OU lesson still extremely important
TULSA -- That "crazy" announcement happened two hours southwest and 22 years away from here. The University of Oklahoma decided to cancel its women's basketball program.
Yes, cancel. Get rid of. Eliminate. This isn't some terrible story from the "bad old days" of women's sports before Title IX. This was 18 years after Title IX.
On March 28, 1990, Oklahoma announced women's basketball was a failed venture, and the Sooners' athletic department would put its resources toward other women's sports programs. There would be no more Oklahoma women's basketball.
Saturday, OU coach Sherri Coale was sitting courtside at the Tulsa Shock-Indiana Fever WNBA game. It's June 23, 2012, Title IX's 40th birthday, and Coale was here to speak to women being honored by the Shock as inspirational leaders. Then she stayed to watch her former star Courtney Paris play for Tulsa.
Coale has taken her Sooners to the Final Four three times, and the OU women's basketball program is part of the fabric of Oklahoma's sports scene. Coale is a well-known figure throughout the state.
But in 1990, Coale was a teacher/coach at Norman High School who couldn't believe what she'd just heard from two other teachers: OU had announced it was canceling women's basketball.
Coale has recounted her memory of this OU bombshell many, many times before. But as a former English teacher, she'll appreciate a reference to Nathaniel Hawthorne's famous book of short stories, "Twice-Told Tales." For many different reasons, some stories need to be told again and again. And again.
I find this is especially true in regard to women's sports. Some of you might think, "Surely, everybody's heard about this, right?" After all, we in the national media revisited the infamous OU cancellation each time the Sooners went to the Women's Final Four, in 2001, '09 and '10.
Nonetheless, everybody doesn't know.
"With it being in 1990, that makes it more like wow," said Indiana's Tamika Catchings, who acknowledged she'd never heard of this troubling chapter of women's basketball history. "I'm so grateful for Title IX. But that story does smack you in the face. Like, 'Dang, that is so recent.'"
Catchings was one of several WNBA players I spoke to Saturday who didn't know about the Sooner cancellation. One player, of course, did: recent Shock signee Paris.
She knows the story very well because as an Oklahoma scholarship recipient, Paris -- like all Sooners who play for Coale -- was required to learn the program's history.
"A lot of people I talk to about OU, they say, 'Oh, yeah, that's always been a good program,' " Paris said. "And I say, 'Well, at one point, there almost wasn't a program.' That's the most personal experience I have with Title IX. Before OU, I didn't really understand what it meant to not have the opportunities we have today."
Fortunately, the implementation of the plan to cancel women's basketball at Oklahoma was as misguided as the idea itself. Announce you're getting rid of women's hoops at the same time that virtually every college coach in that sport is gathered in the same city.
"The timing was brutal," Coale said with a smirk. "Right when the coaches were having their convention."
The women's basketball coaches in Knoxville, Tenn., that year -- Thompson-Boling Arena was host to the 1990 Women's Final Four on March 30-April 1-- raised a collective hue and cry over the decision.
Adding to the absurdity -- and to the state's embarrassment -- were remarks like those of then-Oklahoma governor Henry Bellmon, who said the move didn't bother him because OU would still have intramural women's basketball. He also suggested maybe the Sooners players could "sell some cookies" to try to keep the program.
What happened, though, was OU was shamed into (reluctantly) keeping the women's hoops program, which was reinstated nine days later. Six years after that, Coale was hired.
"To a degree, we had to go far away to recruit kids at first," Coale recalled. "We had to go outside the knowledge level of what had happened there. So we didn't have to tell that story very often, which was good. Because we couldn't survive that story in recruiting."
Within six years of Coale's hiring, the Sooners were in the 2002 Final Four. And now, a decade after that first trip to the Final Four, Coale doesn't hesitate to tell the "cancellation" story because it's such a valuable historical teaching tool.
"Whatever era we're in when we come of age, that's our defining framework for everything," Coale said. "Kids today, they can't even imagine Oklahoma not having a program. But this happened in 1990. That's not very long ago."
Not in time, no. But in attitude, it seems very far away.
I turned 25 the day of OU's announcement. I'll never forget that feeling of seeing the story move on the wire and thinking I couldn't possibly be reading it right. I'd covered Big Eight women's basketball all throughout college. No OU women's basketball? My reaction was the same as Coale's was then: "That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard."
But I was truly worried, too. I was relieved when the news came a week later that instead of just abandoning a program that had hit hard times, they were going to try to fix it. The salvage job didn't happen right away, but thanks to people like Coale, it happened in a most magnificent way.
Saturday, I was here in the state of Oklahoma, which is still disappointed that its beloved Oklahoma City Thunder lost in the NBA Finals but very excited about the team's future. In Tulsa, they are trying to make the WNBA work. It's the third season for the franchise that moved from Detroit and there haven't been a lot of victories. Just six wins the first season, three last year and only one so far this season.
The Shock came close again Saturday, losing 73-70 to the Fever. There were a little more than 4,000 people at the BOK Center, but they loudly stayed with their team until the end. The Shock are 1-11, but you don't have to be a Pollyanna to think that at some point this is going to turn around.
Maybe it's a crowd of 8,000 here someday for a team that's got a winning record. Maybe more.
Shock ownership seems committed for the long haul, understanding, for instance, the years it took a franchise such as reigning WNBA champion Minnesota to get to the peak.
No matter how pessimistically you choose to view the Shock, though, they're still here. They exist. They are trying to make a go of it. The state that 22 years ago tried to do away with women's college basketball at one of its major universities is now home to a professional women's basketball team.
Happy birthday, indeed, Title IX.
"It's still growing," Paris said. "We're not like the men's team. We're not selling out buildings yet. But it's young. I think having that perspective I learned going to OU makes me look at the WNBA in a different light: as a work in progress."
And that's why we keep telling the stories. The "endings" are still being written.
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