By Glen Farley, The Enterprise (Brockton)
(Second in a three-part series)
BROCKTON, Mass. -- There are times when Paula Sullivan has to resist the urge to set aside her official role as Stonehill College’s vice president for intercollegiate athletics and assume the role of parent to one of the school’s female athletes.
“The funny thing is, it’s hard for me,” said Sullivan, “because some kids might whine a tad about this or that and you just want to say to them, ‘You know, when I played I used to have to grab my sisters and her buddies to set up the chairs for the game and do this and do that.’
“We can say that about many things in life, but (the landscape of women’s college athletics) certainly has changed dramatically. At times, it would be great for the women to look back and listen to folks who have been major players in changing the environment. None of us would be able to do that without the push of Title IX, that’s for sure.”
Saturday will mark Title IX’s 40th anniversary; it’s been 40 years since women’s college athletics began to change immeasurably for the better.
“Those of us who were just getting into the business or had been in it for a short time,” Bridgewater State University athletic director John Harper said, “never knew the potential that was there.”
Potential has given way to what Women’s Basketball Hall of Famer Barbara Stevens has, at times, turned into a history lesson for her players at Bentley University.
“I try to do a little Title IX spiel with my groups every two or three years to let them know the history, but it’s tough,” said Stevens, also a Hall of Fame inductee at Bentley and Bridgewater State, where she was a standout athlete. “Here’s what we have (nowadays) and we can’t even think, even imagine not having this.
“I think if you talk to young women now, a lot of them might not even know what Title IX means, which is sad. It’s a part of history. It was 40 years ago and I think young women growing up now are used to having opportunities and equipment and they’re treated basically the same, in some instances better. It is too bad they don't realize the history of what has allowed them these opportunities. There are a lot of women who fought really, really hard to get to this point.”
When Sullivan arrived at Stonehill in 1971, fresh out of Bridgewater State, there wasn’t an intercollegiate women’s sport to speak of on the Easton campus.
“I came to Stonehill to coach right out of college,” said Sullivan. “My sister Mary Ellen, who was a student here, called me and said they were looking for a coach.”
With that, the transition from Bridgewater State Hall of Fame athlete to Stonehill College Hall of Fame coach began; back in those early days, the innovation Sullivan displayed in winning 478 games over 25 years went well above and beyond drawing up Xs and Os on a chalkboard.
“John Heslin, who at the time was our dean of students here, kind of corralled the gals, handed me the reins, and the rest is history,” said Sullivan. “At the time, we had to fund-raise for our own uniforms. We were able to practice in the old gym when the men were done.
“(At games,) I had my sister do the time and some of her friends do the scorer’s table. They didn’t supply those. Fr. Mark Cregan, who is now our president, was a student at the time and he drove the school bus with our team to our games. One of his work study jobs was to drive the pale blue Stonehill bus.”
What a road the Skyhawk women have traveled.
“There was no question we were (second-class citizens in the beginning),” said Sullivan. “We were the only women’s sport back then and now we have 11 intercollegiate sports for women (with more than 175 participants). It’s grown by leaps and bounds.”
Times were also different when Stevens, fresh out of Bridgewater State in 1976, was hired as an assistant by Clark University’s women’s athletic director at the time, Pat Hassett.
“Through a chance meeting at a tennis tournament in the fall after I'd graduated I’d mentioned to her that I was looking for a coaching job if they had anything there,” said Stevens. “She didn't, but she kind of scrounged up some money to get me to be a part of their coaching staff. The guy that was the coach at the time was Charlie Hall. He did the best he could under the circumstances.
“I don’t mean to imply anything, but it was almost like more of a recreational activity vs. an intercollegiate sport, if you will. There were some decent women on the team, but No. 1, the type of school Clark was, I'm not sure that was their first goal was to win championships. I think it was just to provide opportunities.
“Pat Hassett was definitely a proponent of women coaching women, which at the time was forward thinking. So after my first year as an assistant I was hired to be the head coach. At the ripe, old age of 23, I was coaching women who were about a year younger than me. It was trial by fire. You learn as you go along.”
Forty years later, Title IX has taught countless lessons.
“Really,” said Harper, who has been at BSU for 21 years, overseeing a program with numbers like Stonehill’s (11 intercollegiate sports for women; more than 175 participants), “why wouldn’t you include everyone in everything?”
Next: Today’s female athletes enjoying opportunities that women before them simply didn’t have