50 years ago, band of UGA women became hoops trailblazers

In a dorm room at the University of Georgia in 1969, a group of women spent a day attaching iron-on white numbers to a set of T-shirts. There were no funds available for basketball uniforms for these women, so Rachel Benator and some members of a women’s basketball team took matters into their own hands.

They went to the university bookstore and picked out matching T-shirts for all 13 members of their team. The shirts were red with the word “Georgia” located in the top left corner. To make them into jerseys the players could wear during games, Benator and her group prepared the shirts and bonded as a team.

Fifty years ago, the opportunities for women to play organized sports at Georgia were almost non-existent. These players were trailblazers for women’s basketball at UGA, setting in motion events that led to a team that won a national championship.

Under coach Andy Landers, the Lady Bulldogs won the National Women’s Invitational Tournament championship in 1980-81 and made an appearance in the NCAA Final Four two seasons later. The Lady Bulldogs’ legacy includes five Final Four appearances, numerous All-Americans and four Hall of Fame members, including Landers himself.

The women who ironed on their uniform numbers provided the genesis for that success.

“And so they are the ones that created the thought process, and they are the ones that could conceive that Georgia could sponsor, could endorse women in basketball,” Landers said. “They are ones that discovered it.”

When the Lady Bulldogs hosted Florida at Stegeman Coliseum on Feb. 10, the UGA Athletic Association took a moment to look back in history. That 1969 women’s basketball team was recognized for its 50th anniversary of an influential change. In front of a loud home crowd, 11 of the 13 members of the team, and coach Jean Dowell, walked across the court and received a round of applause for their contribution to women’s basketball at Georgia.

“We talk about it all the time, like when you come to Georgia and you put on this uniform, it’s about honoring the people who got it started,” Georgia coach Joni Taylor said. “And I can’t think of a better team to talk about than the 1969 team.”

Different rules for women

The collegiate experience was different for women during the 1960s. Women made up 39 percent of the undergraduate population at Georgia in 1968 and 1969. In 1968 there were 6,920 women enrolled in undergraduate programs.

In the fall of 2018, there were 16,757 women enrolled as undergraduate students, about 57 percent of the total undergraduate population.

In 1969, rules were applied to women that were not applied in the same capacity to men. Women faced dorm curfews and clothing restrictions, for example. Gwen O’Looney, who graduated from UGA in 1969 and went on to serve as mayor of Athens, said that dorm curfews were 11 p.m. during the week and midnight on weekends. If a student stayed out past curfew, there were consequences.

“If you were late, you got in all this trouble. You had to go to the dorm council, you know, all that,” O’Looney said. “And so it was really easier to stay out in the evenings and not go to the dorm late.”

Women during the 1960s also faced a dress code on campus. They were not permitted to wear pants around campus. They either had to wear a skirt or a dress. The women attending physical-education classes were allowed to wear their gym clothes, but had to wear a raincoat to cover up their shorts.

O’Looney and a group of other undergraduate women saw a problem with the rules for women. They formed a committee in conjunction with Louise McBee, the dean of women, to discuss a new set of rules. They also petitioned for rule changes. Their efforts were successful, and new guidelines were established for women. As the late ’60s turned to the early ’70s, women began to see changes not only in the dress code, but also in the accessibility to participation in collegiate sports.

One woman’s persistence

The opportunity to play basketball at Georgia started with Dowell, who was a graduate student at UGA at the time. She previously played a role in starting a women’s basketball team at Western Carolina, where she received her undergraduate degree. When she arrived at UGA for the 1967-68 academic year and saw there was no opportunity for women to play basketball, she took her experience from Western Carolina and went to work.

She spoke with the head of the P.E. department, Clifford Lewis, about creating a team. One day she received a note to come to the dean’s office, where she was informed the women’s P.E. department would sponsor a team, and they wanted Dowell to be the coach.

“They always said women didn’t play because they didn’t really have any interest, but I found right away that it wasn’t the lack of interest, it was the lack of opportunity,” Dowell said.

From there began the process to recruit women to play. Dowell said she put up signs and relied on word of mouth to spread the news about the formation of the team.

“I was just standing in the gym shooting baskets one day, and this lady walks by and she said, ‘How would you like to try out for our basketball team?’” said Gwyned Bius, a member of the team. “I said, ‘Georgia's got a team?’ And she said, ‘Well we are going to start one.’”

