RUSSELLVILLE — The women’s basketball team sat in the parking lot listening to the radio broadcast on a Friday afternoon in 1972. Split among three cars driven by their coaches, the Wonderettes knew something important was being announced through the station wagon’s speakers.
The Wonderettes of Arkansas Polytechnic College — now Arkansas Tech University — in Russellville heard the announcement on the radio that February afternoon and assumed the passing of Title IX of the Education Amendments would take effect immediately.
“This is really going to make a major change,” Wonderette Kay Nuttleman thought that afternoon. “Yeah, this is great.”
Contrary to their excited hopes, the implementation of the law did not take place as quickly as the players anticipated. It was a gradual process, and it would eventually change the face of women’s athletics forever, but it was slow to be achieved.
President Richard Nixon would not sign the document until June 23, 1972, and even then, its required changes would prove too much to impact any of the Wonderettes that season.
The law sounded simple to the young women on the team: “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.”
Benefits that were equal to the men’s program were all the women’s team at Tech wanted.
Though the team was able to participate in a league where it played other colleges around the state, the program was funded through the college’s physical education department. Coaches used their cars to drive the women to games. Team members bought their own warm-up tops. The Wonder Boys were forced to share their gym with the Wonderettes for one game a season.
“There was a lot of vocalization from the men’s coaches,” Nuttleman said. “They did not want to take away from their programs to subsidize to us. It is amazing how some of them took offense, even personally, to it.”
The game itself changed for the Wonderettes, as men’s coaches also had opposition to the women playing their style of basketball. Prior to Title IX, the women were required to play 3-on-3, half-court basketball.
“The men thought we couldn’t run the length of the court and shouldn’t even play full court,” Nuttleman said. “Well, it’s been proven wrong.”
Women’s teams across the state began to play the 5-on-5 style of basketball, and the gradual transition to an equal-opportunity system became more apparent over the years.
Not long after adopting the name the Golden Suns in 1977, the women’s basketball program began to experience more success than any other athletic program at the university. Starting with the 1978-79 season, the Golden Suns have won 19 conference championships, earned 20 national tournament berths and won back-to-back NAIA championships in 1992 and 1993.
Part of the women’s success stems from the support they received throughout the gradual implementation of Title IX. Larry Smith, sports information director from 1987-2005, supports Tech’s success in this process. Over time, it was completed with balance in all sports, Smith said.
“It made women’s basketball the showcase for Tech,” Smith said. “They brought so much prestige to the university.”
Smith said that although the transition for women’s athletics was not immediate, it was smooth because Tech was able to supply the finances and support the Golden Suns needed.
However, Tracy Smith, Golden Suns volleyball coach from 1996-2000, has an outlook that varies from that of the former sports information director’s. Smith, who is now associate head volleyball coach at Texas State University, differs in her opinion of how Title IX was implemented in Golden Suns volleyball.
“It was small-funded and a small priority in 1996,” Smith said.
The support for Golden Suns volleyball grew after Smith coached the team to three conference championship titles and a national tournament berth in 2000, with a 36-5 overall, 12-0 Gulf South Conference West Division record.
Smith contrasts her time at Tech with one of its biggest opponents during her five seasons as coach: the University of North Alabama.
“They had two fully funded coaches, while here it was only me,” Smith said. “There was an assistant basketball [coach] coaching volleyball when I came, and he had never coached before.”
When Smith first became the volleyball coach at Tech, she said there was no money for managers or drivers for road games. Smith said the women had to fight for practice time in Tucker Coliseum, and there was no locker room for the volleyball team when she first arrived.
“When we got one, I painted it myself,” Smith said. “I feel I was the first to make volleyball a priority. I was the first to speak on their behalf.”
And many appreciate leaders like Smith who have spoken on behalf of the women athletes to ensure that Title IX was being followed. Joe Foley, Golden Suns basketball coach from 1987-2003, said he realizes that there is still not equality among many programs.
“It’s opened the doors up, though it is still not equal everywhere today,” Foley said. “It has given women players and coaches a lot better opportunity.”
Foley, now coach of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Lady Trojans, has coached women for 27 years and said though Title IX is still transforming athletics, it has made and will continue to make a significant impact on his life.
“I feel very fortunate I have been able to coach women,” Foley said. “I am so thankful my daughter got the opportunity to compete.”
Women’s athletics pivoted around the announcement Nuttleman and the Wonderettes heard 42 years ago. From Nuttleman to Foley’s daughter, participants in women’s athletics will continue to push toward fairness through Title IX’s gradual implementation.
“Girls today don’t have a clue what it was like,” Nuttleman said. “They don’t understand what a fight it’s been.”
This story was contributed by Laura Bean, a print journalism major and editor of The Arka Tech at Arkansas Tech University in Russellville.