The rise of women's athletics at Michigan

Friday, September 18, 2015 - 2:06pm

In 1972, the United States passed Title IX of the Education Amendment Act.

In 1972, the United States passed Title IX of the Education Amendment Act. Buy this photo
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In the October 16, 1973, edition of The Michigan Daily, a box no bigger than one square inch represented the change of the Michigan Athletic Department forever.

“Oops!” the header read. “Michigan’s women’s field hockey team bowed to Western Michigan last night in Kalamazoo, 2-0. Michigan’s coach was proud with her team’s performance due to the superlative competition.”

Eight days later, a Daily sports writer wrote a seven-paragraph story in the bottom-left corner of page six. “Michigan coach Phyllis Weikart said she though (sic) her team might have been a little overconfident, and when they fell behind, just couldn’t get it together.”

Throughout the past 125 years, both Michigan sports and the Daily have been overcome by change. And while both Michigan women’s sports and the Daily’s coverage have come a long way since then, those early days were the beginning of the movement.

In 1972, the United States passed Title IX of the Education Amendment Act, comprised of the 37 words that would irreversibly change the nature of college athletics: “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 education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

Though schools were slow to enforce the law at first, those words laid the foundation. The next year, University President Robben Fleming created the Committee to Study Intercollegiate Athletics for Women. The committee wrote a report on women’s athletics, prompting Michigan to begin competition in the 1973-74 season in six varsity women’s sports: basketball, volleyball, tennis, swimming and diving, synchronized swimming and field hockey.

That year was merely a starting point: The field hockey team went 1-3-1, the volleyball team 7-9 and the basketball team 3-8. 

The off-field appearance were even less promising. The women’s teams enjoyed far fewer resources than the men: no scholarships, no practice uniforms, no top-notch facilities. They paid their way as walk-ons, wore their own T-shirts and shorts and played wherever they could find space.

With progress slow at first, one might have wondered how long it would take for Title IX to create real change. That was until 1978, when up the road in East Lansing, a new figure in the women’s sports movement began to make headlines: Carol Hutchins.

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Hutchins, who is still the head coach of the Michigan softball team, has been a pioneer in the process of legitimizing women’s sports from the outset. She is now known as one of the leading figures in a successful movement. Back in 1978, she was just a player on the Michigan State women’s basketball and softball teams.

The previous season, Michigan State’s Athletic Department allocated $776,000 to men’s sports but less than $85,000 to women’s athletics.

So Hutchins did something about it. She and her teammates sued the university before the federal Office of Civil Rights. The court ordered universities to stop discriminating against athletes and teams on the basis of gender.

In the same season when Hutchins’ team brought forth the suit, Michigan started its softball program, along with women’s golf and women’s track and field, bringing the total to nine women’s sports, compared to the 12 it has today.

The softball team debuted on April 8, 1978, with a 7-2 win over Northwestern. Its home opener was two days later against Grand Valley State, another 1-0 win. 

Support was slow at first — as the Daily wrote, “There were no stands and only a handful of fans, but that didn’t bother the woman’s (sic) softball team, the newest addition to the Michigan sports scene.”

But the Daily still covered it. “Ferry Field came alive as the Maize and Blue fast-pitch squad pulled out an exciting 1-0 victory over Grand Valley State College,” sports writer Dan Perrin wrote.

Five years later, Hutchins was an assistant coach for the Michigan softball team, and two years after that, she took the head coaching job.

By that time, the team was on its way to becoming one of the Daily’s most prominent spring sports storylines. After almost two weeks on the road, the Wolverines opened at home on April 3, 1985, losing both games of a doubleheader to Toledo.

“We don’t execute with runners on base,” Hutchins told the Daily after the games. “We just don’t bring them in … I just don’t think our team came out there to win today.”

And if you speak with her today, you could still hear those words in her voice. Today, after 38 years, the Michigan softball team has never had a losing record, a model of consistency not just for the University’s women’s sports but for all sports on a national level. Hutchins has led the team for 31 of its 38 years of existence.

Hutchins gave true meaning to the phrase “working her way up.” When she started coaching at Michigan, she raked the field herself. Today, the Wolverines boast an enviable softball program. And the days of “no stands and only a handful of fans” are gone, too — Michigan regularly plays in front of sellout crowds at Alumni Field.

The days of only Daily coverage didn’t last, either. The Wolverines eventually went national.

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The early days of women’s sports paved the way for a slew of memorable moments in Michigan women’s athletics. In 2001, the Wolverines took home their first women’s national championship in field hockey. The next day, Michigan made Page 1A of the Daily. “Field hockey team wins title,” the headline read, above a big photo of the three captains holding the national championship trophy.

The Daily sent a sports writer to Kent, Ohio, for the day’s top story.

“Years from now, people won’t remember that yesterday the Michigan field hockey team played the consensus No. 1 team in the country,” Bob Hunt wrote. “They won’t remember that its opponent had six senior starters. They won’t remember that its opponent had beaten the Wolverines just two years earlier in the same game.

“But they will remember that these women were the leaders and best.”

Indeed, women’s sports had come a long way.

“I’m happy to bring another one home for the Wolverines,” Michigan field hockey coach Marcia Pankratz told the Daily. “Men’s programs, women’s programs, revenue, non-revenue, it doesn’t matter. We’re just really proud to be a part of the University.”

Added then-Athletic Director Bill Martin: “It’s pretty darn exciting. Being the first of anything is pretty historic.”

Four years later, the softball team joined the club by becoming the first team east of the Mississippi River to win the national championship. The Daily covered it with a special section in the summer edition, with sports writer Scott Bell and photographer Mike Hulsebus in Oklahoma City to cover the historic moment.

“This is obviously a great moment for Michigan and for Michigan softball and all the alums in the Big Ten Conference,” Hutchins told the Daily. “I’m mostly so proud of these kids because they are incredible and have been all week.”

In his column, Bell answered the question of how Michigan put together such a groundbreaking performance: “It’s simple. They played Michigan softball.”

Hutchins’ mantra of Michigan softball radiates throughout the program today, a sign of the continuity she has been able to establish over the years. Each spring, Hutchins’ brand of Michigan softball never fails to captivate the fan base.

She has done it because she had the chance, starting with her courage in action 37 years ago.