BOULDER – Jane Wahl never set out to be a pioneer in women’s athletics, but the uncommon path she traveled took her there nonetheless. And the University of Colorado became a better place because of it.
On March 10, the enterprising Wahl received the Sportswomen of Colorado’s Dorothy Mauk Pioneer Award for her work as CU’s first women’s athletic director from 1974-79. Mauk is a former sportswriter for the Denver Post; when she joined the newspaper in 1966 she was believed to be the first female sportswriter working for a major metropolitan daily.
Six years after Mauk was hired by the Post, a very important piece of legislation would alter women’s athletics forever. Title IX, passed in 1972, stated: 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.
Translation: Men and women should have equal opportunities in every educational program, including competitive athletics. In previous years, the CU Recreation Department had utilized student fee monies to fund club sports for both women and men. The administrators of the Recreation Department (Bill Appenzeller and Nancy Gerou) were very much aware of the need for intercollegiate athletics for women, and approached the Student Finance Board with a request to financially support women’s varsity sports with student fees. The request was approved, and included in the package was the position of a female athletic director to oversee the program.
The opportunity in Boulder fell perfectly into place. She was coaching at Thornridge High School in Dolton, Ill., and one of her former students, who was attending CU at the time, mailed Wahl a press clipping from the student newspaper advertising for a position in intramurals at CU.
“I was ready to leave Chicago and I applied for the job,” Wahl recalled earlier this month over lunch with several members of the current Buffs’ staff, including Athletic Director Mike Bohn and Associate Athletic Director Ceal Barry.
Wahl received a letter from Gerou shortly thereafter informing her that she fit more with women’s athletics than with intramurals. She was asked if she would mind having her resume put in for the women’s athletics position instead. Wahl agreed, and the rest made history.
WAHL JOKED ABOUT HOW it all came about, saying, “It wasn’t that I said, ‘I’m going to get into women’s athletics and I’m going to change the world,’ but, ‘Oh, sure, I can do women’s athletics since I did that at the high school I was at.’”
While at THS Wahl said the girls had full competitive schedules in individual sports such as golf and tennis. But team sports such as basketball initially had two “play days” where numerous schools brought female students from their intramural teams (in gym uniforms which were universally detested).
They would join other students and form teams to play in a huge tournament, and after those two “play days” they were done for the year. Gradually the team sports competition evolved to allow sports days, where teams from each school played against other school’s teams — initially twice a year, then four times a year, and finally a full schedule.
After six years of working to improve athletic opportunities for girls at the high school level, Wahl left Illinois and came to the Rocky Mountains in 1974 on a journey she would never have dreamed of before being offered the position. In her first year at CU, her title was coordinator of women’s sports in the recreation department. One year later she was officially the first director of women’s athletics.
The pay wasn’t much and the hours were long, but Wahl knew she had to try to make a difference by helping women at the collegiate level compete to their highest capability. In her words, “You had to love it more than money and food.”
Following the 1973-74 athletic year, nine of CU’s club teams were conducted as varsity sport programs: basketball, volleyball, softball, field hockey, gymnastics, track and field, tennis, swimming and diving, and golf. One year later track and field, cross country, tennis, gymnastics, swimming and diving, basketball and golf were given full varsity status. Volleyball, softball and field hockey remained as club sports. Skiing was also conducted, although its money came from outside sources, and volleyball eventually earned varsity status in 1986.
At the time, all the women’s coaches were part-time, so Wahl was responsible for scheduling most of the athletic competitions. She also made sure to attend every game possible to show her support for the growing programs.
The combined budget for all of those programs was less than $100,000, but somehow Wahl, the coaches and athletes made it work. “I think the things we’ve achieved speak a lot for that,” she said. “Really, we’ve done pretty well, better than anyone would expect for the money we have available. “
The Lady Buffs were members of the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) and competed in the Intermountain Conference (Region 7) which included schools in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.
As a rookie herself, Wahl received guidance for her fledgling program from Appenzeller and Gerou, her superiors in the Recreation Department, and from the other schools in the women’s conference. The AIAW held yearly national meetings where rules, regulations, and other information were shared, including that from successful programs across the country.
OVERALL, EACH INSTITUTION HAD tremendous autonomy regarding its own programs, except in the area of athletic scholarships. Initially, AIAW was very resistant to offering scholarships to female athletes, wanting to avoid the abuses seen in the men’s programs. Then, after female athletes had filed suit, scholarships were approved but with very strict rules regarding “no paid recruiting.”
The Big Eight Conference didn’t sponsor women’s sports until 1982, but that didn’t stop teams in the conference from playing one another informally since the men were competing in the league. Early in Wahl’s tenure the women’s athletic directors began meeting to schedule competition among their schools. For CU the distances would involve less travel than to some schools in their own AIAW region.
