Some of the changes strike you like a tidal wave. Others lap at your toes as you stroll the waterfront of Wichita State women’s athletics.
Whatever the watermark, though, one thing is certain: The women are on the rise.
The signs are everywhere. In the budget. In the stands. And on the court.
They may not fly as high above the rim as the men do, but they are inching ever higher.
“The goals I set when we began in 1974 are 100 percent different from the goals we are pursuing now,” said Natasha Fife, director of women’s athletics.
Typical of those early ambitions were those set for the basketball program, always the bell cow at WSU, regardless the sex of the players.
Those first teams hoped only to some day compete with Kansas State and Kansas for the title of state’s best. They wanted to divorce themselves from the small-time image that forever playing the smaller colleges would yield.
“We’ve lost to St. Mary of the Plains before,” said former sports information director, Steve Shaad, “and people thought we were terrible. What they didn’t realize is that St. Mary had a good team.
“On the other hand, when we beat Tulsa, people thought we were great because they associate Tulsa with a better athletic program. But the truth is, Tulsa has not been as good as St. Mary of the Plains.”
Guilt by association is becoming a thing of the past. “We started with a budget of $58,000 for all sports,” Fife said, “and look where we are now – close to $300,000.
“We started in a little two-story house that has since been torn down. And look where we are now.”
The women’s athletic department offices are not Henry Levitt Arena, but they are not about to be condemned, either.
“We started,” Fife said, “with one full-time coach, a quarter-time coach here and a part-time coach there. And look where we are now.”
There are three full-time coaches and numerous part-time coaches, including two assistants for basketball for next season.
“Natasha Fife,” said Ted Bredehoft, who will head both the men’s and women’s programs under a merger that will be completed by July 1981, “has put together a very competent coaching staff under extreme financial limitations.”
And now, the women don’t want to be just the best basketball team in Kansas. They want to be the best in this part of the country.
Kansas State and Kansas never will be easy to step over, but WSU is on the rise.
“To get support,” Fife said, “we must be winners.”
“Trying no longer will suffice.” Sounds just like men’s athletics, doesn’t it?
“If you asked someone five years ago which was the state’s basketball school for women,” Fife said, “everyone would have told you Kansas State.
“Today, I don’t think you’d get the same answer.
“When Lynette Woodard (Wichita North) decided to go to KU, it changed KU into a winning program,” said WSU basketball coach Kathryn Bunnell. “Now, we’re beginning to get that type of player and it is giving the young players a third choice of basketball schools.”
The progress the women’s basketball team makes may determine how quickly the other sports rise. Fife makes no secret of her decision to emphasize basketball, track and field and tennis – sports which can either produce revenue or attract the highest quality athletes to WSU.
“There has been a lot of additional pressure put on basketball,” Bunnell said. “Our success will have a great effect on selling the women’s program on a whole.
“I’m aware of the additional pressure and I’d like to think we’re going to rise to the challenge. In fact, I don’t have any doubts that we’ll rise to the challenge.”
But the women basketball players are not rising alone. “Season before last,” said track coach John Kornelson, “we had six people on our team. This spring we had 21 and one of them (Pat Foster) went to the nationals.
“For track, numbers is the way to go. By having the numbers and maybe one or two really quality people, we are going to attract even better quality.
“There are enough good track athletes in the city to fill our program – if we can just get them.”
It probably is fortunate that the city produces such athletes, because going coast to coast to recruit them is in neither the budget nor the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women rules.
“It is difficult to recruit out of the state,” Kornelson said. “The AIAW rules prohibit you from visiting a prospect and they have to pay their own way to visit the campus.
“Some can’t afford to do that and don’t want to take the university sight unseen.”
Still, it happens.
Tennis coach Jay Louderback has designs on a foreign player who may enroll for next spring’s semester, and others outside of Kansas have found WSU’s rise intriguing enough to visit Wichita on their own.
“We’re not that far off the quality of the regional finalists (Minnesota beat Iowa 5-4),” Louderback said. “Our men are doing so well that I feel a little pressure to keep up.
“It’s nice to be one of the sports targeted for emphasis, because I hate to lose. If everything goes right and we get the recruits we hope to, our No. 1 player last spring may be No. 5 next season.”
In the future, there may be fewer restrictions on recruiting, greater restrictions on transferring (a woman can transfer and play immediately under AIAW rules) and other changes.
Bredehoft, at the Missouri Valley Conference’s spring meeting, asked for and received a study committee to consider Valley championships in women’s sports.
“The reason I wanted to do this now,” Bredehoft said, “is that I’m predicting, as are many other athletic directors, that the NCAA will approve women’s championships for Division I schools. There already are such championships in Division II and III.”
Such legislation could be the death knell for the AIAW.
“It would be good to have men’s and women’s programs under one national body such as the NCAA,” Bredehoft said. “The NCAA has been at it longer and has more experience and skills. The AIAW is going through growing pains and I’m not sure it is willing to keep up with the swell of women’s sports.”
“I think we’ll go with the NCAA,” Fife said. “But it would be ideal if the two organizations could merge.”
Natasha Fife does not believe it will happen.
“The women don’t trust the men,” she said, “and the men worry about the women trying to take over everything.”
Whatever the administration decisions concerning such things as the NCAA vs. AIAW and when the women should play their basketball games – before the men, on a different night or some of each – Kathryn Bunnell intends to be sure of one thing.
“I don’t want us to lose our identity as a women’s program,” she said, “I don’t want to ride the men’s coat tails.”
Not now. Not after rising this far virtually on their own.
“The female athlete,” Fife said, “was held back for so many years because we were told we might hurt ourselves if we did these things.
“No one mentions that anymore. Now, parents put pressure on the schools to provide the same opportunities for their daughters that they do for their sons.
“We’ve been fighting for 50 years and I guess we’ll keep on fighting. My generation was the pioneers.”
And now the Daughters of the Pioneers are rising.
“Each of us who lives and tries,” Fife said, “does something to promote the effort.”
You can see it in the budget. In the stands. On the court. Even along the streets.
“Today,” said Kathryn Bunnell, “little girls are shooting basketballs in their driveways when they are five years old.
“And no one is laughing at them.”