MEMPHIS COACHES AND ADMINISTRATORS CELEBRATE TITLE IV’S IMPACT
By Phil Stukenborg
Fifty years ago, Mary Lou Johns found herself on a unique recruiting mission as she attempted to find players for her then-Memphis State University women’s basketball team.
Johns had been named head coach, but back in the early 1970s women’s college basketball wasn’t the enterprise and success story it is today. Remarkably, Memphis hadn’t offered women’s basketball as a team sport in nearly 20 years. So she parked herself in the hallway of the school’s fieldhouse and observed footwear.
“I would stand in the fieldhouse after classes and if someone was wearing high-top tennis shoes it meant they probably played high school basketball,” said Johns, who spent almost 20 years as the school’s coach. “I’d pick them out and say `Come over here.’ They thought they were getting in trouble.”
She asked if they had played high school basketball. Memphis high schools didn’t play conventional girls’ basketball, instead relying on a mostly half-court concept. As a result, Johns had to comb the hallways to assemble the first women’s team at Memphis since 1955.
“I’d tell them `You played high basketball, didn’t you?’ and they’d say `How did I know?' ” Johns said. “I’d tell them I knew because they were wearing high-top Converse shoes.”
Johns also placed posters in the hallways with information about team tryouts.
“I was begging people to play,” she said. “That’s basically how it got started.”
Since those humble beginnings, women’s sports have evolved, fueled by Title IX, the federal legislation passed in 1972 that prohibits sex discrimination at educational institutions receiving federal funding in primary, secondary, and higher education. The law, celebrating its 50th anniversary this summer, increased participation for women and girls in sports and created the foundation for myriad achievements, from women’s pro basketball and soccer leagues to highly successful results in Olympics competitions.
President Richard M. Nixon signed the bill on June 23, 1972, and the ramifications gradually were felt throughout the nation. High school participation increased from roughly 294,000 during the 1971-72 school year to 3.4 million in 2018-19 in a study by the Women’s Sports Foundation.
According to the NCAA, participation in women’s college sports rose significantly during roughly the same time frame. There were approximately 30,000 women on college sports teams during the 1971-72 season, a number that grew to 215,000 during the 2020-21 season.
Enhanced by legislation, Johns found success at Memphis. She spent 19 seasons at the school from 1972 to 1991 and led the team to NCAA Tournament appearances in 1982, 1985, and 1987. She is the school's winningest women’s basketball coach.
Her husband, Jimmy, a former college player and a former Memphis high school coach, said his wife had to balance teaching a number of classes and coaching the Memphis women’s basketball team in the early 1970s. She also coached tennis briefly.
“Eventually, they (reduced) the number of classes she had to teach,” he said. “Instead of teaching 15 or 16 hours a week, they gave her half the hours. Slowly, over time, she got an assistant coach and a trainer.”
In those early days of women’s athletics in the 1970s, teams were assembled for basketball, tennis, volleyball, gymnastics and track. All the coaches taught classes.
Since basketball wasn’t available as a team sport when she was in high school or college in the 1960s, Johns was coaching a sport she never played, except in park commission leagues. But she embraced the opportunity and relished the chance to impact lives as Title IX began to make inroads into improving conditions for women athletes.
Johns said the initial impact of Title IX for her was allowing a women’s coach the ability to concentrate full-time on athletics.
“I enjoyed teaching, but to recruit and teach is hard,” she said. “Title IX allowed schools to have a coach who could recruit, manage and plan on a full-time basis.
The increased emphasis on women’s sports also led to her basketball team being treated with additional respect, from better practice sites to better practice times.
“We used to have practice in the small gyms off to the side of the fieldhouse,” she said. “After Title IX, we got better uniforms, home and away, and started getting better media coverage and bigger crowds.”
Lynn Parkes spent 38 years at the school, mostly as senior women’s administrator and associate athletics director. Her career overlapped with Johns’ tenure. Parkes also began her coaching career during Title IX’s infancy, coming to Memphis in 1975 to start the women’s golf program at age 24.
A former golfer at the University of Alabama, Parkes was fortunate to begin her post-graduate athletics career as federal legislation passed.