One of the earliest contests, Wahl remembers, was when the CU women’s basketball team played Nebraska in Cozad, Neb., on November 6, 1976 in the local high school gym. CU lost by a point (81-80), but the Buffs were treated to Nebraska home-grown steaks at Wahl’s family home just south of Cozad during the trip. It wasn’t an official Big Eight contest, but it was a start since the two teams were in different regions. (Nebraska, as well as Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State and Missouri were all in the AIAW Region 6.)
Things were quite different at that time. Wahl recalled that the AIAW Region 7 schools would have fall and spring meetings and they would tend to much of their scheduling at that time. School administrators would agree to play the contests and schedules were set. Bohn noted, “That was back in the day when a handshake was all it took.” Now, of course, there are reams of red tape with contracts and other incentives when scheduling opponents.
Women’s sports at CU have come a long way since Wahl’s days as the women’s AD four decades ago. Nowadays, for example, the women’s basketball team charters flights, making traveling to and from games much more simple and safe, as well as limiting the amount of classwork that student-athletes miss. During Wahl’s days, the women’s teams didn’t travel further than they could drive since the travel budgets weren’t very large; however, occasionally outstanding individual athletes (i.e. gymnastics) were flown to meets as far away as California.
Wahl remembered one women’s basketball trip very well, sending the team to play in Arizona in a 15-passenger van. The team played in a very small gym with no cushions on the chalkboard on the wall behind the baskets. One of CU’s players crashed into the chalkboard tray during the game, leaving a huge bruise on her posterior. When the team returned to Boulder, the travel-weary player showed the bruise to Wahl and was excited about the fact that she made the layup before hitting the chalkboard tray. Wahl wasn’t as excited about the bruise and said to herself, “We have to do better than this.”
Eventually, the Buffs women’s sports did. Another big change in which Wahl was involved was combining the men’s and women’s athletic departments. New legislation was passed in 1975 giving universities a deadline of July 21, 1978 to comply with the gender equity mandated by Title IX.
But CU, like other institutions, had been slow to plan. In fact, Gerou stated, men’s athletics expressed no interest in the women’s program at all, hence the need for the recreation department to sponsor it.
Roland Rautenstraus, CU’s president at the time, called Wahl and CU men’s Athletic Director Eddie Crowder into a meeting to address the problem. The university needed to comply with Title IX or stood to lose $62 million dollars in federal funding. Wahl and Crowder were given a simple message: Figure it out. (As in the past with men’s athletics, no funds from the university were offered.)
PRIOR TO HER MEETING WITH Crowder, Wahl was approached by Shari Robertson (CU’s Affirmative Action officer) and Dr. Elaine Yarbrough (a communications professor) with an offer to help her prepare a negotiation strategy. As a small-town farm girl who was scheduled to work out a financial budget with someone who had risen quite high in the ranks of the NCAA, Wahl gratefully accepted their counsel.
After several meetings, Wahl and Crowder were on the same page. Out of those meetings emerged a women’s athletic budget that increased from $152,000 to $400,000. Five full-time coaches were hired, with plans to add four new women’s programs. In addition two full-time secretaries, a full-time trainer, and a three-quarter time sports information director were added to the women’s staff, as well as a full-time fund raiser position. The two departments also merged and Wahl became Assistant Athletic Director under Crowder in the combined configuration.
In 1979, the Big Eight announced that it would sponsor championships in 10 different women’s sports (volleyball, basketball, softball, gymnastics, swimming, golf, tennis, indoor and outdoor track and cross country). The conference would spend $150,000 on those championships.
The record books show that CU had been competing in Big Eight Championships prior to that, but those were not under conference jurisdiction until the 1979-80 season. Seven schools started playing Big Eight schedules in 1982-83, but the conference didn't officially start maintaining in-depth statistics until Iowa State came on board in all sports for the 1983-84 athletic year.
Unwilling to accept status quo at the national level, just like at CU, Wahl made a recommendation at national meetings to make the women’s basketball smaller than the men’s. The idea was re-buffed with the comment that women were equal, but the size of the ball would eventually change and the women’s game as a result.
In the 1990’s, CU achieved another step in equality when the women’s teams were no longer called the Lady Buffaloes. Like the men, the school officially began using Buffaloes, or Buffs for short starting in the 1993-94 season.
Wahl left CU in 1979 to complete her doctoral degree and wrote her thesis on, of course, Title IX. She examined the status of intercollegiate women’s athletic programs across the country in the years following its passage. She was replaced by Rene Portland, the then-women’s basketball coach, whose title would be coordinator of women’s athletics.
In 1982, Wahl was hired to be Women’s AD, Softball Coach and Associate Professor at Linfield College in McMinnville, Ore. Since leaving CU, she has continued to hold the university near and dear to her heart having put so much time and effort into growing the program. Without her, who knows where the Buffs would be; but without the Buffs, Wahl recognizes that she would have missed out on a tremendous experience.
She is very grateful that the pioneer role fell to her. “The athletes, coaches, CU personnel, and pioneers in other colleges and universities greatly enriched my life,” she said. “It’s fun to see how far things have come from the beginning. It’s good to see that all of the effort was worth it.”