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Winthrop loses a pioneer with Griffin's death

A pioneer of women's collegiate sports. A beloved professor, colleague and coach, with an unparalleled commitment to excellence and winning.

That's how those who knew Mary Roland Griffin remember the former Winthrop University student, athlete, coach, professor, athletics director and fierce advocate for women's intercollegiate sports.

Griffin died Monday morning from cancer, leaving behind a legacy of a life committed to Winthrop and to women's athletics. She was 81.

"Griffin was ahead of her time in many ways," said Winthrop President Anthony DiGiorgio. "Not only was she in the vanguard of educators who realized that the scholarship opportunities and many skills learned by student-athletes were just as useful and meaningful to women as men, she also raised awareness of the importance of physical education for each generation.

"Her dedication to Winthrop continued into her retirement, and she will be sorely missed."

A graduate of the class of 1950, Griffin:

Played field hockey, basketball and softball as a student.

Was president of the Winthrop Athletic Association.

Was named as one of the 12 most influential members of her senior class.

After teaching in public schools and earning her master's and doctoral degrees at Louisiana State University, Griffin joined the Winthrop faculty in 1966.

During her tenure as the women's basketball coach in 1971-74, she racked up a 50-18 record that still stands as the school record for the program's highest winning percentage, athletics director Tom Hickman said.

In 1976, she became the university's first athletics director and helped bring men's sports to the previously all-female college, he said.

Griffin also was "of the generation of women who fought so hard to get intercollegiate sports for women" in a pre-Title IX era, said Stevie Chepko, professor and chair of the Physical Education, Sport and Human Performance Department.

Title IX is a 1972 federal law that mandates gender equity in educational programs that receive federal funding.

As a pioneer supporter for women's intercollegiate athletics, Griffin's advocacy and participation in state and national sports organizations earned her numerous awards and recognitions.

Throughout her career, Griffin "got to see her vision for women's intercollegiate sports blossom and grow," Chepko said. "That's a legacy that she valued."

Until she retired in 1994, Griffin was a highly desired professor and beloved by all, her peers and students said.

"She was the iron fist in the velvet glove," Chepko said. "She set high expectations for students, and expected them to meet them.

"She was the epitome of Southern graciousness, but ... anyone who played basketball with her knew how fiercely competitive she was."

Cindy Elder, volleyball coach at Rock Hill High School, signed up for as many classes as she could with Griffin, who continued to support Elder by calling or sending cards.

"She would entertain you with her lectures and then give you an exam that would blow your socks off," Elder said. "She always had a way of letting you know you were in her thoughts."

Even as she battled cancer, Griffin kept a smile on her face and a good sense of humor, her friends say.

During a visit Saturday with Griffin, Chepko brought her the news that the University of Connecticut women's basketball team's record 90-game winning streak had been broken by Stanford University - a team coached by a woman.

"She said it was the best news she'd had in weeks," Chepko said, "and then she gave me a little fist bump."

Services scheduled

A graveside service for Mary Roland Griffin is tentatively scheduled for 2p.m. Thursday at Mount Hope Cemetery in Florence. Belk-King Funeral Home in Darlington is handling arrangements.

A celebration of life service will be held at 3:30 p.m. Jan. 21 at the West Center at Winthrop University. It will be followed immediately by the dedication of the Mary Roland Griffin Human Performance Lab, also at the West Center.