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They were trailblazers back then’

Sam Stryker | Thursday, February 28, 2013

Editor’s note: This is the next in a five-day series discussing the role of women at Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s, in honor of the 40th anniversary of coeducation at the University this year. 

When Notre Dame Deputy Athletic Director Missy Conboy played for the women’s basketball program in its early years as a varsity program from 1978 to 1982, she didn’t enjoy many of the perks today’s female athletes enjoy.

There were no chartered flights, no nutritional or academic counseling. The team didn’t even have a training room. The women were lucky to even travel on a bus.

“We used to get a towel with practice clothes every day at the issue room,” she said. “There was a towel with a green top and green shorts, the same that the men would wear. Sometimes we would get a [jockstrap] in ours and think, ‘Oh, this was in the wrong pile.'”

In many ways, the progress of female athletics has served as a barometer for gender relations at the University in the 40 years since Notre Dame first opened its classrooms to women.
With multiple national championships in several women’s sports, Conboy, who rejoined the Athletic Department in 1987, said women’s sports have provided a “visible example” of the coeducational progress made at Notre Dame. Now, women on campus – not just female athletes – expect to excel.

“They think everything is open to them,” she said. “That’s part of the great success.”

‘We were playing in relative obscurity’

But it wasn’t always so easy. Sr. Sally Duffy served as the coach of the women’s basketball team when it was a club program from 1975 to 1977. She said her players had to have a certain strength about them in order to successfully navigate the waters of playing for a young program.

“I wouldn’t say they were used to it, being treated as not equal, but certainly you learned that you had to adjust,” she said. “You could hit your head against the wall or you could go with the flow.”

During this time, Duffy said the team was a bare-bones operation – vans to away games, practicing when there was any available court time and no sort of academic support for the athletes that is commonplace today.

“The players would have their flashlights on in the van [to do homework],” she said. “We would stop at McDonalds if we were lucky. We just didn’t have the resources.”

Duffy said because Notre Dame was in the early years of coeducation when its women’s programs were formed, it was enduring two growing pains at the same time.

“[Change] was incremental,” she said. “Notre Dame had different dynamics, because the whole coeducational [shift] was happening. Other teams we were playing at the time, for example Northwestern, … they had been coeducational for decades. They didn’t have two phenomena happening at the same time.”

Duffy said she believes the early female athletes helped bring about an environment that was welcoming to coeducation at Notre Dame because “they reflected the values of the University.”

“These women did it because they loved the team aspect,” Duffy said. “They loved coming together. And they loved Notre Dame. They loved what Notre Dame stood for, and they were active in other ways. They stood for what Notre Dame stands for today.

“They were trailblazers back then. They had to be.”

Making strides on and off the court

Conboy said while she and the other female athletes did not feel as if they were pushing for monumental progress at the University in earning varsity status, she felt the visibility of athletics at Notre Dame showed women were excelling in areas of passion.

“We were excited to be pioneers and to know that women were being accepted into places at Notre Dame that they never had traveled before,” she said. “I do think that some of the inroads we were making as female athletes were assigned to other women on campus. It’s okay to tread into male endeavors and take your place among the other students at Notre Dame.”

When she first rejoined the athletic department, Conboy worked under former Irish athletic director Dick Rosenthal. She said Rosenthal, a father of six daughters, shared many of the hopes she had for the program – but progress was slow for a “traditional” athletic department that treated even its men’s sports in an “old school” manner.

“Obviously he was moving the needle,” she said. “But when you were in the midst of it, it didn’t feel as if it were moving as quickly as you wanted it to.”

Conboy said progress was furthered when men and women began to become involved working with sports of the opposite sex.

“The big change was once we started giving men responsibility of women’s sports and women responsibility of men’s sports, people started caring more about the athletes they were working with than the gender,” she said.

Now in her 25th year at the helm, Irish women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw said the team was treated as “second class” even when she started coaching in 1987.

“We were playing in relative obscurity,” McGraw said. “Nobody came to the games. We bussed everywhere. We didn’t have the budget support. We didn’t really have the same of anything that the men had.”

In looking back at what the women’s basketball program was like nearly 26 years ago when she first joined the Irish, McGraw characterized the difference as “night and day,” to the point the teams are viewed as equals.

“I think that it’s the same as being a male athlete,” McGraw said. “I think that people look at us, we’re successful. … I think that we’re looked at as more the sport of basketball. I think you look at us and see the notoriety we brought to Notre Dame not just through the players but the success of the program.”

The impact on the University

Former Irish player Ruth Riley was the star of the 2001 squad that won Notre Dame’s first and only women’s basketball national championship. Riley said in her time at Notre Dame, she appreciated female athletes had “come a long way” in how they were treated.

“I don’t differentiate between men’s and women’s sports. … They’re pretty much the same at Notre Dame,” she said. “They’re equal.”

After winning the national title, Riley said she could feel “the entire University’s support behind us.”

“The reception we had from the student body and the professors, from the University as a whole, the Notre Dame family … for me, I was grateful for the team, to be put on the map at that level,” she said.

More than two decades and a national championship later, McGraw said she now sees an impact the success of women’s programs have had on Notre Dame.

“It’s been great to see how the students and faculty and everybody has been really behind our success, to make us feel what we are doing is important to the University,” she said.

Conboy explained she believes the women’s programs have made amazing progress at Notre Dame because female student-athletes care about “all the pieces to the puzzle” when they choose to attend the University.

“When I’m sitting here selling Notre Dame to a young female athlete and her parents, everything from the educational experience to the alumni network to use Notre Dame personally or professionally their whole life … all those things are really appealing to our female athletes,” she said.

Contact Sam Stryker [email protected]