Athletics

Twenty-five years later, is Texas still a ‘shining light’ for Title IX, women's college athletics?

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Story highlights
  • UT women won five national titles in 1985-86 alone, highlighted by the flagship program, basketball
  • The Texas lawsuit was demanding that the one doing the most for women’s athletics do a lot more, adding perhaps 100 women athletes
  • The suit settlement, signed on July 16, 1993, triggered a shockwave, then an explosion across women’s athletics

Posted July 13th, 2018

Monday is the 25th anniversary of one of the most significant events in women’s college athletics history — the settlement of a Title IX lawsuit in which the University of Texas agreed to add three women’s programs.

The settlement, signed late at night on July 16, 1993 by the lonely glow provided by a Coke machine, triggered a shock wave, then an explosion across women’s athletics; what started at Texas did indeed change that world.

“Texas was the shining light at the top of the hill,” said Diane Henson, an attorney for the plaintiffs in that case. “Other schools thought if this is happening to Texas, we’re going to be dead meat. That Title IX suit impacted a big football school. The waves that rocked the rest of the institutions were enormous.”

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Twenty-five years later, schools around the country are keeping their eyes upon Texas for a far different reason — the recent reorganization and reshuffling of the athletic department, which included the official folding in of the UT women’s department into one now headed by new athletic director Chris Del Conte with two new lieutenants, both male.

University of Texas at Austin track and field coach Edrick Floreal, left, poses with Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte during his introductory press conference in June. (Amanda Voisard/American-Statesman)

This spring, the only softball coach UT has had, Connie Clark, resigned after 23 years and was replaced by a male coach, Oregon’s Mike White. The women’s track team, once a powerhouse under Terry Crawford and later Bev Kearney, now shares the same head coach as the men, with Edrick Floréal taking over from interim coach Tonja Buford-Bailey.

“We never had combined teams,” said Donna Lopiano, the former Texas women’s athletic director who help instigate the Title IX suit.

In 2014, Dave O’Neill took over for the only varsity women’s rowing coach UT ever had, Carie Graves, who resigned after 16 years at the helm. O’Neill’s rowing program is now making waves nationally, but the women’s team in general has been navigating some choppy waters.

Since the start of the current century, Texas women’s teams have won three national championships, two of which were led by Kearney, who recently settled a discrimination lawsuit against Texas.

In that same time frame, UT men’s teams have won 12. Yes, Eddie Reese’s swimming program accounts for eight of those, but he was joined, most importantly, by football, baseball twice and golf.

Texas’ Clarissa Davis is carried off the court by her teammates, from left,  Annette Smith, Fran Harris, Audrey Smith, and Gay Hemphill after she was named the Final Four’s Most Valuable Player, as the Longhorns won the 1986 national championship. (Ralph Barrera/American-Statesman)

In the 1980s, the score was UT women 17, UT men 5. The women won five national titles in 1985-86 alone, highlighted by the flagship program, basketball, claiming its first title in star Clarissa Davis’ freshman season. Texas is still searching for that elusive second championship.

What has happened at UT? And why? And what does the future hold?

The suit raised the bar in women’s athletics — and, consequently the level of competition it faced. Can Texas once again sail over the new standards instead of watching others claim the gold?

Go back 46 years to when Title IX was passed into law as part of the Education Amendments of 1972. It’s short and does not include a single word about sports. It reads, “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,” and two words hardly anyone ever mentions, “except that:”

RELATED: A Title IX lawsuit casualty, gymnastics program could have been a success for Texas

Apparently the Boy Scouts, Girls Scouts, Campfire Girls and beauty pageants had better lobbyists than football, as they were part of the long list of exclusions.

Two years later, however, Texas football coach and athletic director Darrell Royal played a major role in an effort to exempt football and men’s basketball from Title IX, fearing that women’s sports would drastically weaken the only money-makers for UT athletics.

Royal obtained an audience with president and ex-football star Gerald Ford. He and NCAA faculty representative J. Neils Thompson helped Texas senator John Tower draft an amendment. Not only did the Tower Amendment fail, it helped spur a rider introduced by New York senator Jacob Javits, which directed the department of Health, Education and Welfare to come up with specific guidelines for the few, sweeping words of Title IX.

That, it did. The standard became that scholarships and participation for both men’s and women’s athletics should be representative of the school’s student body. Back then, both percentages would be in the 40s for women. Now it would be much higher, even at UT, where there are 2,000 more women undergraduates than men. In recent years some small schools have taken the drastic and expensive step of adding football just to make their institution more attractive to men.

With an exception or so, schools that tried to buck Title IX did not fare well in the courts.

Donna Lopiano was tabbed as Texas’ first women’s athletic director in 1975. (Kevin Virobik-Adams/American-Statesman)

In 1975, while Royal was still football coach and men’s AD, Lopiano arrived as UT’s first women’s athletic director.

Somehow she was hired in spite of objections that she was, well, Donna. If you had to describe someone who would not succeed at UT, even these days, it would be Lopiano. She was a Connecticut Yankee with a New York attitude, and she was a jock, a legendary softball player who still might challenge males: I bet I can strike you out.

