Inaugural The W Athletics Hall of Fame class is inducted
Mississippi University for Women enshrined its inaugural The W Athletics Hall of Fame class on Saturday evening, capping an exciting week of Homecoming festivities at the university. The ceremony – attended by several hundred alumni, friends, and family – witnessed enshrinement in four categories: Distinguished Service, Team, Student-Athlete, and Coach/Administrator.
And, without a doubt, the HOF selection committee put forth the virtual “gold standard” in each category for the honor of being the first-ever inductees.
“It would be very difficult to find a more deserving group than the ones we have here tonight,” said W Alumni Officer Teresa Thompson in her opening remarks. “We have the national champions who helped set the foundation for strong athletics at The W and actually put us on the national radar. We also have what I, respectfully, refer to as the ‘Power 5’. They are influential administrators and professors that have provided untold contributions through their teaching and their mentoring, and as the authors of Legacy of the Blues.
“They have taught us in the most straightforward and honest way that it is hard work and dedication that brings us success.”
The Distinguished Service category led off the evening, honoring the five authors of the Legacy of the Blues – an exhaustive 536-page reconstruction of The W’s 100-year athletics history – were recognized. The quintet of Dr. Dorothy Burdeshaw, the late Dr. Jo Spearman, Dr. Joan Thomas, Dr. Martha Wells and Dr. Barbara Garrett – collaborated on the project after a tornado destroyed all of the school’s athletics records and mementos in 2002, wanting to make certain The W’s rich athletics history was not lost. The ladies – former health & physical education teachers and coaches all – had a collective 141 years of service to The W.
In the Team category, the 1970-71 women’s basketball team was inducted as the department’s first-ever national championship squad. Before there was the AIAW – and long before the NCAA adopted athletics for women – The W won the 1971 National Invitational Women’s Intercollegiate Basketball Tournament national championship. Just a year before Title IX became the law of the land, the Blues – as the team was known then – rolled through that NIT tourney and left some big-name programs in its wake. On its march to the school’s first national championship in any team sport, The W defeated the likes of defending champion Cal State-Fullerton, East Stroudsburg State, North Carolina-Greensboro and West Chester State. During the regular season, The W picked up wins over Mississippi, Texas, Tarleton State, Texas Tech, and Southern Mississippi. The Blues outscored their opponents by a 1400-to-1073 margin, an average of 13.6 points per game.
Team members included: Seniors- Dixie Everett, Martha Rayborn; Juniors- Jane Harrington, Libba Birmingham, Jenny Ladner, Deborah Norwood; Sophomore- Karen Fuller; Freshmen- Brenda Allegrezza, Pat Smith, Jane Gates, Cynthia Shackelford, and Dot Easterwood. The head coach was Dr. Jill Upton.
The Student-Athlete inductee was a shining star on that championship team as a freshman, Dot Easterwood (Murphy). Easterwood Murphy is the most decorated women’s basketball player in the long history of the program. She joined the squad in 1970-71 out of Starkville High School and immediately became a key cog in the team’s run to the National Invitational Women’s Intercollegiate Basketball Tournament (forerunner to the AIAW) national championship that year. The following season (1971-72), Easterwood Murphy also helped The W to a fourth-place finish in the first-ever AIAW tournament.
At The W, she was the first player to eclipse 1,000 career points scored. Easterwood Murphy averaged better than 22.0 points per game for her four-year career at The W. Among her awards were a 1971 NIWIBT all-star, three-time All-American (1972, ’73, ’74), and three MAIAW all-tournament awards. She was recognized as one of the “Outstanding College Athletes in America” in 1974.
Easterwood Murphy earned a spot on the United States’ first-ever women’s entry in the World University Games in the summer of 1973 in Moscow, helping the team to a silver medal.
“I’m humbled; thank you,” an emotional Easterwood Murphy began. “It’s quite an honor for me. I was so blessed to be able to come to The W. They were the ‘saving grace’; at the time I came, they were the only senior college in the state that offered women’s basketball.”
Easterwood Murphy then looked into the faces and the current Owls student-athletes in attendance and offered them some words: “You young people have a future in front of you. You can make a difference. Every one of you has an influence; people are looking at you. Whether you want them to or not, they are checking you out. And you need to spread your wings and fly and get after it. You can make a difference in people’s lives.”
The “leader of the band” of that championship team – Head Coach Jill Upton – proved the HOF selection committee’s logical choice for induction in the Coach/Administrator category, as well. Upton was a leader in the women’s basketball coaching community and brought great distinction to MUW during her tenure (1968-75, 1976-77).
In addition to her eight seasons guiding The W, Upton was also selected to coach the United States in its first-ever entry in the World University Games in the summer of 1973. As the first head coach for the USA in the Games, she mentored Pat Summitt, as well as her own Easterwood, on the silver-medal team. Upton’s team defeated the likes of France, Romania, Bulgaria, Cuba, and Mexico (losing only to host Russia in the tourney).
Among Upton’s accomplishments while in Columbus, was that women’s NIT national championship in 1971. Upton’s team also finished fourth in the nation in the first-ever AIAW tournament the following season (1971-72), the year Title IX was enacted.
“I want to thank you for this honor,” Coach Upton remarked to the audience. “You know, I went on to do other things after being at The W, but no one ever had the love and support that I did; like the basketball team did.”
To wrap up the ceremony, W Director of Athletics Jennifer Claybrook asked all the inductees to take a good look at the audience.
“I just want you to see in the audience,” Claybrook exhorted the newly-minted Hall of Famers. “In addition to your loved ones and family members, please recognize that we have student-athletes, we have faculty, and we have athletic staff. They are here to celebrate you all because they know this kind of commitment and passion and dedication. They are committed to this legacy and we’re going to make you all proud.”