Texas History 101

The Baylor University women’s basketball program has come a long way.

Lately, it’s been one great thing after another for Baylor University’s women’s basketball program. First there was the 2005 Big 12 Tournament title, then the 2005 NCAA Tournament title, Baylor’s first women’s team NCAA title. The Lady Bears finished the 2004–05 season with the longest active winning streak in the nation (twenty games) and a 33–3 record. Then came the public appearances—being honored at the state capitol, meeting Governor Rick Perry, and riding in Corvette convertibles in a parade hosted by the City of Waco.

Before joining the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women in 1974, the Baylor women’s basketball team wasn’t an official team—it was a group of women from physical education classes who played scrimmages against other Texas schools. Jeanne Nowlin, a former staff member in Baylor’s athletic department who played basketball in the sixties, recalls simply getting into a friend’s car or van to go and play against other schools. But things changed under Coach Olga Fallen in 1976 and 1977, when the team made it to the AIAW National Championships. With superstar player Suzie Snider Eppers on the team (the first All-American to play for the Baylor women’s basketball program) and four seasons with at least thirty wins a season, the Lady Bears appeared to be on their way to winning titles. Well, not so fast.

In 1979, when Pam Bowers took over as the second head coach of the Lady Bears, the women’s basketball program hardly offered scholarships and not much money was allotted for recruiting. Bowers did what she could, even washing the girls’ jerseys and driving the bus herself, but there wasn’t a big commitment to women’s basketball at the time, or for that matter, women’s sports. The program suffered. Bowers filed a suit against Baylor in 1993, stating that Baylor had violated the federal Title IX law that says schools should not discriminate against funding for women’s sports. There was much controversy because Bowers had been fired and rehired around this time, but eventually the suit was settled in 1995.

However, the lack of funding and support did not get better overnight. When Sonja Hogg, Bowers’ successor, came on board in 1994, she had many obstacles in her way. Two months after being hired, Hogg was subpoenaed to give a deposition in the lawsuit between Bowers and Baylor University. And, of course, there were the ever imminent problems of funding and winning. According to Hogg, there was no reserved-seat season tickets, no Tip-Off Club to provide support, no radio or television coverage, and no VCR to watch tapes. The band didn’t even play at the games. “When I got there, I don’t think the women had had a winning season in thirteen years,” said Hogg.

The support grew, however, as women’s athletics became a financial priority at Baylor. Herbert Reynolds, the president of Baylor in 1994, started going to the women’s basketball games. He had Hogg outline several things that the team needed to “get to the next level,” and some of the changes that followed included the purchase of a $30,000 video editing system and the redesign of the locker room, which made it, according to Hogg, “more like a female dressing room.”

A year later Robert Sloan took the helm as Baylor’s president, and the commitment to women’s athletics continued. Hogg fondly recalls 1998 as the year she took the Lady Bears to the postseason Women’s National Invitation Tournament. Nowlin gives Hogg credit for the fan base that the Lady Bears developed: “She really laid the groundwork for getting people in the stands.” Hogg’s accomplishments at Louisiana Tech, including the 1982 NCAA national championship win, gave credibility to the Baylor women’s basketball program. (The Lady Bears joined the NCAA in 1982.)

So when Kim Mulkey-Robertson took over from Hogg, her former coach at Louisiana Tech, in 2000, she was able to lead them into several winning seasons and then all the way to the top. She had already tasted success in women’s college basketball before coming to Baylor—the 5-foot-4 point guard had led the Lady Techsters to back-to-back national titles and a 130–6 record. The season before Mulkey-Robertson became coach had been dismal, with a 7–20 record, but Mulkey-Robertson coached the Lady Bears to sixth in the Big 12 her first year, and in the 2004–05 season, took the Lady Bears all the way to win the NCAA National Championships.

This success, of course, means that everyone is watching Baylor. But now that the fans and administration are rallying around the Lady Bears and Whitney Jones, the 2005 Gatorade Louisiana basketball player of the year and three-time all-state pick in 2003, 2004, and 2005, has committed to sign in November (as reported in the Waco Tribune-Herald), it seems the program’s best days—and more titles—are yet to come.

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