One can imagine the beginnings of what we now know as physical education at The W. The time was 1885, and students lived in Old Main dormitory, the historic structure now known as Callaway.
High up on the unairconditioned, poorly ventilated fourth floor, hot in the summer and cold in the winter, young women could find an exercise room outfitted with dumbbells, flying rings and an assortment of equipment to introduce them to the contemporary idea of gymnastics. Small and cramped, the space proved inadequate to the task.
As early as 1891, the school unsuccessfully sought funding for a new gymnasium. Nonetheless, it was clear that athleticism, as well as academics, was part of The W’s educational experience.
By 1904, II&C had developed an athletic league, with teams adopting colors and cheers. Intramural sports included women’s baseball and field hockey, and even a skating team dubbed “Skidoo Skaters.” The team’s catchy slogan was “Skate and the rest skate with you, fall and you fall alone,” perhaps an injunction to practice, as well as to strive for perfect form.
By 1907, physical education was a requirement for all students and the Henry Whitfield Gymnasium was under construction. With the hiring of Emma Ody Pohl in 1908, the importance and presence of physical education was established for the four decades that followed. She would be an innovator and champion for physical education until her 1955 retirement, establishing a structured program and introducing dance and unique drills such as Zouave.
Mary Ellen Weathersby Pope, a 1926 graduate, recounted in “Golden Days,” an oral history compiled by Bridget Smith Pieschel, that Emma Ody Pohl could terrify with a look.
“She would yell at you. If we were supposed to be doing something with our right foot and we did it with our left, she’d say, ‘Weathersby, do you know your right foot from your left?’”
Pope described Zouave as “really just exercise. We were marching a lot, and then we would do exercises like toe touches. They really were just good exercise classes. But of course it was spectacular to see hundreds of people doing that.”
By 1910, the Henry Whitfield Gymnasium was completed and housed a gym, lockers, showers and a swimming pool. All students were required to take swimming. Katherine Lipscomb Worrell, class of 1936, recalled in “Golden Days” that “. . .we had to go swimming and learn all the strokes. They were hard—the Australian crawl and all that. But I made an A on swimming. I failed tennis.”
The opportunities—and requirements—for physical education were plentiful. In addition to intramural competition, II&C competed against area institutions, including one in West Point, Miss., formerly known as the Southern Female Institute. By 1907, the Presbyterian school was known as Belverino College, and, on Dec. 10, 1907, the local school suffered a 29-8 defeat at the hands of the II&C basketball team.
Plans to form an intercollegiate league for women in Mississippi never materialized, but some form of competition continued for at least a decade. Over the next few years, the II&C basketball team would defeat teams from the University of Chattanooga, the University of Mississippi and Hattiesburg Normal College (now USM). The 1916-17 season saw II&C undefeated in six games. These efforts, documented by Dorothy Burdeshaw, Barbara Garrett, Jo Spearman, Joan Thomas and Martha Wells in their history, "Legacy of the Blues," were truly trailblazing for the times.
The days of athletic glory, however, would enter a long hiatus with the beginning of World War I in 1918 and would not re-emerge until mid-century. Among many reasons were the expense of travel, a focus on health and not competition and an emphasis on academics for women. II&C, like other national women’s institutions, reflected prevailing attitudes of the times.
Emergence of ‘modern’ athletics
Physical education, however, continued as an academic program, and it was academics that paved the way for a re-emergence of a new era of athletics competition. A degree in physical education was developed as early as 1920. It was discontinued in 1926 and reinstated in 1938-39. Intramural sports, which had also continued, were another impetus for interest in athletics.
The II&C Athletic League, formed in 1904, evolved into the Women’s Athletic Association in 1922, under the supervision of the Physical Education Department. Students received points for participation in a variety of activities. WAA was affiliated with the Athletic Conference of American College Women, a national organization at the time.
Extramural competitions grew out of these efforts, with play days, sport days, telegraphic meets and invitational meets popular. A telegraphic meet was one in which individual teams competed remotely, comparing results. As early as 1930, MSCW hosted campus events for the University of Mississippi, Belhaven College, the University of Alabama and Alabama Women’s College.
In the 1940s, women’s service in the Armed Forces helped shape new attitudes. The 1940s and 1950s saw MSCW expand play days and other extramural competition. A 1951 play day attracted the University of Mississippi, Mississippi Southern College, Delta State, Millsaps College, Gulf Park Junior College and East Central Junior College. A foundation was in place to transition from extramural to women’s intercollegiate athletics.
When Barbara Garrett came to The W in the early 1950s, she was a self-described tomboy who had grown up an only child in Yazoo City playing tennis on clay courts. Originally an education major, she soon switched to physical education and became immersed in the athletic programs that her major offered.
In “Golden Days” she recounted finding a newspaper clipping saved for many years by her mom. “Freshman Wins Tennis Tournament,” it read. It was a story about Garrett’s winning the school tournament that year.
“It was back in the days that The W began to compete with Memphis State,” she recalled. “My sophomore roommate, Jane Standefer Steen, and I played doubles together. We went to Memphis State to play, and they came here to play us and we beat them both times in doubles. I think we won our singles matches as well. And then Mississippi State came over and played us, and there were no girls’ teams in those times. There were no women in sports.”
One of the authors of "Legacy of the Blues," Garrett would go on to earn her doctorate before returning to The W in 1967 to teach and coach. Her time as a student at The W opened new worlds, and she was at the university on the cusp of change for women’s athletics.
