It’s been 40 seasons since West Virginia University first began playing women’s volleyball in 1974 – one year after the Mountaineer women’s sports program was officially adopted in response to the federally mandated Title IX provision of the Educational Amendments Act of 1972.
Title IX, as it has since become known, was introduced into law to protect people from discrimination based on sex in education programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance.
That meant West Virginia University and other public educational institutions that received federal money for research and scholarships were going to have to become compliant with the new law in order to continue receiving federal aid. Naturally, the two biggest questions for the University at the time were how to do it? And, more importantly, where was it going to get the money?
At the time, the athletic department struggled mightily to deal with those two critical issues, but fortunately, there were a couple of dedicated women on campus who could help – the Founding Mothers of West Virginia University women’s sports, if you will.
“We knew (Title IX) was going into law and we were ready for it,” recalled Kittie Blakemore, at the time an assistant professor in West Virginia University’s School of Physical Education and one of WVU’s leading women’s sports advocates.
For staunch women’s sports supporters like Blakemore and Dr. Wincie Ann Carruth, chairperson for women’s physical education at WVU and a “true, true Southern lady from Mississippi,” former women’s tennis coach Martha Thorn recalled, the years leading up to the University’s decision to finally adopt women’s sports on April 10, 1973 were filled with frustration, angst and disappointment as their efforts to be heard were stonewalled at almost every turn.
But that changed on June 23, 1972 when the Educational Amendments Act was signed into law.
“At that time, President (James) Harlow saw the handwriting on the wall,” said Blakemore. “You have a big land-grant institution that is going to lose a lot of federal money if they don’t go with this. With all of those kinds of things in your corner you can certainly go after the possibility of starting this.”
In early August 1972, West Virginia University Athletic Director Leland Byrd, on the job for just a week, walked into his office at the WVU Coliseum one morning and noticed a telephone message left on his desk by his secretary, Eleanor Lamb. It was from Blakemore and Carruth and they were requesting a meeting to talk about women’s sports at West Virginia.
What Carruth and Blakemore had planned for Byrd was almost an ambush, if that was even possible coming from two women as kind and sweet as Kittie Blakemore and Wince Ann Carruth. Byrd knew the adoption of women’s sports was an issue retiring athletic director Red Brown had left for him, and he also knew it was something that wasn’t going to go away.
“(Kittie) came to me and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to start a women’s program. I’m here and I can take basketball, Martha Thorn can take tennis …’ I said, ‘Listen, I can sympathize with you but we just don’t have any money,” said Byrd.
It was a response Blakemore and Carruth had heard many times before. However this time they were prepared.
Since at least 1969, when Blakemore and Carruth were asked to help write the constitution for the women’s portion of the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, Kittie had been efficiently and methodically collecting data on women’s sports programs at other institutions.
Her bulging file cabinets were stuffed with memos typed up on crinkled onion-skinned paper, handwritten letters from women’s student organizational leaders and their parents, correspondence from female sports colleagues at other institutions, carbon copies of charts of proposed women’s sports budgets and suggested organizational policy statements for women’s athletic programs.
There was WVU student Gail Oberholtzer’s letter to Carruth with the names and phone numbers for all of the WVU women’s tennis club members – all of them with the exception of her own. Gail wasn’t sure what her new phone number was going to be at Women’s Hall for the next semester, she wrote, but she left her parents’ mailing address in Vienna, W.Va. in case anyone needed it.
There was University of Minnesota professor Dr. Eloise Jaeger’s two-page typed letter with her suggestions on how Blakemore should go about crafting West Virginia’s women’s sports policy.
Then there was the University of Kansas’ women’s sports budget for the 1972-73 academic year. The Jayhawks had $11,987.42 allocated for their seven women’s varsity sports that season, with women’s gymnastics getting the biggest slice of the pie at $3,539.76. On the other end of the spectrum was the women’s tennis budget of $575.95 for its fall and spring seasons.
