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‘The best damn coach on this campus’

By Alejandro Zúñiga, Daily Sports Editor
Published November 11, 2013

The arched roof of Jenison Fieldhouse in East Lansing once housed Earvin “Magic” Johnson. It hosted Mississippi State and Loyola Chicago in the 1963 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, which helped advance civil rights in one of the nation’s most tenuous times.

But on a day in January 1976, the dusty court of the hallowed building was disturbed not by the cheers of thousands, but by the methodic pounding of a basketball as Carol Hutchins and the rest of the Michigan State women’s basketball team ran through drills.

Partway through the practice, a prominent visiting men’s Division I squad walked into the building, familiarizing itself with the venue before a game against the Spartans later in the week. Then the visitors stepped onto the court, ignoring Hutchins and her teammates, and began to warm up.

By then, the head coach of the visiting team was quite well-known, and he would go on to enjoy a long career. But when he finally acknowledged Hutchins, his stinging words ultimately came as less of an insult than they were the utterance of a painfully obvious truth.

“No one gives a damn about women’s basketball.”

And then he kicked them out.

***

Growing up in Lansing alongside five siblings, Hutchins, now entering her 30th year as the Michigan softball coach, would spend her afternoons and summers outdoors on the playground. She never quite understood why, but she always loved sports.

But when her three brothers were old enough to join organized teams, Hutchins didn’t have the same options. They went on to Little League, and she had to sit on the bleachers. They played basketball, and she watched from a distance.

For lack of a better option, Hutchins enlisted in her school’s cheerleading team in middle school and high school, the only varsity sport available to her. It was far from ideal, but it was the only way she could get from the stands onto the field.

“I went and cheered for my brothers, even though I was better than them,” Hutchins said.

Girls who wanted to play any other sport had to rely on gym class and sometimes hastily arranged after-school activities — no schedules, no uniforms and no varsity letter.

Despite the extent that the law would soon change Hutchins’s life, the day Title IX passed in 1972 didn’t seem out of the ordinary to the high-school student. Hutchins didn’t come home and tell her parents that she could soon play organized sports. The implications of Title IX on athletics weren’t fully realized until later; after all, it was part of the Educational Amendments of 1972 and had no explicit relation to sports.

Instead, the 37 words of the law state that no organization that receives federal financial assistance can deny benefits to people on the basis of sex. In other words, if a school wanted money from the government, it couldn’t discriminate against women.

In her senior year, Hutchins’s high school handed the girls’ basketball team uniforms and a full schedule and promised to make arrangements for away games — commodities it had never offered before. A giddy Hutchins bought her first pair of Adidas Superstar shoes.

“I was in heaven,” she said. “It just gave us the same opportunity. I don’t deserve more opportunity. I just want the same opportunity.”

At that point, Hutchins was content with enrolling at Michigan State, especially since the school demonstrated a progressive attitude toward women’s sports. Her softball team even won a national championship, though it’s only recognized by the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, and not the NCAA.

At first there were no scholarships, but no one complained about having to earn playing time as a walk-on. Hutchins didn’t mind that the men had first choice to all of the school’s facilities and that the women would be slotted in as an afterthought, if at all.

But beyond the lack of available scholarships, there were still countless inequalities between men’s and women’s sports. The women played at Jenison Fieldhouse just once per year when the Athletic Department scheduled a doubleheader with the men. And in stark contrast to the men, Hutchins and her teammates wore a conglomeration of T-shirts and shorts instead of school-issued practice uniforms.