Montana State University

Spring 2013

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Mountains and Minds

Photo by Kelly Gorham

You've come a long way, baby May 07, 2013 by Tom Schulz • Published 05/07/13

Once chided as 'radical feminists,' MSU's pioneering female coaches and players were leaders in bringing equality to collegiate sports

In the fall of 1965, seven years before the passing of Title IX, Ellen Kreighbaum and her Montana State Women's Athletic Association intramurals program were given just one night a week from 7 to 9 p.m. to hold all women's intramural competitions.

And, when 8:45 p.m. rolled around, the male students lined the gym to make sure the women were out on time--not one second later.

Kreighbaum, who retired from MSU in 2004 after serving Montana State for 39 years as a professor, department head in Health and Human Development and eventually associate dean of research and creative activities of the College of Education, Health and Human Development, was the first faculty member to champion competitive women's athletics on the Bozeman campus.

In 1967, Kreighbaum called a representative at each of the four-year Montana colleges, as well as Flathead Valley Community College, to begin competitive basketball games. By 1968, the Montana Women's Intercollegiate Sports Association was up and running under a constitution and a set of by-laws.

"I remember a man showing up at one of our first meetings in Helena," Kreighbaum said. "He stood up in the back of the room and told us 'we couldn't and weren't allowed' to put the league together. We told him we already had by-laws and that he probably should sit down, because we were going ahead with our plan."

Women's gymnastics and volleyball were added to basketball in the MSU intercollegiate program the following year, despite a slim $500 budget for the intramural and three sport competitive programs.

"I drove my car and paid for the gas," Kreighbaum said. "We went to the bookstore and bought white T-shirts to wear under the pinafores."

At one point, Montana State, Montana and Western Montana pooled their money to travel on the same charter bus to the Northwest District Basketball Championship in Puyallup, Wash. MSU was seeded last but continued to win up to the championship game against Simon Fraser University.

"We lost that one, but it was the first defeat in the history of MSU women's basketball," Kreighbaum recalled.

Today, MSU has a thriving women's program in many sports. That change of the athletic culture at Montana State and universities across the country largely resulted from what is known as Title IX, or a portion of the Education Amendments of 1972. The act, signed into law by President Richard Nixon in June 1972, banned sex discrimination at any educational institution receiving federal funds. The landmark act, which celebrated its 40th anniversary last year, helped give wings to what was then Montana State's fledgling women's athletic program.

It may be impossible for today's Bobcat female athletes to imagine the days when women had to fight for two hours of practice time.

For that, MSU can thank Kreighbaum and other pioneering athletes and administrators who not only changed women's athletics at Montana State, but in the process built a program long-regarded as a national model for female collegiate athletics.

Kreighbaum believes one of the key developments in MSU's transformation came 40 years ago, in 1973, when she went to ASMSU to ask for more funds. With partnership from Max Worthington, a former Bobcat basketball great who was then MSU dean of men and chair of the Athletic Commission, they convinced the powers that be to move women's athletics out of physical education and into men's athletics under the direction of Tom Parac, Bobcat athletic director.

The first official intercollegiate Bobcat women's basketball game was played in the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse on Feb. 2, 1975, and resulted in a 59-36 Bobcat victory over Flathead Valley.

At the same time she was involved in building a collegiate team, Kreighbaum was a plaintiff along with four other MSU female faculty members who sued for equal pay in 1972. In 1976, a federal judge found that the university was not in compliance with civil rights legislation and awarded three year's back pay to most, if not all, women faculty members. While the landmark case did not involve women's athletics, it did have consequences for Kreighbaum's vision for women's athletics.

"In 1976, then President Carl McIntosh asked 'what else could Montana State do?''' Kreighbaum recalled. "I responded that although athletics was not part of the lawsuit, the creation of a separate women's athletics department, with its own budget, office space, locker room and athletic director would move us forward in (fighting) women's discrimination.

