When we first started we had to take kids out of West Virginia, and they hadn’t played,” she recalled. “We were playing against tough teams. If I hadn’t had a couple of kids from Pennsylvania who had played we would have been in deep trouble.”
It was a team with heart, but not uniforms.
“I couldn’t have any uniforms at first,” Blakemore recalled. “Until you get some people you don’t have any sizes. By the time I got the people and we ordered the uniforms, we didn’t get them until the end of the season.”
They wore mostly physical education outfits.
“I know that first year we didn’t win many games, and it was always wonderful to win,” Blakemore said. “These players, not many of them had played women’s basketball before. So when we won it was like winning the Super Bowl, even though it was the first game.”
The first year they played 14 games, winning the first against West Liberty but then dropping the next seven in a row and finishing 4-10, which included two one-sided losses to Fairmont State. The next year things turned around and WVU went 13-4 with three victories over Fairmont State.
There was, of course, maybe even greater pride in the accomplishments then, considering the rudimentary beginning, than there is today.
“It was a challenge to all the coaches to do the best we could and to get the best players we could get,” Blakemore said. “We got good players. They didn’t have a lot of experience, but they were willing to learn. That’s the thing with women; they don’t mind to learn.”
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Blakemore coached for 19 years, compiling a 301-214 record, winning the Atlantic 10 tournament championship in 1989 and earning NCAA bids in 1980 and 1992. She brought in co-head coaches Bill Fiske and Scott Harrelson to work with her in improving the basketball program, which produced All-American Rosemary Kosiorek, and all-conference players Donna Abbott, Alexis Basil, Olivia Bradley, Jenny Hillen, Cathy Parson and, of course, Georgeann Wells.
“Without Title IX we would not have had equal opportunity and we would not have had women’s sports,” she said. “It was the forerunner of what was to come into the future. I know they have tried many times to cut it out but it’s too strong now. I don’t see a way to do that now.”
For what she did, Kittie Blakemore wound up in the WVU Athletic Hall of Fame.
“We were trailblazers, certainly at WVU,” she said. “I get tickled when I walk in sometimes and they call me the legend. Well, I don’t know about that but it is nice to be recognized.”
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By 2001 the glory days of the WVU program were but a memory. The team had suffered through a 5-21 record, losing 13 of its final 14 games under former star player Alexis Basil, and a change had to be made.
Athletic director Ed Pastilong brought in Mike Carey, a hard-nosed men’s coach from Division II Salem. Carey was a bit rough around the edges in his manner and some thought he would have a difficult time adjusting to women’s basketball, or vice-versa, but he turned WVU into a contender in the Big East and last year took it so high it upset Notre Dame, the nation’s No. 2 team.
“With my personality I don’t know if I could have done it at the time Title IX was passed. I’m more energetic. I don’t know that I would have been a good fit in women’s basketball in 1973,” Carey admitted. “But where it’s come from that point to now, it works.”
Carey remembers what it was like back at the time Title IX was enacted.
“I can remember when I was in high school. I played basketball and I watched some of their practices and games and I’d think, ‘Wow.’ I couldn’t comprehend the difference between the boys’ game and the women’s game. I remember thinking it was so slow and that kind of stuff,” he said.
Then he kind of lost sight of the game, going on into his collegiate career and then coaching, although he did have a hand in it as athletic director at Salem. Still, when he was approached by Pastilong and took the job, then saw it evolve over the past decade, he is amazed by the progress.
“It’s hard to believe how far it has come since 1973,” he said. “I looked at pictures of the uniforms and the style of play back when they started women’s basketball, and it’s just amazing.
“The players have gotten a lot better and the game has become physical. The men’s game you knew was physical and weight lifting was important. I didn’t think it would be on the women’s side, but after my first year here I learned that was not the case. We had to do the same things,” he said.
Carey understands just how much this has meant in the advancement of women into independent, self-supporting human beings who can take pride in how far they have come and how they have been able to reach their potential.
“I think sports, like a lot of things, teach a lot of life’s lessons ... leadership and stuff like that. Sports were one area where it caught on and it carried over into other areas and professions. I think the success of Title IX had a lot to do with it,” he said.
“You know, the opportunities for women now are so much more than it used to be. Sports are one area where you can see it. I don’t want to say it was a test tube, but I really believe it gave an opportunity to women, built leadership and had them thinking, ‘Hey, I can go out and do other things. We don’t have to be compliant to that one little box.’”
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West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck has seen firsthand the effects Title IX has had on women and women’s sports.
“I think Title IX has revolutionized not just college athletics, but high school athletics. A lot of people always think Title IX is some NCAA rule. It’s not. It’s federal law. It applies to the high schools as well. That often gets overlooked,” Luck said.
He has been able to gauge the effects of Title IX through his daughter, Mary Ellen, a volleyball player at Stanford.
“My belief is the best thing from all this sports stuff — middle school, high school, college — is it teaches people to compete because life is competition,” he said. “That’s not to say you can’t learn competition if you’re involved in theater, music or any other extracurricular activity, but in sports it’s obvious that competition matters.
“The rise in Title IX has caused a lot of other doors to open up for women in the business world, in academia, in medicine ... you name it.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.