“Title IX changed everything,” Parkes said. “I was in school at Alabama and graduated and they started (awarding) golf scholarships the following year. The first one to get one was one of my teammates.”
Parkes met former Memphis women’s athletics director Elma Roane at a summer golf event in 1974 several years after her graduation. Roane encouraged Parkes to come to Memphis to start a women’s golf program. Parkes was in her second year teaching high physical education in Loretto, Tennessee, at the time and accepted the challenge.
“I thought I’d be here (at Memphis) a year and it turned out to be a lot more than that,” Parkes said. “There’s no question that the opportunity came about because (of Title IX). Had that law not been enacted, I’d probably still be a teacher in Middle Tennessee.”
In those early days at Memphis, Parkes said coaches were not allowed to recruit off campus. Contact was allowed only by phone calls and mail.
Charlotte Peterson, who coached women's tennis for 32 years starting in the mid-1970s, said Title IX's greatest impact on her program was getting eight scholarship awarded. In the early days, players were recruited out of physical education classes.
"I spoke to the women's team after I retired and told them we had to find a seamstress to make our uniforms (in the 1970s)," Perterson said. "There were no (apparel) contracts."
Parkes said when she was in high school there weren’t many colleges offering women’s golf and even fewer athletics departments offering scholarships. Alabama didn’t have women’s golf when Parkes enrolled, but Parkes was involved with forming the first women’s team at that school, too.
“It just so happened when I was in school at Alabama, they had just hired Conrad Rehling, who was well known as a golf instructor,” she said. “I was down there for a year and I used to go out and hit golf balls. There was a lady in the physical education department who taught golf classes and she saw me hitting golf balls.”
The instructor came over, asked her name, and said she needed to be playing the sport. So Parkes went to Rehling with a proposal: if Parkes could find enough golfers, would he agree to coach a women’s team.
“He said `Yes’ and never even balked,” Parkes said. “Me and another girl I knew who played made some phone calls.”
Parkes found the results of a recent intramural women’s golf tournament played in Alabama and tracked down names atop the list. After roughly a dozen golfers had been assembled, Parkes met with Rehling.
“That’s how the program started at Alabama,” Parkes said.
Parkes said she was in class at Alabama when she first heard of Title IX legislation passing.
“People started talking about it right away,” Parkes said. “I remember thinking: `Wow, this could change things (for women’s athletics).’ At the time, I had no idea I’d end up being so deeply involved in college women’s athletics.”
Her impact at Memphis affected many lives and countless programs. When Parkes retired in 2013, former University of Memphis athletics director Tom Bowen noted Parkes “began her professional career during a time when women’s athletics was just a concept and helped guide it . . . to its current role as part of NCAA.”
Parkes remembers thinking in the early 1970s that it would take several generations for major ramifications to be felt in women’s athletics. Many have been achieved. Another was announced in August regarding the women’s basketball national title game.
The 2023 title game will be broadcast on ABC for the first time. Officials with ABC cited women’s championships continuing to generate strong audiences.
“The most significant impact of Title IX, nationally, to me has been the television exposure of women’s sports,” Johns said. “That has really helped.”
Johns admits there is more ground to be gained, but there are encouraging signs, some that are subtle. She was heartened to hear two male sports talk show hosts discuss recently the high entertainment value of a WNBA game.
Such developments represent significant advancements for women’s sports, where Johns made a name for herself beginning a half-century ago. Johns, whose fitness and energy belie her age (80), continues to make an impact.
For the past 20 years, Johns has remained involved in athletics coaching several different sports teams at St. George’s Independent School. She has coached the high school golf team since 2003. She initially met with the school’s athletic director in 2002 about coaching middle school girls' basketball. She ended up coaching middle school girls golf, too
And how did that added responsibility come about?
“He was looking at my shoes,” Johns said of the athletics director. “He noticed I was wearing golf shoes. I had played earlier that morning and forgot to change shoes.”
Freelancer Phil Stukenborg is a former staff writer and deputy sports editor for The Commercial Appeal.
This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Memphis administrators, coaches celebrate Title IX's impact