But more than any other administrator or coach at UT, she was relentless. Lopiano had one direction and one gear: Full speed ahead. Others might be mortified by her behavior at times, such as when her grand opening for a national volleyball tournament was unintentionally highlighted by some indoor fireworks accidentally catching a large Texas flag on fire or having a kazoo band play “The Eyes of Texas.” Lopiano was usually unfazed.

Her energetic reign was when the beacon at the top of the hill was beaming its brightest. But, even at Texas, she grew frustrated with the progress. She has said that UT could still operate like a good ol’ boys network. In a covert op she tried to recruit others in the Southwest Conference and sue the entire league.

“It was too involved,” Lopiano said.

Instead she gave club rowing coach Jeff Gardner, who had wondered how rowing could gain varsity status, the phone number for Henson before she left to head the Women’s Sports Foundation in New York. Seven students were found — three club rowers, Beth Wyatt, Jessica Mortenson and Kristan Staudenmayer; club soccer’s Rachel Sanders; and three club gymnasts, Jennifer Rentschler, Jessica Green and Suzanne Vossman McClish. Staudenmayer played intramural softball, which did not have a club team, and joined the suit in that sport.

“The kids were not in it for themselves,” Henson said. “To be 18 or 19 years old and be willing to sue your university?”

Not to mention taking the risk to be perceived on the UT campus as one of the women trying to hurt the football team.

“I knew she was talking with some students,” former women’s basketball coach and women’s athletic director Jody Conradt said of Lopiano.

Still when the suit was filed, it was a shock.

“The first conversations were of disbelief,” said Conradt, then the women’s AD.

Jody Conradt was Texas’ women’s athletic director when a Title IX lawsuit was filed against the university in 1993. (Laura Skelding/American-Statesman)

Conradt said there was some talk of building a war chest to fight the suit. With an exception here and there, the courts had supported Title IX. But Henson said the UT suit was different. In the 1980s, those suits had been mainly defensive suits, women athletes filing to keep their sports from being dropped.

The UT suit was demanding that the one doing the most for women’s athletics do a lot more, adding perhaps 100 women athletes. At that time, funds for UT women’s athletics didn’t even come from the athletic department, they came from a discretionary fund controlled by the president — William Cunningham, a big supporter of women’s athletics.

The women’s athletic budget had grown since Lopiano’s first year, from $58,000 to $4.4 million in 1991-92, but the men’s budget had swelled from $2.2 million to $15.6 million. The thing that puzzled Henson, though, was that the women had to meet their budget while the men appeared to do the same but always seemed to find a little extra money when needed that didn’t show up on the books.

Plaintiff attorney Diane Henson says she reviewed more than 20,000 Texas athletics department documents for the landmark Title IX case against the school in 1993. (Deborah Cannon/American-Statesman)

Henson said she personally reviewed about 20,000 documents for various things — UT saved everything, she said – and near the end found some funds, worth several hundred thousands of dollars, that could be tapped for walk-ons, etc., funds not available to the women.

UT got a new president in 1993, Bob Berdahl, an academic from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign whose doctoral dissertation was on the Prussian Conservative Party during German unification, circa 1870.

“I think he was in shock when he saw how important athletics was at Texas,” Conradt said.

On top of dealing with a Title IX suit, Texas was also looking for the right landing spot when the SWC fell apart. Arkansas had started the rush for the door when it joined the Southeastern Conference in 1991. But Texas and Texas A&M faced a trickier political system than the only non-Texas school in the SWC. Whatever move was made would be critical to UT’s future.

The two parties for the Title IX suits showed up in court, but were soon urged to leave by Judge Sam Sparks, who told them to work it out.

There was a lot at stake for UT, which was worried about how such a financial obligation would impact its treasured football program.

“There were also cuts for men’s programs, but they weren’t publicized,” Henson said.

UT did not have to cut any men’s teams, but participation numbers, swelled by walk-ons, had to go down. While it was a rare Wally Walkon who had an impact on the football team, men’s track coach Stan Huntsman was a master at unearthing talent. Not many years earlier he let three-time All-American cross country runner Harry Green walk on and Green rewarded him by setting six school records.

The addition of new teams was about more than additional scholarships. New teams could require new facilities, and those would have to be up to UT’s high standards.

The final negotiations lasted two days and nights and they were long and tedious. Nighttime bargaining was done in the LCRA building downtown.

“It was nuts,” Henson said. “Every time we presented a proposal, they would leave the room. It was forever before they would get back to us … I think they were calling boosters to see how they could fund it.” Conradt said it was more that there were a lot of involved parties to talk with.

Eventually an agreement was close.

A final sticking point was when soccer would actually become a varsity sport. UT wanted it to start a year later than the plaintiffs did. To negotiate one-on-one with Berdahl, Henson sent 19-year old club soccer player Rachel Sanders to plead the case.