Benator who was a freshman in 1969, said that about 50 women showed up for the first tryout. There were several cuts, and each time the women would check to see if their names were on a list for the next tryout.

Dowell trimmed the roster to 13 women. Before they could play, they had to discuss transportation, uniforms and meals. The team members bore the costs, but they were a determined group.

“I think it took ladies that wanted to do something they loved to do, and they were willing to do it at their own expense, if that’s what it was going to take,” said Gail Rogers Johnson, a member of the team. “I never heard anybody complain because they had to buy their own uniforms or pay for meals.”

The team played four games in 1969, each against a team that wasn’t sanctioned by its school’s athletic department. Two came in a tournament at Winthrop College in Rock Hill, S.C., where they lost to Appalachian State and Tennessee. Transportation was not provided for them, so they relied on their older teammates to drive.

“I know that one time it was really, really snowy, and I was driving my little Camaro,” Bius said. “I remember getting stuck on the way back in the ice and snow. I had three of us in there, believe it or not in a Camaro, and it was snowing like crazy, and we got behind a semi truck. He said to get behind him and he would break the ice and snow for us to get home. And we did. We stayed in his path all the way to Athens.”

Fifty years ago, this group of women didn’t play in the Georgia Coliseum, now known as Stegeman Coliseum. They played their two home games in front of small crowds at the women’s P.E. gym, now the marine biology and dance building on campus. They played against North Georgia College, now called the University of North Georgia, and Lander College, now called Lander University, both of which they defeated.

Dowell received her master’s degree that year and left UGA. There was a team the following school year with a different coach, but it wasn’t until the 1973-74 academic year that the athletic department sanctioned women’s basketball. The early teams functioned under the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW), which formed in 1971 as a governing body of women’s intercollegiate athletics. This governing body replaced the Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, which was created in 1967 as a governing body for women’s athletics.

The NCAA began to include women’s basketball under its authority for the 1981-82 season, and UGA competed in the tournament that season, losing in the first round.

New regulations play key role

The turning point for women’s athletics in the United States was the passage of Title IX. The legislation was enacted in 1972 to protect people from discrimination based on gender in education programs or activities that receive federal funding. This policy applies to educational institutions that receive federal assistance, such as the University of Georgia. The AIAW favored the passage of Title IX with its vision to empower the female athlete.

Title IX is enforced for athletics in three parts — participation, scholarships and other benefits — according to the NCAA. The categories require that men and women receive equal opportunities to participate in sports and that athletes receive athletic scholarship money and equal treatment in other areas, such as equipment and supplies, locker rooms and facilities, tutoring and support services.

Congress approved Title IX regulations in 1975 and gave colleges three years to comply. Title IX continued to face backlash as the NCAA challenged the legislation in 1976, and proposed legislation and legal challenges worked to overturn its effect on athletics. All efforts failed, and by 1978 all higher-education institutions had to comply with Title IX, both in educational programs and athletics.

With the integration of Title IX, women’s basketball has existed as a sanctioned sport at Georgia since. The interest from the 1969 team started the talk for inclusion of women’s athletics.

“It’s kind of right time, right place,” Benator said. “The stars aligned at this moment in time that this coach and whoever was in charge of the P.E. department that gave her permission to have a team, they were ready. And she was there to push them to that point and we were there to jump on the bandwagon. And we were doing what we loved, and it’s like of course, no thought about it, of course, this is the right thing to do.”

The celebration of the 1969 team in February not only touched the 11 members of the team and Dowell, but also the current players and Taylor. They attended a Georgia women’s basketball practice and had the opportunity to meet and speak with the current team.

“I was so excited to be in their presence, because we can learn so much from being persistent, is what I told our ladies,” Taylor said. “You’ve got to be persistent in the pursuit of what it is you want to do and you know it’s the right thing, and what better lesson and role model than that 1969 team.”


The members of the 1969 team

Teresa Allen

Rachel Benator

Nancy Pearson Brewster

Gwyned Bius

Margaret Bostick

Sally Slay Chastain

Miriam “Mim” Douthit Clepper

Connie Coleman Ellsworth

Lois Hancock

Pam McNew Haynes

Gail Rogers Johnson

Neena Tennant Knight

Ginger Grimes Willson