This is the first part of a six-part feature series on Stanford women’s sports.
It was a rainy Maryland day in June 1978, and the Cardinals were rallying on court three.
Down 4-2 in the third set of the deciding match of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) Finals, Stanford was on the brink of conceding a second straight national title to in-state rival USC. Head coach Anne Gould ‘72 M.A. ‘80, whose four star players had just split their matches on courts one and two, watched nervously from the sideline as freshmen Donna Rubin ‘81 and Caryn Hertel ‘81 duked it out against the Trojans’ own pair of rookies.
Game by game, break by break, Rubin and Hertel stormed back to take the match — and the title.
But when the team returned to campus, which had just emptied for the summer, there was no hero’s welcome, no recognition for the group’s remarkable achievement: winning Stanford’s first national championship in a women’s sport.
“Goodness, no,” Rubin remembers. “The first time I even heard [that it was the school’s first] was a year ago, when Caryn told me. And she had just heard it.”
A lot has changed in the 35 years since the team’s historic match: The Cardinals are now the Cardinal, the AIAW has given way to the NCAA and Gould has moved on to teaching lessons on campus. Most notably, Stanford’s national championship count in women’s sports now stands at 53, the highest in the country.
More than half of those titles have been won in the last 15 years, but if there’s a reason why Stanford women’s sports have been so successful in the recent past, it stems from work that was done nearly four decades ago — long before each new title was celebrated with its own front-page article, halftime ceremony and t-shirt in the Athletics Shop.
The story begins, as it often does for women’s sports, with Title IX, the landmark 1972 law that required gender equity in all educational programs that received federal funding. By the end of the decade, the U.S. Department of Education had developed a three-pronged compliance test; applied to athletics, it meant that the gender ratio of a school’s athletes had to equal that of its entire student body, the school had to demonstrate a “history… of program expansion” for women or, at the very least, the school had to prove that its programs were meeting women’s interest in sports.
Due to the significant gender gap in collegiate athletics in the ‘70s, it quickly became a target of early reforms. Stanford was no exception to the early inequity.
When current women’s tennis coach Lele Forood ‘78 arrived as a freshman two years after Title IX, the women’s team — which had just one coach — practiced on the old Roble courts, while the men played in the stadium. The women’s players trained as a team just twice a week, competing in as few as nine matches some seasons.
“You had to be very motivated,” said Forood, who played at Stanford for two seasons before turning pro. “You had to pretty much do things on your own.”
Both Forood and Gould credit Joe Ruetz, the school’s athletics director at the time, with changing that. In the spirit of the new law, he combined the separate men’s and women’s athletic departments and began stressing the importance of women’s sports.
“Stanford embraced Title IX,” Gould said. “In each sport that it has, it said, ‘Okay, we’re going to give the maximum scholarships that we can, we’re going to provide facilities, we’re going to provide good coaching.’
“A lot of [other schools’] programs kind of fought that and still kept women’s athletics totally separate from the men’s,” she added. “And that was hard. There were a lot of battles at a lot of those schools.”
Stanford’s next priority was to build scholarship support to attract top female players. Recruiting, a foregone conclusion in Division I athletics today, was far from the norm for women’s teams at the time.
The tennis team began offering tuition-only scholarships in 1975 and gave its first full ride to Kathy Jordan ‘81 before the 1977-78 title-winning season. The Cardinals couldn’t have done it without Jordan, who played No. 1 singles as a freshman and was the team’s only top-four player to win her singles match in the AIAW Final.
“That’s one reason why Stanford women’s sports are so strong, because of the commitment at the beginning,” Gould said. “They didn’t mess around, they said, ‘We’re going to do this, we’re going to do it right, we’re going to get behind it 100 percent.’ And they did.”
It was only fitting that Stanford’s evolution first paid dividends in tennis. Just five years before, Billy Jean King’s paradigm-changing win in a tennis match against Bobby Riggs, dubbed the “Battle of the Sexes,” had highlighted the viability of women’s sports on a national stage, and the Women’s Tennis Association was thriving a quarter of a century before equivalent basketball and soccer leagues would be founded.
“Tennis was at the forefront of women’s sports,” Forood said, “in equality and prize money and all those kinds of things.”
Yet at the collegiate level, it still took time to accumulate the financial aid that women’s athletes receive today. Rubin was offered only a half scholarship her first two years; Hertel, the team’s third freshman in 1977-78, received no financial aid at all.
The very same year that Rubin and Hertel clinched the school’s first women’s national title, a group of fans founded the Cardinal Club, a fundraising organization that intended to build a stronger foundation for future women’s scholarships. They were met with many of the same fears that critics of Title IX emphasize to this day.
