Women’s Sports at Penn State: A Story Worth Celebrating

In the September issue of Town&Gown, celebrating 50 years of women’s sport at Penn State, there appears a profile of Penn State’s leadership in the age of Title IX. Taken in conjunction with Penn State sports historian Lou Prato’s article on the formative years preceding the law’s passage in 1972, it illuminates a legacy of forward-thinking leadership on one of the defining issues of the late 20th century—women’s equality.

Penn State’s record on women’s athletics, in its entirety, has got to be among the most consistently impressive of any institution in the nation. Dedicated, dynamic personalities, working within the right conditions, yielded a culture of commitment to opportunity and excellence that continues to bear fruit today.

For the 2013-14 academic year, Penn State finished fifth among all Division I institutions in the Learfield Sports Directors’ Cup standings, the highest ranking for a Big Ten school, and PSU’s best finish since placing third in 2008.

Since 1993, the Directors’ Cup (some old-heads may remember it as the Sears Cup) has been awarded annually by the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA) and USA Today to recognize “institutions maintaining a broad-based program, achieving success in many sports, both men’s and women’s.” Director’s Cup rankings are the sort of thing noted only by athletics administrators and the hardest of the die-hard college alumni and sports fans. They also represent perhaps the best metric for measuring excellence in pursuit of the student-athlete ideal, such as it exists in this age.

Schools are scored based on the performance of both men’s and women’s teams, with up to 10 of the best performing squads in each category contributing to the final tally. That’s where things get interesting. Penn State fields a total of 31 varsity programs, placing the Lions second in the Big Ten behind Ohio State’s nationally-leading 37. Among this year’s Director’s Cup top 10, PSU trails only perennial champ Stanford’s 36 total programs. The next closest top 10 institution, Virginia, fields 23 varsity sports. Several others offer even fewer, fellow 2013-14 standouts like Texas (18), Florida (17) and Texas A&M (16).

The takeaway? Penn State blends a rare commitment to opportunity and excellence and succeeds in both. While many universities prioritize wins and national championships, and some place emphasis on offering a range of competitive opportunities, only an elite few excel in both areas. PSU offers more athletic/academic openings than almost any school in the country and, even while spreading resources across so many programs, succeeds at the highest level. Over the last five years, Penn State leads the Big Ten with an average final Director’s Cup finish of 9th in the nation.

“I knew that Penn State had a commitment to women’s sports because of the sheer number of women’s sports that were being provided,” says Charmelle Green, Penn State’s Associate Athletic Director and Senior Woman Administrator, who came to Happy Valley from Notre Dame, another 2013-14 top finisher.

“We are a broad-based program, and there aren’t many broad-based programs in the country. We value our broad-based programming. We value the opportunities for young people to come to Penn State to get a great education and pursue national championships.”

Of course, the massive revenue generated by Penn State football, which supports the athletic department’s self-sustaining funding model, helps make it all happen.

“Our naysayers would argue, ‘It’s not your philosophy; it’s your money,’” says Dr. Scott Kretchmar, Penn State Professor of Exercise and Sport Science. “Without the money, it would be impossible to run the program that we do. But it’s also possible, with the money, not to run the program we do.”

Kretchmar contrasts the broad-based offerings of Big Ten powers PSU and Ohio State with those at the University of Texas, one of the nation’s wealthiest athletics programs while also fielding among the fewest teams. “Their philosophy is different. They have plenty of money to have (more) sports, like Penn State does. But they have chosen to try to win championships in a smaller cluster of sports. They have come out publicly and said that.”

What Kretchmar describes as, “Taj Mahal, all the way” – more money for facilities, coaching salaries, recruiting budgets, and amenities for each squad – also results in fewer chances for individual student-athletes. One can certainly argue that facilitating greater opportunities for participation, rather than better-funded pursuit of national titles, more closely aligns with the NCAA’s concept of amateurism. At Penn State, the genuine commitment to doing both is rooted in the culture of the institution, one established and refreshed by the people Town&Gown recognizes this month.

Barbara Doran, now a University trustee, in the early 1970’s was one of the first female recipients of a Penn State athletic scholarship, a three-sport athlete fighting for recognition and respect. In 2012, she recalled to Lacrosse Magazine, “In those days, we had seven or eight games a season, no championships, no statistics, no awards. The field hockey and lacrosse teams still shared the same coach and uniforms, and if you couldn’t get the right sized kilt, you just pinned it so it didn’t fall off.” She would go to play for Team USA.

Doran recounts her senior-year collaboration with Intercollegiate Athletics employee Mary Jo Haverbeck, a trailblazer in media coverage of women’s sports, “to start, from scratch, the first woman’s sports information effort in the country – keeping stats, writing press releases on the players and doing brochures for games.”  Remembering these people and their contributions is critical to a complete understanding our narrative, our sense of who we are.

“What’s great about the Penn State Community is that we have many members who were a part of those early years still living in State College,” says Charmelle Green. “I have welcomed and embraced the opportunity to learn from them. Marty Adams, the late Ellen Perry, Sue Scheetz, very much the late Della Durant, were welcoming and supportive of my desire to learn. They have shared with me their stories, their challenges, as well as the successes that have occurred throughout the years. I have grown an appreciation for all the hard work that was done in early years to allow people like myself to come in and continue the legacy of success that that is synonymous with our athletics program.”

Erwin Runkle, the University’s first historian, observed in the 1930s that while “always in the general stream of college life, Penn State has nevertheless had a ‘way of her own.’” The unfolding saga of women’s athletics at Old State affirms this notion in the very best way.

As we continue to sort through the events of our recent past and reconcile them within the broader context of our on-going story, we do a disservice to ourselves—and those who preceded us—to lose perspective on the full spectrum of this “Penn State Way,” the voluminous good that makes the Nittany Valley and its people worth celebrating.