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Title IX: Creating Dynasties and Stadium Journeys Since 1972

By Zac Richardson -- May 12, 2012 12:59 AM EDT

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In honor of Mother's Day, and as this year is the 40th anniversary of Title IX, we take a look at the highest-profile personification of this legislation: women's college athletics.

A quick reminder of those powerful, ambiguous, and controversial 37 words: "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..."

Assessing the effectiveness, intentions and unintended consequences, and fairness of Title IX are topics for another time and place. To be sure, it is a very complicated history. For example, when Title IX was introduced in 1972, the NCAA had no interest in women's athletics, and was in fact threatened by and against the statute. Within the next decade, however-- following a rise in popularity (and financial viability) -- the NCAA began taking the reigns of many women's sports, paving the way for the landscape we now recognize.

Setting aside this backstory, we will instead highlight some especially notable symbols of the Title IX-era: Division-I dynasties, with particular focus on the 30(-ish) year period since the NCAA began sanctioning women's sports and championships. And there is perhaps no better place to begin with this than the woman whose name adorns two basketball courts: one at UT-Martin, her alma mater, and, more notably, "the Summitt" in Thompson-Boling Arena-- in honor of Pat Head Summitt, Tennessee's Lady Vols head coach from 1974 until this year.

Summitt was just 22 when she began as Tennessee's coach, and even competed as a player in the 1975 Pan Am Games (winning a gold medal) as well as in the 1976 Olympics (winning silver). She also went on to coach the U.S. Women's basketball team to a gold medal in the 1984 Summer Olympics, leading a lineup that included Anne Donovan, Pamela McGee (whose son, JaVale, currently plays for the Denver Nuggets), Cheryl Miller, Kim Mulkey (who just won her second NCAA Championship as head coach of Baylor) and Lynette Woodard.

But it is Summitt's accomplishments at Tennessee that are most significant-- winning her first NCAA Championship in the 1986-87 season, and ultimately seven more, including a three-peat from 1995-98, and back-to back titles in '06-07 and '07-08 (coaching such stars as Chamique Holdsclaw, Tamika Catchings and Candace Parker along the way). Nearly as impressive, Summitt's teams also finished runner-up five times. Her decision to step down in light of an early-onset Alzheimer's disease diagnosis only amplifies the courage of a career that neatly overlaps and embodies the Title IX-era: unlike so many other battles, this is one she cannot win, but nevertheless faces with grace and integrity.

While Tennessee's basketball dynasty under Summitt spanned more than 20 years from first Championship to the last, Geno Auriemma's Connecticut Huskies won their first in the 1994-95 season and the most recent in '09-10 (and are undefeated in seven Finals appearances, altogether). The Huskies, like the Vols, also boast a three-peat and back-to-back Championships during that stretch-- from 2001-04 and then in 2008-09 and '09-10, respectively-- and Auriemma has coached four of the six undefeated seasons in women's basketball history (with the help of stars like Rebecca Lobo, Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, and Maya Moore).

Lacrosse is another sport that has largely been owned by two schools, and there is a strong connection between the programs. In recent years, the Northwestern Wildcats have dominated, winning six of the last seven Championships, including five in a row from 2005-09. This success began shortly after the hiring of Kelly Amonte Hiller, who had won two Championships as a player at the University of Maryland. For their part, Maryland has won 10 NCAA Championships, overall-- including seven in a row between 1995 and 2001 (Amonte Hiller was on the 1995 and 1996 Champions), and their most recent was in 2010, interrupting Northwestern's streak. Both teams are once again in the postseason tournament, which begins this weekend.

If basketball and lacrosse have each largely been dominated by two teams, softball has been controlled by one conference. Of the 30 Championships since 1982, the (now) Pacific-12 has won 23. Here, too, a pair of teams lead the pack-- with UCLA holding 11 titles, and Arizona, eight. Both of these programs once again look to reach the Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City when Regional playoffs begin next week.

Given its rise in popularity at all levels of competition, and especially with the emergence, visibility, and success of the national team, soccer is sometimes viewed as the quintessential Title IX sport. While this may be debatable, there is no questioning the role of the University of North Carolina. Under Anson Dorrance, the only coach in the program's history (since 1979), North Carolina has often essentially served as feeder or training program for U.S. women's soccer, as Dorrance was also in charge of the national team from 1986-94 (highlighted by winning the first Women's World Cup in 1991). Mia Hamm is the crown jewel of this system, playing at UNC from 1989-93, and on the national team from 1987-2004. But even aside from this important developmental role, the Tar Heels have simply ruled the game at the collegiate level. Since 1982, North Carolina has won the NCAA Tournament 20 times-- including nine years in a row, from 1986-94-- and finished second on three other occasions.

There are, of course, many other impressive feats in the past 30-40 years. Penn State volleyball won the Championship four out of the last five years, for example, Stanford tennis has been a consistent force, and LSU track and field has lapped the field. And this only touches on NCAA Division I Championship performances. The programs and accomplishments noted herein are simply a few that have particularly distinguished themselves through performance, publicity or recognition. Perceptions of excellence and significance could easily change over the next 30-40 years, though: this is all very subjective, as well as being highly symbolic. And this is appropriate enough, given the mythological nature of Title IX, itself-- which represents more of a cultural phenomenon than a true legal evolution, as is commonly misperceived. But perception has influenced reality, as well as inspiring and encouraging increased participation and resources for young women and girls wanting to play sports. This in itself is a worthy legacy, and what better time to recognize these developments than Mother's Day weekend?

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