Oklahoma once tried to drop women's basketball
From a public relations standpoint, it was just about the most boneheaded move in the history of the sport.
Twenty years ago this week, the University of Oklahoma declared that it was dropping women's basketball. As if that weren't enough to create dismay, the Sooners made their announcement during the Final Four - the one week out of the year when the women's game commands a media spotlight - and just eight years after the NCAA started sponsoring the tournament.
But the program was losing more than $250,000 a year, the school said, and the team had just gone 7-22. Attendance at home games was averaging only 65 (that is not a misprint).
The reaction was swift: There was a campus rally supporting the women's program and a national group said it was preparing a lawsuit, since women's rights groups had targeted sports as a key element in achieving across-the-board gender equity. The Oklahoma state Senate passed a resolution condemning the decision.
Threatened with legal action and battered by a national outcry that nobody saw coming, officials announced one week later that the program was restored.
``The University of Oklahoma's mission is to serve the citizens of Oklahoma,'' said a statement released by university president Richard Van Horn and athletic director Donnie Duncan at the time. ``The outpouring of support from citizens of the state, OU students and the Oklahoma legislature indicates that OU can do this best by reinstating women's basketball.''
The Oklahoma women's program today is one of the strongest and best-supported in the country. Many weeks this past season the women actually outdrew the men, who struggled all season and finished near the bottom of the Big 12.
Coach Sherri Coale's women's program will meet Kentucky on Tuesday night in the finals of the Kansas City Regional.
The program that briefly died 20 years ago this week is one win away from its third Final Four.
``That was a week I will never forget,'' said Mike Treps, a former Oklahoma assistant athletic director who was sports information director 20 years ago. ``President Van Horn said, 'I'm the president of a university that is trying to do many things for many people. We cannot have this kind of publicity.'''
Treps remembers the decision seemed to make sense to many people at the time.
``Imagine a program with an average attendance of 65,'' he said. ``Nobody was interested. The team wasn't winning. It just didn't seem like anybody cared about women's basketball at OU.''
Coale was an English teacher and girls basketball coach at a Norman, Okla., high school on March 28, 1990. She vividly remembers going into a teacher's lounge that afternoon.
``A couple of the guys stuck their head around the corner and said, 'Did you hear what just happened? OU just dropped its women's basketball program,''' she recalled. ``I said, 'No, they didn't.' They said, 'Yes, they did.'''
Coale watched on television during the following days as outrage picked up steam.
``I watched nationally at the coaches convention as coaches rallied around and said, 'Don't let this happen at one of the major institutions in the country,''' said Coale. ``It was a tough period and obviously a tough mark on our program. But sometimes what you do after the dark days is the most important thing.''
Six years later, Coale became head coach and began building the program into one of the nation's elite. In 2002, she took the Sooners to their first Final Four and met Kay Yow, the late women's coach at North Carolina State.
``She said, 'What a moment for this sport. This program is dropped and here you are in 2002 at the Final Four. That should be a message to everyone who has a women's basketball program. You can do whatever you want to do.'''
Then Coale noticed that everyone seemed to be wearing a red ribbon in support of the Sooners.
``I saw a lot of folks wearing red ribbons on their lapel, on their T-shirts. Red ribbons saying, 'Look what can happen,''' she said.
Associated Press Writer Murray Evans in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.