“When we first started, there was concern that we were going to be siphoning off support that had been just for men’s athletics and that donors might not support both programs,” said Linda Meier ‘61, one of the Cardinal Club’s founders. “It has [proven] to be quite the contrary. Support for women’s athletics actually enhanced the entire athletic program at Stanford, and so it has really been nothing but an incredible asset.”
Stanford’s dedication to financial aid for women’s players gave it an early leg up over rival schools. Frank Brennan, who took over for Gould after the 1979 season, coached 40 All-Americans during the 1980s alone, sending out an entire lineup’s worth of honorees in both 1984 and 1988. His teams would secure six national titles during that decade and 10 in total during his 21 years on the Farm.
“When you look at our history and you look at where we are today, certainly we were the innovators,” said current athletics director Bernard Muir. “We said, ‘You know what, this is an area where we can really excel and excel quickly.’ And if you look at our history and our broad-based participation, it has really paid off, and that tradition of excellence helps us in recruiting circles.”
As Stanford began attracting higher-caliber female athletes, its success called for more professionally run programs. A second women’s tennis coach was hired in the mid-’80s, Forood says, and the team’s schedule began to resemble its current 25-match format.
Similar changes began to pay dividends for other teams as well. The women’s swimming team, which had captured Stanford’s only other AIAW title in 1979-80, won a pair of NCAA championships in the ‘80s, the women’s volleyball team established itself as a contender by reaching six Final Fours during that same stretch and Cardinal basketball showed flashes of its later dominance by winning its first conference title at the end of the decade.
And in 1987, more than a decade after Stanford’s two athletic departments were combined, the integration of male and female athletes became complete when the Cardinal Club joined with its longstanding men’s counterpart, the Buck Club, to form the Buck Cardinal Club.
“It was hard [before that] because there were two entities that raised money for scholarships, but once they did it, I think the donors really embraced it,” Gould said. “And so the support, even outside the athletic department, fans and alums and donors, has been tremendous for women’s sports as well.”
With that support, Stanford has gone from offering no women’s tennis scholarships to funding eight, from competing in nine matches in a season to participating in 23, from having no women’s national titles to its name to capturing 53 of them — all in 35 years.
“That’s the beauty of this place, that we can celebrate a variety of opportunities for kids to compete at the highest level,” Muir added. “And other programs, sometimes just based on the resources they have or the focus that they intend, don’t offer the broad-based programming like a Stanford does.”
It’s hard to get Muir to talk — or even boast — specifically about Cardinal women’s sports. For one of the first combined athletic departments in the nation, male and female athletes aren’t seen as different. They’re just athletes.
But even at an institution that prides itself on “excellence across the board,” as Muir puts it, it’s hard to ignore the strides made by Stanford women’s athletes over the years — and what they continue to accomplish here on a regular basis.
That’s what The Daily will explore over the next two weeks, starting with this piece, the first of a six-part feature series on Stanford women’s sports.
On Wednesday, Jana Persky explores the varying levels of support from which Stanford women’s teams benefit. Long-time fans and current athletes and coaches answer the burning question: Why do women’s basketball and soccer games often draw crowds larger than their men’s counterparts, while other teams, like tennis and softball, struggle to attract the same following?
This Friday, Ashley Westhem profiles the face of Stanford women’s athletics, Tara VanDerveer, who coached her 26th consecutive NCAA Tournament team this season. The recent Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee talks about living through the shift in women’s athletics and the culture at Stanford.
To kick off next week, Sam Fisher explains why the Farm is such a great feeder for women’s professional and Olympic teams. He’ll tell the stories of current WNBA players Nneka Ogwumike ‘12 and Jeanette Pohlen ‘11, former Stanford volleyball players who are still competing professionally abroad, and talk to current Stanford water polo players who won the gold medal at the 2012 Olympics with Team USA.
Next Wednesday, Renee Donovan takes you inside the life of a female athlete at Stanford, junior swimmer Andie Taylor. Taylor says she “loves chocolate milk, often smells like chlorine and wakes up before most CS majors finish coding from the night before.”
To conclude the series next Friday, Tom Taylor looks ahead, asking how women’s sports will change in the future and what part Stanford, ever the innovator, will play in those changes. He hears from two former Cardinal athletes who grew up in the era of Title IX: Kerri Walsh ‘00, a three-time Olympic gold medalist and perhaps the greatest beach volleyball player the sport has ever seen, and Julie Foudy ‘93, a member of the historic 1999 World Cup Champion U.S. women’s soccer team and a three-time Olympic medalist herself.
Contact Joseph Beyda at jbeyda “at” stanford.edu.