The four away matches the Jayhawks had that year ate up most of their budget with an additional $20 earmarked for “hospitality” to cover home matches against McPherson, Kansas State, Washburn and Central Missouri State. At $5 per event, the Jayhawk women really knew how to party back then.
Blakemore’s file cabinet also contained the yearly budget allotments for Fairmont State’s women’s basketball program, which averaged out to roughly $1,000 per year dating back to the late 1960s. The Falcons in 1972 spent $348 for uniforms and $15 for one game official, although they sometimes opened up the checkbook for an extra set of eyes when the games were more important or the Falcons were badly in need of a W (not really, of course).
She had samples of game contracts from the University of Pittsburgh and women’s sports participation charts from the University of Illinois. There was also a mimeographed women’s sports guideline diagram with comments, recommendations and questions, such as:
How much control will the AIAW (Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women) impose upon the member institutions?
Do the women have any mechanism for enforcing its regulations?
Where are the women going to get the structure and finances to function?
Are students limited to the number of sports in which they participate?
How does one determine or enforce rules concerning the length of a season?
What constitutes a practice session?
Where do administrators send the verification of eligibility?
What are the implications of increased varsity programs for undergraduate professional preparation?
But perhaps the most interesting (and most important) record in Blakemore’s file cabinet was a one-page typed document titled “Discussion of Intercollegiate Program for Women at WVU.” This was essentially the Magna Carta for women’s sports at West Virginia University.
It dealt with the organizational structure for Mountaineer women’s sports, which local and national associations West Virginia University should be a part of (the women preferred the WVIAC initially for competitive and financial reasons), the problems with starting a new women’s program and the budgetary issues it was going to present, facility requirements for practices and games, team scheduling, a plan of action for tryouts and which sports to adopt first.
Handwritten notations were made in each column with suggestions on how the coaches should be compensated, which sports should be delayed or phased in over time, where most of the athletes would come from and whether or not a separate Athletic Council for Women should be instituted with the same representation as the regular Athletic Council.
It was quite clear to Byrd that Blakemore and Carruth had all of their ducks in a row when they met with him. In fact, they had already prepared a women’s sports proposal for the University, complete with a table of contents covering such things as administrative organization, potential coaches, sport suggestions, budgets, insurance and physical examinations, association dues, eligibility requirements, athletic trainers, department staffing recommendations, facilities to be used and the attached by-laws for the WVIAC, Midwest Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women and the AIAW.
The one thing the women were adamant about from the outset was joining the athletic department instead of being solely an entity of the School of Physical Education because they knew athletics was on much firmer ground financially.
“We can start it but it will have to be on a shoestring,” said Byrd after leafing through their proposal. “I don’t know where I’ll find it, but you’ve got $5,000 this first year.”
To his knowledge, Byrd said Kittie took $1,000 for women’s basketball, Martha took $1,000 for tennis and the same amount was allocated for women’s gymnastics.
“I think they were surprised that we always came in very conservative because I remember Martha saying she brought back money from a trip once, and Leland wanted to know if she had fed the players,” Blakemore chuckled.
But in order to have a women’s sports program at WVU, the proposal first had to be approved by an all-male (and very conservative) WVU Athletic Council. The women’s proposal, with the enthusiastic backing of School of Physical Education Dean Peter Yost, was sent to President Harlow on August 9, 1972; Harlow acknowledged receipt of the document a week later but it took almost nine months until final approval came from the Athletic Council on April 10, 1973.
“The thing that held it up in ’72 was the fact that the state didn’t know how they were going to pay the coaches,” said Blakemore. “Well, when they finally realized that the coaches were already being paid because we were teacher-coaches, then they didn’t have any question about it.”
It was determined that basketball, tennis and gymnastics would begin in Year 1 (1973-74), followed by volleyball, swimming, track and field and softball in Year 2 (1974-75). In ensuing years, golf, field hockey, lacrosse, fencing, badminton and table tennis were also on the docket for WVU women.
