Take a guess, when and where? The first women’s college national basketball championship was held in …
How about 1939, the year of the first NCAA men’s championship, maybe at Madison Square Garden in New York? No. Don’t think so big, or so old.
Then maybe 1957 in Iowa, always a women’s hoops hotbed?
Try 1969, in West Chester, Pa., in the very same campus fieldhouse used by the current West Chester University Rams. A national tournament that was the sole idea of a coach who didn’t keep her innovations to the court itself, her ideas flying right off the chalkboard. If her sport was in transition, Carol Eckman helped lead a fast break right into the modern game.
“All these people inducted into the [Naismith] Hall of Fame, they don’t even know the name Carol Eckman,” said Linda Hill-MacDonald, who played for Eckman at West Chester and went on to coach Temple herself from 1980 to 1990 among other college stops, in addition to several years coaching in the early years of the WNBA.
Eckman is hardly alone among West Chester women’s sports innovators. The school produced an almost staggering number of top coaches across the sports landscape, not waiting for Title IX legislation to get moving on athletics for its own female students.
“All the major sports had third and fourth teams — it was extremely competitive,” Hill-MacDonald said. “My first basketball tryout, there were probably 150 young women there. It was unbelievable. You had to prove yourself to be on one of those four teams. Even our third and fourth team competed like a varsity.”
“West Chester was widely considered the most competitive place for women,” said Marian Washington, who played seven sports at West Chester Henderson and stuck with a couple in college, including basketball for Eckman. “If you had any desire to compete at a high level, West Chester was the place. One of the reasons was their physical education department was one of the best at that time.”
If you were studying in that department, “you had to get so many credits outside of your class credits,” Hill-MacDonald said, explaining that joining a team was the easiest way to those credits.
As the ‘60s began, women’s basketball was closer to the sport as it was played in the ‘30s than what it would become in the ‘90s or to this day. The game was still six-on-six, with three players on each team staying in the backcourt while three others were across halfcourt. In other words, you played only offense or defense.
Skirts and Chuck Taylors were normal attire in women’s college hoops even later in the decade. The rules went back and forth on continuous dribbling or only one bounce or three bounces. By 1962, each team was allowed “two rovers” to play all over the court.
According to school records, West Chester had fielded a team since 1959 but with “no scores available” until 1962-63, and even after that, records were sporadic. Eckman took over as coach in 1967-68 and, while the team record is listed as 12-0, only six games are listed in the records.
Gettysburg, W, 81-23
Montclair State, W, 61-28
Cortez-Peters, W, 63-43
Immaculata, W, 78-16
East Stroudsburg, W, 64-50
Glassboro State, W, 62-26
“The thing that I liked about Carol was her demeanor,” said Washington, who went on to coach the University of Kansas from 1973 to 2004, and joined Eckman in being inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tenn. “I was very shy. She was soft-spoken, but she was very competitive. You could feel it in her presence. She was not somebody who did a lot of yelling. Our team was not one that needed to be motivated like that anyway.”
“She did things that other teams did not do,” Hill-MacDonald said. “We did full-court pressure. Most teams did not do that. She had the foresight that down the road that was going to come into play. I think West Chester’s team was way ahead of the curve. I don’t know if Carol had a crystal ball or just had foresight, or just was on committees that talked about these things.”
Hill-MacDonald said the athletic talent on the team was “incredible,” starting with Washington — “just an incredible player. She just owned the lane.”
Ticking off other players, such as Pat Ferguson, a team leader — “they were better than anybody I’d ever seen,” Hill-MacDonald said.
There was no higher level of competition to watch on television, except the guys, whom Eckman always encouraged her players to watch. Eckman herself closely watched how John Wooden carried himself at UCLA.
The AAU circuit
For her team, Eckman didn’t stick to college competition. That first undefeated season complete, the only national competition available was on the AAU circuit, which, at that time, meant clubs featuring players of all ages.
“It was wide open,” Washington said. “You could be a club that may have played 40 games. Carol wanted us to try to qualify for the nationals, and we had to go through the regional qualifying held in Washington.”
How good could these clubs be?
“I’ll never forget it,” Washington said. “My father had never seen me play. He came to watch us. When we saw the experience of so many of these women — years of playing together — we were just not on the same playing field.”
How do you handle that? You take out a metaphorical bulldozer and level the field.
“She decided, right then and there, college women should be competing against college women,” Washington said. “She worked so hard to put it together, get the best women’s teams in the country to come to West Chester State and compete for a national title.”
