FOR THE LOVE OF THE GAME
They didn’t have scholarships, screaming fans, or even their own uniforms, but the 1969 Iowa women’s basketball team made up for it with their love of the game. The team paved the way for future female athletes by participating in the first-ever national basketball tournament for women.
“In every person’s lifetime, there are special events that stand out. This tournament experience is one of those for me,” said team member Karen Davis Williams (BA ’70). “Watching the NCAA tournament each spring brings back those great memories and the satisfaction that we blazed the trail for young women who play this great game today.”
The 1969 team members, most of them Physical Education majors, played just prior to Congress passing Title IX in 1972—preventing gender discrimination in sports, before the NCAA included women athletes, and even before women played full-court basketball.
The team played a six-person game with two guards, two forwards, and two rovers. Only the rovers crossed the center line. The team wore plain uniforms shared among all women’s sports.
“The uniforms were used year-round for whatever sport was in season,” remembered Jean Pohlmann Hammill (BS ’69).
They played mostly in-state teams on a smaller than regulation court on the third floor of Halsey Hall.
“The court was really small and there weren’t any real seats,” said Barbara Binkard Christenson, a sophomore at tournament time.
Despite the fact that their fan base was limited, Coach Mildred Barnes, then a UI College of Education professor, remembers her team as serious athletes.
“They played in a quiet gymnasium, but that doesn’t mean the players’ dedication was any less. It just means nobody observed them play,” she said.
Team members say support from Coach Barnes and Assistant Coach Judith Clarke (PhD ’71)inspired them.
“Mildred Barnes was an exceptional leader for all of us,” said Fran Towle (BS ’69), who at 5’2” said she was the “shorty” of the team and one of the team’s two rovers. “She had the foresight and vision for women’s sports.”
Hammill, the other rover, said the team was “in awe” of Barnes.
“We would have walked through fire for her,” she said.
Barnes coached at the UI from 1966 to 1969 and then spent nine seasons coaching at Central Missouri State University . She was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2000 and has penned several books on women’s sports.
The 1969 team ended its regular season with a 6-2 record. In past years, that would have been the end of their play. But instead, West Chester State College in Pennsylvania invited them to be among 16 teams to participate in that first-ever tournament.
“I remember thinking how wonderful it was to be able to compete and that we were competing for The University of Iowa and needed to conduct ourselves as symbols of what college girls were and what they could accomplish,” said Helen Brade Dauber (BS ’69).
Julie Less, the tallest Iowa player at 6’2”, said she remembers being especially proud because for the first time they wore warm-ups displaying their school’s name—at the tournament they were allowed to borrow the men’s team’s jackets.
“I was the only one they came close to fitting,” Less said with a laugh.
The team placed fourth in the tournament, beating The University of Kentucky and Southern Connecticut, but falling to the host school, which went on to win the tournament. Iowa faced in-state rival Iowa Wesleyan in the consolation game and lost 41-26.
Two Iowa players, Towle and Sandie Cullin Herwig, were named to the 12-member All-Tournament Team.
Although they didn’t win, and didn’t return home to any fanfare, the 1969 team left satisfied.
“We were thrilled to be there, to be able to play the game we loved and be appreciated for our skills,” Hammill said.
Current Iowa Women’s Basketball Coach Lisa Bluder said she respects women, like the 1969 team members, who played for the sake of playing.
“That’s the way it probably should be,” she said. “That’s the pure aspect of our game—it started because they loved to play. They didn’t play for the scholarships, the pats on the back, or the fan support. They played because it was fun.”
A Brief Timeline of Women's Basketball
1892 : One year after James Naismith invents basketball, the game is adapted for women and introduced at Smith College.
1896 : The first women’s intercollegiate game takes place at the Armory Hall in San Francisco between Stanford and Cal.
1911 : The Women’s Athletic Association (later known as the Women’s Recreation Association) is formed at the University of Iowa to “promote a spirit of fair play and sportsmanship among girls.”
1969 : The Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (CIAW) hosts its first of three “national championships” of women’s college basketball. West Chester State College wins, The University of Iowa places 4th.
1971 : A five-player, full-court game is adopted. Certain women’s athletic teams at The University of Iowa are identified as “intercollegiate” for the first time.
1972 : President Richard Nixon signs Title IX of the Educational Amendment of 1972, stating that “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving Federal assistance.”
March 19, 1972 : The Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women holds its first women’s collegiate basketball championship.
1973 : The AIAW awards the first athletic scholarships for women.
March 20-23, 1974 : The AIAW’s women’s collegiate basketball national championships gain television and radio coverage for the first time.
1976 : Women’s basketball debuts at the Montreal Olympics. The U.S. brings home the silver medal.
1981 : The NCAA holds its first women’s basketball championships.
1982 : The AIAW folds after losing its anti-trust lawsuit against the NCAA.
1988 : UI Coach C. Vivian Stringer leads the women’s basketball team through its fourth consecutive 20-victory season to a Big Ten championship. Stringer is voted Converse coach of the year by her peers.
1994 : The inaugural 16-team women’s preseason National Invitation Tournament (NIT) is held.
1997 : The inaugural WNBA season begins.
1999 : The Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame opens in Knoxville , Tenn.
2000 : Mildred Barnes, head women’s basketball coach at The University of Iowa from 1966 to 1969, is inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.