Blakemore understood that it was a very ambitious plan that may or may not have been accepted in its entirety. She also knew if the women shot for the moon right away and asked for everything at once they might run the risk of getting a much smaller piece of the pie because sports participation quotas were not yet part of the Title IX equation.
“The athletic department really didn’t want us but they knew – and I think Leland knew – that they were going to have to start with us,” said Blakemore.
“I knew it was going to grow,” Byrd added. “I knew they had to make a place for women and I knew it was going to have to be on par somewhat with the men, but I didn’t realize that it would come that fast. We moved pretty fast compared to a lot of other schools, I thought.”
At the outset there were your typical problems and other difficulties that, to some extent, still exist today. There were issues with the women and men being in the training room at the same time, plus, money (or lack thereof) was always a big concern at WVU. However, the battle for adequate practice time at the WVU Coliseum always seemed to be No. 1 on the list of grievances the women had.
“We worked around (the men’s teams),” said Blakemore. “If they wanted the court they got the court. Since we worked around them they really didn’t have any gripes to speak about us. We had some gripes, but they didn’t.”
“We picked our battles and at that time we really didn’t have a battle,” noted Thorn. “But Leland was ready to do it and we all learned together.”
In 1975, Linda Burdette was hired to coach the women’s gymnastics team and Veronica Hammersmith also joined the department that same year to coach volleyball in the fall and softball in the spring; both were required to teach a full load of classes in the School of Physical Education as well. And because Veronica was one of the lowest coaches on the totem poll at the time, her volleyball team usually got the short end of the stick when it came to practice times in the fall after basketball season started.
“Men’s basketball was supposed to get 4-7 and women’s basketball got 7-9 and we got 9-11,” she recalled. “PE had the floor until 2 o’clock so there weren’t enough hours to do a practice before men’s basketball started.”
Hammersmith said that PE paid one half of her salary and athletics paid the other half, but a portion of that was reduced in the early 1980s when the department dropped softball for financial reasons. She took another pay cut in the mid-1980s when her teaching duties were phased out.
“I took a big hit (financially) when that happened,” she said. “They decided that they wanted them to separate and since my salary was 50-50 I got my salary cut in half when I stopped teaching, so it was really hard for me.”
“The money was a big problem back then, even though we didn’t spend a lot,” mentioned Blakemore. “It was still a big hunk of the athletic budget and we had to be conservative and realistic about what we could get – take what you can and go with that.
“I guess I was from the old school where you just do what you can do and you work very carefully with it and don’t make a lot of waves,” Blakemore said. “I found I could get things accomplished a lot quicker if I didn’t make a lot of waves, but yet I was still able to do these things and get them through.”
“Kittie and those guys did a really nice job of getting things off the ground,” added Hammersmith. “That was probably the hardest part of the whole thing was getting somebody to let them have teams. Nobody cared about it and I think, to some degree, they still suffer from that a little bit today unless your team is doing really well.”
Byrd said it didn’t take long for the athletic department to accept the women, and to the best of his knowledge, there were no major issues – or at least any big grievances that were brought to his attention.
“We were very fortunate because a lot of schools did have problems,” he said.
Today, women’s volleyball begins its 40th season of competition on Aug. 31 when it meets Eastern Illinois in the Blue/Gold Invitational at the University of Toledo. A 40th anniversary celebration is planned at the Coliseum for the Kansas State match on Sept. 27 with alums, coaches, administrators and support staff from all periods invited to return to campus.
Volleyball at WVU has had varying degrees of success through the years – much like its sister programs basketball, tennis, gymnastics, track, swimming (as well as the more recently adopted sports soccer and rowing) due in part to many factors, some out of its control.
But as new members of the Big 12 Conference, and with potentially more resources available to them in the near future when the department begins receiving full TV revenue from the conference, WVU volleyball is clearly headed in the right direction.
Winston Churchill once famously said the farther backward you can look the farther forward you can see.
Well, today the outlook for West Virginia University women’s sports has never been brighter, thanks to a couple of pioneering women who through a lot of hard work, a lot of patience, and, yes, a little bit of guile, made it all possible.