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Penn State goes big on women's sports, since before Title IX

UNIVERSITY PARK - On Oct. 3, 1964, all the seats in Beaver Stadium and its press box were filled as, amid colorful band fanfares and Central Pennsylvania's spectacular fall foliage, Penn State's football team hosted Oregon.

UNIVERSITY PARK - On Oct. 3, 1964, all the seats in Beaver Stadium and its press box were filled as, amid colorful band fanfares and Central Pennsylvania's spectacular fall foliage, Penn State's football team hosted Oregon.

At that moment, on a well-trampled grass field in the stadium's imposing shadows, the Nittany Lions' women's sports program was quietly being born.

The field hockey squad that defeated Susquehanna, 2-0, that autumn Saturday was the first of nine women's teams to debut that school year, nearly a decade before Title IX prompted many other colleges to establish varsity sports for females.

Now, 52 years later, despite having spotted their male counterparts a head start of three-quarters of a century, the Nittany Lions' women have caught and surpassed them.

Along with those at Stanford, Florida and North Carolina, Penn State's women's are among the nation's most accomplished. Since 1974, they've won 27 NCAA or national titles. Their seven NCAA championships since 2006-07 are more than any other Big 10 school.

Based on a metric that gauges overall sports success, Capital One has since 2010-11 awarded trophies to college's best men's and women's programs.

In the first six years of the Capital One Cup's final rankings - admittedly a period during which the university's signature football team was dealing with the aftershocks of the Jerry Sandusky scandal - PSU's men never were higher than 23rd.

Meanwhile, in that same span, the women ended up in the top 10 five times. They were No. 7 in 2010-11, No. 5 in 2012-13, No. 9 in 2013-14, and No. 3 in each of the last two school years.

A big reason why is volleyball. Led by five-time coach of the year Russ Rose, that team has won seven NCAA championships since 1999.

Playing before consistently large and enthusiastic crowds at Rec Hall, Rose's team once ran off 103 consecutive victories, a streak that in collegiate sports history has been topped only by the 137 matches Miami men's tennis won from 1957-1964.

Elsewhere, Penn State women's soccer took the national championship in 2015, the same year its Erica Dambach was named coach of the year. It also won every Big 10 title from 1998 through 2012.

The fencing team, which combines men and women,  was national champion five times from 2000 to 2010.

While Nittany Lions women's basketball has no national championships on its resume, it has won eight regular-season and two Big 10 tournament titles. The men's basketball program, by comparison, has never won either.

Penn State has produced numerous female Olympians including two-time diving medalist Mary Alice Clark and field hockey's Char Morett and Brenda Stauffer. And despite the harsh climate, there's even been an LPGA Tour player, Katie Futcher.

The reasons Penn State's female athletes have prospered in what remains a football-dominated culture are varied:

A strong physical education curriculum that developed strong coaches early; PSU's status as the largest university in a state where sports like basketball, field hockey and lacrosse gained early footholds; a long history of club and intramural programs for female athletes; and administrators with unusual foresight.

"At a lot of institutions, it's a fight," said Charmelle Green, a senior associate athletic director who arrived here in 2011 after a decade at Notre Dame. "At those places, you feel like you're fighting every day just to try to help women's sports get better.

"What I've experienced here is that [women's sports] have always been an integral part of the discussions and of the decisions that were made. Leadership has always been receptive."

It hasn't been perfect or easy. Warm-weather sports like softball and golf struggle. And despite better-than-average attendance, Penn State's women athletics ran an $11 million deficit last school year.

"We're constantly evaluating our success or lack thereof and determining what, beyond our athletes' skills, we didn't do," said Green.

The nine original women's sports have grown to 14 teams with 425 athletes. Soccer and ice hockey are relatively recent additions, while rifle and bowling are among those that have vanished.

According to statistics filed with the U.S. Department of Education, in Penn State's $117 million sports budget, women's expenses are $19 million, their revenue $8 million, a shortfall that, as is the case with men's Olympic sports, football covers.

Sue Delaney-Scheetz, a longtime lacrosse and field hockey coach as well as an athletic administrator, said Pennsylvania got "a jump-start" in women's sports because it was an early breeding ground for so many.

Female club and intramural sports were already established and popular in 1964 when, eight years before Title IX, President Eric Walker and the trustees decided to transition to varsity sports.

"President Walker believed athletics was an integral part of the educational experience and he thought women ought to have the same opportunities as men," Ellen Perry, the school's longtime swimming and diving coach who died in 2014, said in 2012.

Like Perry, PSU's pioneering women's coaches tended to be experienced instructors in its health and physical education departments.

"When we got going, we had these coaches who were instructors and who already knew how to work with skills," said Delaney-Scheetz, who coached at Delaware County's Penncrest High before coming to Penn State in the 1970s. "With that nucleus we were able to attract female athletes even before scholarships. As a high school coach, I was comfortable sending women here because I knew they were going to be treated fairly.

"So that combination of starting early, having some success early and hiring the right coaches was essential," she added.

Between 1978 and 1980, when women's sports were first appearing on the radar, Penn State won national titles in lacrosse, gymnastics, field hockey, fencing and bowling.

"We were winning championships when they were sponsored by the AIAW and when the NCAA took over," said Delaney-Scheetz.

But the demands on the programs and their budgets ramped up in 1990 when the Nittany Lions joined the Big 10.

"That was a big adjustment," said Delaney-Scheetz. "Suddenly, instead of busing to our away games and bringing in local officials, we were flying to games and flying in officials. It was a financial strain.

"We went from getting no money to having a tiered budget to needing more money every year. There were times when things were tight and we didn't see an increase for three years. But it was the same for all our athletic programs. It was tight across the board, men and women."

While TV and conference money have allowed for a sharp hike in Penn State's budget, women's programs continue to fund-raise and hunt for big donors as diligently as men's football or basketball.

"At most institutions, it's a much tougher sell," said Green. "But for whatever reason, it's not here. We speak women's sports. We breathe it. We dream it. So many former female athletes say, 'I had such a great experience here that I want to write a check to women's athletics.'"

One factor contributing to the competitive success, administrators said, are the unusually large crowds some women's sports attract.

Volleyball ranked fifth in the nation last year with average attendance of 3,664. Soccer was No. 1 in the Big 10 with 1,329 fans a game. And even though its average crowd was just 640, that put Penn State field hockey ahead of all college programs.

"Having fans support our student-athletes at any event is a huge advantage," said Phil Esten, the associate AD who's athletic director Sandy Barbour's chief aide. "The more people you put at a cross-country meet, a swimming meet or a hockey game, the more that works to a team's advantage, male or female. We spend marketing dollars across all of our sports to try to draw more attendance."

Among the increasing number of retirees in Centre County, Penn State women's sports - all the school's sporting events, really - have become popular entertainment.

"This is a big retirement area," said Delaney-Scheetz. "Those people love that there's so much to do here. We've made outreach efforts in those communities. Then the word of mouth gets out there. And it doesn't hurt that our teams are winning so much."

That success, Green said, breeds success - in recruiting, in funding the athletic endowment, in fostering interest among students and nonstudents.

But, she added, in such a competitive 21st Century sports environment, there's always more to do. Women's soccer, for example, would like an enhanced facility.

"It's a challenge," said Green. "We have a strong development office that identifies people who can support our programs. Right now we're going through a robust facilities study. We just reviewed our Title IX compliance. We're doing all we can to enhance our women's programs.

"We're definitely not standing still."