“I wanted him to hear what it was like to be a club athlete,” Henson said. The winner was — Sanders. It was agreed that soccer would gain varsity status in 1993.

Sanders would go to be the only one of the plaintiffs to play a varsity sport at UT.

Conradt remembers that before the agreement could be signed at the LCRA, where lights were apparently programmed to go off at 11 p.m., they did just that. The entire building went dark. Luckily, a Coke machine was still on. Along with soccer, softball was part of that initial agreement, but when the participation numbers didn’t meet the overall requirement, adding a third team was required.

Henson said, “We couldn’t determine what sports they added.” In addition to gymnastics she liked field hockey. At that point, rowing was almost a no-brainer for a school near a nice river or lake. There aren’t many high school rowers in Texas or most other states, but the number of walk-ons who show up in a brief search for a scholarship yield participation numbers that almost balance out those for football. In the 2016-17 school year, football listed 125 participants, rowing 105.

The price tag for a soccer stadium also used by UT’s track teams was $22 million. A softball stadium cost $4.5 million.

None of the three sports added has yet to win a national championship, which used to mean joining the club at UT. The golden era of UT’s women’s athletics passed. There have been few parties since 1999.

In a way, the suit was partly to blame. The bar was raised. Lopiano, Conradt and Henson all pointed to the increased competition UT now faces.

In the SWC, Conradt’s program won a string of games that stretched all the way to 180 and oh, whatever, even she can’t recall off-hand. She had teams as good as anyone in the country, but SWC foes, well, SMU coach Welton Brown used to show up in a tuxedo for his beat downs.

Conradt has been quoted saying the lawsuit also caused UT to lose focus somewhat, that participation numbers became a goal, along with winning and that other schools were not held to the same standards. Henson said she thought the suit forced Texas to get better at fundraising, in which it now excels.

Former Texas women’s athletics director Chris Plonsky’s role in the Texas athletics department was recently changed.  She is now Chris Del Conte’s chief of staff. (Rodlfo Gonzalez/American-Statesman)

Plonsky disagrees, saying that was due more to the creation of the Big 12.

“That was the great big jolt. We needed that juice,” Plonsky said.

In the SWC, which was half composed of private schools in Texas, UT was the big dog in just about everything. In the Big 12, UT had to get off the porch to run with Nebraska in football or Kansas in men’s basketball. The latter still hasn’t happened. Women’s basketball faced stiff competition in its own league.

Of the recent changes in UT’s women’s athletics Henson said, “There is something to having a women’s athletic director.”

UT now doesn’t have one, and neither does anyone else at its level. UT was a pioneer in having two separate departments, but now that experiment seems to be over, in part a victim of cost efficiency.

“This was eventually going to happen,” Plonsky said. “It was not a negative to me.”

Others around the country took note of UT’s long-time softball coach being succeeded by White. Henson’s former employer, Graves Dougherty, still gets an annual compliance report but Henson said the suit is about athletes, not administrators or coaches.

Lopiano said the latter are the key to athletic success. Her formula for success was more simple arithmetic than calculus.

“You hire the best coaches and you have to pay them the going rate,” said Lopiano, who’s the president and founder of a sports management consulting firm. “We were the first to hire coaches who could have been hired to coach men’s programs.”

Richard Quick and Mark Schubert both won multiple NCAA swim championships for the Longhorns, the last of which came in 1991.

Under Lopiano, a national championship was an ultimate goal, but not too far removed from the required minimum.

“She let you know you were expected to finish in the Top 10. Or she’d find someone who could,” Conradt said.

Plonsky is now chief of staff for Del Conte and remains over basketball and volleyball. One is getting back to being elite, the other has been there for years. Predictably, she’s bullish on the new hires. “Mike is going to rock and roll,” she said. “At Texas we don’t look at the past. We look ahead.”

As always, the future looks bright at Texas. Hardly anyone takes in or spends more than UT athletics. In 2016-17, expenses were almost $183 million. Revenues, however, topped $207 million. In addition, unlike Nebraska football, Texas has a steady stream of high school athletes in many sports, courtesy of the University Interscholastic League.

Chris Del Conte was named the Texas athletic director in November 2017. He and his chief of staff Chris Plonsky were the two-person hiring committee for filling the softball and track coaching positions. (Stephen Spillman/for the American-Statesman)

Del Conte, the man now in charge of UT men’s and women’s athletics, said the retelling of Title IX’s history is important as young athletes need to know the path that others had to walk so we could get where we are today.

“It’s one of the greatest things that ever happened in sports,” Del Conte said. “Sport has played a significant role in shaping our society.”

He said it’s important for an athletic department to have one voice, after input from others.

“I don’t have two university presidents,” he said. “You don’t have two football coaches or two basketball coaches.”

In recent coaching searches, he and Plonsky were a two-person committee and he described both hires as excellent. In a softer way he echoed Lopiano’s philosophy. Hire the best coaches. Aim for a national championship.

“You’ve got to have big, audacious goals,” he said. And if you fall short, at least land in the Top 10.

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