For decades, the university's renowned physical education program lured students to Greensboro from around the world, women who enjoyed physical activity and the idea of sharing the love of movement with others.
Our graduates were in high demand. When we were juniors, someone from Beaver, Pa., contacted Dr. Kate Barrett and said, We're starting an elementary PE program. We want to hire two people and we want to give your kids the first shot because we heard how good you are, remembers Dr. Kathleen Williams '74, who now works as the associate dean for undergraduate studies in the School of Health and Human Sciences. In the '70s the reputation was still that good. People said, We'll take you sight unseen.
The program was rigorous, requiring students to start their major coursework their freshman year. If we had gone another semester, we could have been nurses, says Deborah DJ Jones '75, '81 MAT, '97 EdD, who wrote her master's thesis on the history of women's athletics at UNCG. We had a strong background in human sciences. It wasn't just a curriculum where you were throwing balls.
And the quality of the teachers UNCG produced spurred new generations of Spartans. Williams, who's from the Washington, D.C., area, chose UNCG in part due to the influence of her junior and senior high school PE teachers, both of whom were UNCG graduates.
Faculty taught the gamut of athletic endeavors to their students, from square dancing to archery. I taught hundreds of people to swim, McGee remembers. (Students) learned to play things they'd play for the rest of their lives golf, tennis, badminton. We didn't focus much on team sports because, once you graduated, you didn't have a team to play with, she explains.
The primary focus was on teaching and promoting involvement, not performance. Their role was to produce great teachers, not athletes, Jones explains. That's the first lesson we learned as physical education majors. PE and sport are not the same. PE was for participation; sport was for the audience.
What they didn't teach was competitive fight. The prevailing mindset for most of the 20th century was one rooted in Victorian thinking. Physical exertion and heavy perspiration was frowned upon as unbecoming for ladies. Games that were played against other schools were done so on a very friendly basis, says McGee. We'd sit down afterwards and have cookies and practice our social graces.
Women were expected to display an air of dignity and delicateness, a ladylike image, McGee continues. High level competition was discouraged, but the girls wanted to play. It was just during a time when it was looked at askance.
Who knows how many gifted, female athletes weren't able to fully explore their talents. There were great women who probably would have been professional athletes but it was all about their time in history, says Jones. It was before their time.
But a cultural sea change was about to come, both to the campus and the nation, with the introduction of men into the student body and the passage of Title IX, respectively. More women's sports were added as the university shifted from WC to UNCG, in the 1960s and the campus began to embrace intercollegiate athletics in a way that's more familiar to younger generations.
And women have been successful. UNCG's first national championship was won by the women's golf team in 1973. In the early '80s, the women's basketball and tennis teams were national runner's up in NCAA Division III competition. More recently, the 2010 women's soccer team had the most successful season in school history with a 19-2-1 record. The team was undefeated in Southern Conference play, winning their fifth straight regular-season title and its seventh conference tournament title.
Today's women's athletes can aspire not only to strong intercollegiate competition, but also the possibility of a career as a professional athlete. Golfer Becky Morgan '97 is an LPGA pro. Basketball players Jenny Grimsley '09 and Jasmine Byrd '07 both went on to play professionally in Germany. Kerry Powell Gragg '95 played for the Women's United Soccer Association. One of UNCG's newest coaches, women's basketball coach Wendy Palmer, is an 11-year veteran of the Women's National Basketball Association and also played professional basketball on several international teams.
Their experiences are a far cry from the women who gathered on the flat, grassy campus field more than a century ago. But the passion for the game and a dream of its possibilities that's still alive and well.