When the Winthrop Eagles make history Saturday with their first appearance in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C, there will be three people watching the game with a history matched by few.
All three are fans of the Eagles. They are Winthrop alumni, and all three were part of the planning and implementation of women’s athletics at Winthrop.
Polly Ford, Bert Bobb and Mickey Taylor have seen women’s athletics program evolve from intramurals to what it is today.
Winthrop coach Kevin Cook’s Eagles, Big South Conference tournament champions, are the No. 15 seed in the Lincoln, Neb., region of the NCAA tournament. Duke’s Blue Devils of the ACC are the No. 2 seed.
The 11 a.m. game will be televised on ESPN2.
Such national attention for Winthrop’s women’s basketball program was just a dream when it was formed in 1969. Under the guidance of Ford and the late Mary Roland Griffin, Winthrop began to play intercollegiate athletics on a nonscholarship basis in 1972-73.
“The women’s athletic program came under the Department of Physical Education at that time,” said Ford, who taught at Winthrop for 32 years. “We had to find the money to fund the programs from our budget, because the students wanted it.”
Ford was the chairman of the physical education department when the programs began.
“It was not always easy, but we felt it was important,” said Ford. “We wanted a program, and we wanted it to be a good one. We operated on a shoestring budget, and we all made some sacrifices, but always found a way.”
Griffin was the school’s first athletics director and wore many hats. Besides being a full-time professor of physical education, she scheduled all of the games in every sport, coordinated with the officials, served on national athletic committees, and coached the team for three years to impressive records.
Her 1973-74 team went 20-6 and was led by senior guard Judy Wilkins – now Judy Rose, who today is the athletics director at UNC Charlotte.
Bobb, who served at Winthrop for 30 years, came to what was then Winthrop College the following year and coached the team to an 18-6 mark.
“One of the reasons I came to Winthrop was to coach women’s basketball,” said Bobb. “I had coached at other schools, both big and small, but Winthrop seemed like the right fit.”
Coaching and building programs in those days took a lot of sacrifice, because the coach did everything, she said.
“I drove my car to some games,” said Bobb. “We did not have a trainer, but we had a student manager. We had to do everything. When we finally got uniforms, we had to share them with the volleyball team.”
Despite the fact that no scholarships were available, Winthrop had no trouble fielding a team.
“Our physical eduation program has always been outstanding, and that gave us a lot of talented players,” said Bobb. “We were blessed with some outstanding athletes.”
Taylor, who taught at Winthrop for 35 years, remembers those formative years well.
“All of us supported the teams with our presence at the games,” said Taylor. “We taught many of the girls who were competing, and we wanted to show our support.
“As the programs have grown, we have continued to show our support, because the women’s programs had no appreciation like the men’s program do.”
The four colleagues have rarely missed a Winthrop home game in women’s basketball. They even planned trips to away games and tournaments.
“We enjoyed going to watch the teams play over the years,” said Taylor. “It was more than just watching basketball. It was watching our program grow and excel.”
Going to the games was never planned. It just evolved over the years into something they enjoyed.
“We all felt like we were part of it,” said Bobb. “Two of us were former coaches, and all four of us enjoyed the games.”
The trips to away games and tournaments became more than just basketball.
“We enjoyed the games, but we went shopping and out to dinner together,” said Taylor. “We all taught together for years, and we are good friends.”
Winthrop has competed in many tournaments in the past. The Winthrop Invitational, which began in Peabody Gym and grew over the years to a 16-team field, attracted some of big teams from around the South. Winthrop also competed in the National AIAW Tournament.
Winthrop’s NCAA tournament debut Saturday against the Duke Blue Devils is a source of pride for the founders of the program.
“It has been a long road to get to this,” said Ford. “It has been fun watching the program grow.”
But Ford, Bobb and Taylor agree there is room to grow even more.
“We aren’t there yet,” said Bobb. “It has been a long time getting to this point. We are here now, and I can see us getting even better.”
All three say the late Mary Roland Griffin, though deceased, will be watching the Winthrop-Duke game with great pride.
“Dr. Griffin would be very proud of what the program has become,” said Taylor. “She helped start it. We have come from a small begining to this. We are all so proud.”
Sam Copeland • 803-329-4056