The desire of many students to continue competitive sports from high school into college influenced The W’s move to intercollegiate athletics beginning in the 1950s, with the university pioneering the movement. “MSCW built on the special legacy of its educational model of sport and initiated one of the first intercollegiate athletic programs for women in Mississippi in the modern area,” said the authors of "Legacy of the Blues."
By the 1960s, the school had organized the first official intercollegiate tennis team, and later added teams in volleyball, basketball, gymnastics, competitive swimming, archery, badminton and telegraphic bowling. Thus began 43 years of the athletic program at The W.
During its 40-year presence on campus, athletics underwent several changes in governance. For much of that time, the university had independent status, before joining the Gulf South Conference in 1993. In order to maintain an athletics program, The W had to rise to challenges unique to its size and its status as a women’s institution. Larger schools had the benefit of resources such as athletic trainers, training room facilities, sports information personnel, officiating services, marketing/ticket personnel, event management teams and income from gate receipts. Under the leadership of the physical education department, however, the athletic program not only sustained itself but was successful.
One of the highlights of athletics history at The W was the 1971 basketball win in the National Invitational Tournament against West Chester College of Pennsylvania in the finals at Western Carolina University. Led by Coach Jill Upton, the team included Dixie Everett, Martha Rayborn, Jane Harrington, Libba Birmingham, Jenny Ladner, Deborah Norwood, Karen Fuller, Brenda Allegrezza, Pat Smith, Jane Gates, Cynthia Shackelford and Dot Easterwood.
It was a game West Chester was expected to win, and it was close. With a little over one minute left in play, The W trailed by three points. Two scores and a free throw in the tense final moments gave The W a 57—55 win and national bragging rights. Ladner and Norwood earned All-American honors. The team returned home to celebrity treatment by the community, as well as scores of phone calls and letters, including one from the governor.
It was a monumental moment for the university. As recounted in "Legacy of the Blues," “The MSCW basketball team, from a small college in Mississippi with an enrollment under 3,000, located in a town under 30,000, practicing in a gym without a regulation court, playing games in borrowed gyms, with non-scholarship athletes who ‘just loved the game’ were national champions!” The win became the impetus for construction of the Emma Ody Pohl Physical Education/Assembly Building, which opened in 1976. It was home for the Blues until it was demolished by a tornado in 2002.
The Physical Education and Assembly Building, completed under the leadership of Dr. Dorothy Burdeshaw, named head of the physical education department in 1973- 74, hosted an average of 50 home games a year. Sports at the time included tennis, volleyball, basketball, badminton, gymnastics, swimming, softball and track/field. With rising budget challenges, the eight in 1979 were reduced to tennis, volleyball, basketball and softball, with the others becoming club sports.
The 1970s and 80s ushered in a sea of change. In 1972, The Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women became the governing body for 280 member institutions. The NCAA at the time was focused solely on male athletics, and AIAW institutions tended to view the NCAA as less interested in academics. MUW would award its first scholarships to athletes in 1974, adding resource challenges to a program that counted every penny.
An additional challenge was the passage of Title IX in 1972, requiring equity in male and female sports. An allfemale school then, The W’s primary challenge was in scheduling. Title IX required that women’s teams compete in the same conferences as men’s. Since MSCW was not part of a conference, the school’s teams were at a disadvantage, as a win or loss against The W carried no conference weight. However, AIAW was able to show that women’s sports attracted both spectators and sponsors. By the late 1970s, the NCAA had seen the advantage of women’s championships and began offering championship opportunities in 1980 and 1982. The AIAW, unable to compete with NCAA incentives, ceased to exist in 1983. In the fall of 1983, The W became an NCAA institution, continuing to play as an independent. It would finally join a conference in 1993, becoming part of the 12-member Gulf South Conference. Throughout the changes, the athletics programs at The W consistently maintained an emphasis on excellence and development of the whole student. The little program that could continued to show it could compete successfully in academics and in athletics.
In 1985, Samye Johnson, who coached both basketball and volleyball, was selected the NCAA Division II Volleyball Coach of the Year. Despite the demands of coaching two sports, she took the volleyball team all the way to the elite eight in the NCAA Championship Tourney, once again showing the grit and determination of The W’s athletic spirit. When The W became part of the Gulf State Conference, more competitive opportunities became available. In the first year of membership, the university earned the GSC All-Sports trophy for women after capturing championships in volleyball and softball, as well as having the top overall record of 12 GSC members. That was followed in 1997 by the tennis team’s GSC championship and a bid to the regional playoffs.
MUW athletes were equally successful in their academic rankings. In 1985, state representative David Halbrook introduced legislation establishing an annual award recognizing the college or university graduating the highest percentage of student-athletes. The W won the first Halbrook Award in 1986 and continued its winning streak for seven consecutive years. When athletics was discontinued in 2003, the university had won 11 times in 17 years.
When a devastating tornado destroyed the Physical Education Assembly Building in 2002, the loss of a primary sporting venue was a major factor in the discontinuation of a formal athletic program. Looking back over nearly a century of athletic activities—dating to the earliest days of the institution—there was much to be proud of. Now, after a 14-year absence, The W’s longtime commitment to athleticism and academics celebrates its formal continuation in 2017. Athletics is back, and the Owls are ready for the future.
For a detailed history, please see "Legacy of the Blues: A Century of Athletics at The W," by Burdeshaw, Garrett, Spearman, Thomas, and Wells. It served as a primary source for this article.