"In the first game ever played in the fieldhouse, the women had to use the visiting men's locker room, and the visitors had to dress in the men's weight room. Getting our own space was a big step."

Kreighbaum took spring quarter 1977 off from her teaching duties to spearhead establishing the Montana State Women's Athletics Department.

Coaches with impressive credentials were hired for women's basketball, volleyball, gymnastics and track and field. Volleyball coach Bill Neville had recently completed a stint with the Canadian men's Olympic team, while track and field coach Neil Eliason had played a major role leading Flathead Valley to a top-five finish two consecutive years at the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) level.

Kreighbaum was then charged with finding MSU's first ever women's athletics director.

After a national search, Virginia "Ginny" Hunt, then associate athletic director at the University of Michigan, accepted the position.

"Montana State was in a unique position," Hunt recalled. "From the outside looking in, (MSU was) a leader in women's athletics. MSU was one of the first schools to have highly qualified coaches in full-time positions and was one of the first to create a separate women's department. In addition, the Northwest region was established and the conference that included state schools from Oregon, Washington, along with Boise State and Portland State, was really the first in the nation, and was absolutely fantastic."

But despite being at the forefront of women's collegiate athletics, Hunt still had numerous obstacles to overcome.

"We lacked facilities," Hunt said. "The office space was not ideal. Our locker room was in Romney and not the fieldhouse, and the training room was in the middle of the men's locker room."

Montana State women's athletics offered its first scholarships in 1976, which came in the form of fee waivers. Among the first recipients was Pam Hansen Alfred of Great Falls, who played both volleyball and basketball for the Bobcats.

"Even though we were just offered fee waivers, we considered it a privilege to receive what we deemed as the first 'scholarships' available to women," Hansen Alfred said.

Hansen Alfred recalled that team travel in those early days could be challenging.

"We traveled the entire Pacific Northwest from Montana to Idaho, to the Washington and Oregon coast all in a stretch out, which was an old extended taxi cab. One day we pulled off the side of the road and the left rear axle broke off and started the vehicle on fire. Everyone was sleeping except for the coach and me. The rest of the team was slow to wake up and exit the burning vehicle, but we all survived. We then sat in a rainstorm in the middle of a junkyard while the athletic department tried to figure out how to get us back on the road."

According to Hunt, change came slowly to women's athletics. She believes subtle changes began when proponents of Title IX and the old NCAA regime got tired of fighting with each other; former male athletes got upset that their daughters were not given the same opportunities as their sons; and leadership changed within the NCAA.

Hunt, who was president-elect of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women in 1982--the year it was dissolved into the NCAA--said women's athletics gained momentum once her peers were being named to national councils and Judy Sweet was named the first female president of the NCAA.

"By 1993, the NCAA started including Title IX criteria for membership," Hunt said. "I think Montana State played an important role in giving women opportunities to compete on the collegiate level, especially in the West. We were the leaders who helped set the tone for the future.

"If Title IX hadn't happened, I still think we would be where we are today, but it wouldn't have happened as fast."

Today, both Kreighbaum and Hunt have numerous files and yellow-faded news clippings chronicling the history of women's collegiate athletics. They have headlines highlighted calling for women to not compete in order to save their reproductive systems. Others chided the female athletes as "radical feminists."

"What has emerged as women's athletics is beyond what I ever dreamed," said Kreighbaum, who still lives in Bozeman. In 2010, Kreighbaum gave MSU Athletics Department a $200,000 estate gift, designating $170,000 to women's basketball.

"Going from maybe a few people on folding chairs as spectators of women's volleyball, basketball and gymnastics in Romney Gym to playing basketball in the fieldhouse before 1,500 dedicated fans is so gratifying. It is a delight to see the young women who are student-athletes become successful career women and upstanding members of their communities."

And, as Kreighbaum sifted through her files one last time, she came upon her favorite ad that summed up her and other female athletes' journey over the past 40 years with a simple slogan: "You've come a long way, baby!"