The very next year, it happened.
Now, thinking West Chester as an institution was ahead of the curve on athletics ... that went only so far.
“She got no support or money from West Chester to do it,” Hill-MacDonald said. “We were all aware of the efforts she was putting into creating the tournament. There was no national body that was willing to step up and back a national tournament. Carol said, ‘This isn’t right. I’m going to step out on my own.’”
Eckman did have support at the college from the women’s physical education department faculty, her players said. They remember that the athletic department offices were locked during the tournament, that calls were made from pay phones on campus reporting scores to newspapers. Eckman had worked hard to figure out the best competition from all regions in the country and found a receptive audience willing to travel.
She also beat them all.
The first national champion in the sport: West Chester. The Rams had some close games in the regular season, just edging Ursinus and Southern Connecticut State. But the national tournament belonged to the home team.
Northwestern, W, 79-33
Lynchburg, W, 53-28
Iowa, W, 70-30
Western Carolina, W, 56-39
In some ways, even that first title was buried a bit in history, since it predated an organization sponsoring the championship: The Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women was not formed until 1971, and the NCAA showed no interest in women’s sports. In the ensuing years, Eckman kept inviting big-time teams, with Cal State Fullerton beating West Chester by four points for the 1970 national title and Mississippi University for Women beating West Chester by a point for the 1971 national title.
The 1972 season brought the first AIAW national tournament, and it was another local entity, the soon-to-be-famous Mighty Macs of Immaculata, coached by West Chester graduate Cathy Rush, who beat West Chester by five points in the national final.
Even that was something of a triumph for Eckman, since she’d been a leader in getting the AIAW off the ground. It also was her last season at West Chester, as she moved on to Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Lock Haven.
“I’m so pleased that we’re beginning to unravel some of this,” Washington said of Eckman’s role in the evolution of the game. Washington herself reached the national tournament (either AIAW or NCAA) 14 times as Kansas’ coach and had all-time leading scorer Lynette Woodard, a four-time all-American, on her Jayhawks.
The story of how Washington even got to Kansas is a tale from another time. She had joined a group that essentially was the U.S. national team, training in Missouri to be the first U.S. Olympic women’s basketball team.
‘My next step’
“The sport was supposed to be introduced [as an Olympic sport] in ‘72, but they forgot about us,” Washington said. “There was no room for women’s basketball. We were all devastated. We’d moved from our homes. I was trying to figure out what my step was going to be. It was then I remembered I was right next door to Kansas.”
That reminder wasn’t about basketball. Washington also had been a top discus thrower and once trained for a week in New York with the great Al Oerter, four-time Olympic gold medalist. Oerter had told Washington about his own Kansas coach, Bill Easton.
“If you ever get to Kansas, look him up,” Oerter had told her.
So, within a state, she did. He was retired but agreed to work with her.
“He didn’t even know I was a woman,” Washington said before she showed up. “After that first summer with him, he encouraged me to go back to school and get my master’s degree. That’s how I ended up as a graduate assistant there.”
After one season as assistant, she took over as head coach, the West Chester connection spreading to the school where James Naismith, the inventor of the sport, had himself coached the Kansas men’s team.
In 1971, the women’s college game finally had gone to five players, all playing all over the court. “Thus the women’s game comes almost (but not quite) full circle back to the game designed by Dr. Naismith,” the NCAA later noted after it eventually began oversight of women’s collegiate sports in the 1980s, with a gradual transition away from the AIAW.
“My experience back then wasn’t playing the five-player game,” Washington said of her own career. “It was the rover game by then. When you left the country, though, it was the five-player game. I would like to think my professional approach came from West Chester. The competitiveness, how Carol carried herself — she really put a lot of time into detail.”
Deirdre Kane, who coached West Chester’s team for 27 years, starting in 1987, said of Eckman, “She’s completely ignored.”
The insiders know of her. Every year, the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association gives out the Carol Eckman Integrity in Coaching Award. Past recipients include Kane herself in 2004. But Eckman’s former players note that so many coaches left this area for the big time, but Eckman’s reputation never grew wider since she missed that wave before she died in 1985 at age 47.
“I’m probably biased, but I think she belongs in the Naismith Hall of Fame alongside many of the other innovators because of what she did for women’s basketball,” Hill-MacDonald said. “She gave women’s basketball a platform that no one had ever attempted or even had the guts to try.”