Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Forgotten glory

There was a time when The Daily would say “the basketball team,” in reference to the Northwestern men’s basketball team. But according to former women’s basketball coach Mary DiStanislao, everything changed when this reference became the label for the women’s team while the men required the prefix.

The 2001-02 season starts for NU women’s hoops in a few weeks, with the Wildcats looking for their first outright Big Ten title since DiStanislao’s squad won in 1980.

In those glory days, the NU women’s basketball team was not associated with the NCAA — no women’s sports were.

But the Cats were a part of the newly-formed, female dominated AIAW — and they were very successful.

“Those years were a lot of fun for us,” said DiStanislao, who coached the Cats from 1975-80. “We were flying by the seat of our pants, and it was just the beginning of it all for women’s sports.”

In the 1975-76 season, the Cats went 5-12 in the AIAW. Three seasons later, they posted 25 wins — the most ever by any NU basketball team, men’s or women’s. Additionally, the Cats won Big Ten titles in 1979 and 1980 under the AIAW format.

At the time, basketball was the banner sport for women’s athletics, so when the NCAA decided in 1981 to extend its jurisdiction to women’s sports, a women’s basketball tournament became its first major project.

The 1981-82 season marked the first year of the NCAA women’s tournament and the last year of the AIAW event. The transition erased many NU records from the books — including its Big Ten titles.

“It’s part of the evolution,” said Ken Kraft, NU senior associate athletic director who has seen the team play under both the AIAW and the NCAA. “I personally believe those records should be part of our archives, but early days are early days.”

For the players whose accomplishments have an everlasting asterisk, this seems unreasonable.

“Those championships are considered unofficial,” said Patience Vanderbush, who played for the Cats from 1978-82. “But for the people who played on those teams, those were big victories.”

“It’s as though we didn’t exist,” agreed Martha Megill, who played for NU from 1976-1980. “Up until 1981, we contributed to the development of women’s basketball. That those records don’t count is disturbing to me.”

The disappearing records and the switch to the NCAA tournament weren’t the only major changes for NU women’s basketball in 1982.

Until 1980, women’s athletics were not part of the NU athletic department. Teams were governed by the school’s physical education department and were often coached by gym teachers.

That all changed when NU hired Joanne Fortunato as an associate athletic director. Her primary responsibility was putting women’s athletics under the athletic department’s guise.

A major part of this process involved moving the women’s sports administration to the main department offices near Dyche Stadium. It also provided female athletes access to more athletic facilities and trainers.

“It was indicated that since (NU administrators) were putting the programs together, they would like them to be under the same banner,” Fortunato said.

Although the NCAA offered women’s college sports more money and clout, Fortunato, like many female athletic administrators, had mixed feelings about leaving the AIAW.

Her qualms were further complicated by the fact that she had been the AIAW’s commissioner of Division I-A championships prior to coming to NU.

“I have a dichotomy within myself about that issue,” Fortunato says. “I think the AIAW was based on the best precepts to open opportunities for women in athletics. It was focused on integrity, academics and noble things.

“The NCAA offered women opportunities because it had the money to do it, so it expanded women’s athletics even though the model wasn’t as good in some ways.”

The AIAW structure differed from the NCAA’s in several ways.

Unlike the male-dominated NCAA, it was run almost exclusively by women. The AIAW also had higher standards for academic eligibility and dramatically different rules for recruiting — women had to express interest to coaches before being recruited.

Additionally, the change to the NCAA forced players to get used to a new tournament format. In the AIAW tournament, teams had to win their state and regional titles before reaching the national finals.

The NCAA tournament, on the other hand, involves regional seeding and is based largely on conference performance.

For many, the NCAA’s takeover seemed like a direct result of Title IX, the 1972 federal legislation mandating equal opportunities for women in sports. But for the NU basketball players of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the change was not entirely positive.

“Overall, the game really is better for it,” Distanislao said. “In retrospect — and I’m being sentimental here — I think that maybe the programs grew so large so quickly that the game got a little less fun. Women got out of coaching, and that was a negative effect. But in the long run, female involvement in the coaching ranks will increase, and there will be equilibrium.”

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Forgotten glory