"That top 20 in the country, I'll tell you something about them," American University's girls' basketball coach Bessie Stockard said recently of the national basketball rankings. "Next year, I'll challenge anybody in the top 20 who wants play us."
Mighty words coming from a coach at AU, a school which is not known as a national power in any sport. Only with Bessie Stockard talking, you almost have to believe her. For it was Stockard who started a basketball program at Federal City College (now incorporated into University of the Distict of Columbia) in 1968-69, had her squad winning 19 of 20 games in its second season and qualifying for the national championship tournament in the 1974-75 campaign.
That's also where the controversy, which seems to follow Stockard, started. After taking her 1974-75 team to a 26-6 record, including a 14-point triumph over powerful Immaculata College, and a 72-70 overtime loss to eventual national champion Delta State (28-0) in the first round of the antionals. Stockard was relieved of her duties at FCC.
The ax was lowered by newly installed athletic director Oliver Thompson in March, 1976. Only a month earlier, the Metropolitant Intercollegiate Sports Association for Women censured FCC for its failure to show up for five scheduled games. Stockard blamed Thompson for not notifying opponents he had removed from the scheduled upon taking over his new job.
Stockard, who said she was never given a reason for her firing, signed on with American seven months later and led the Eagles to a 9-4 mark during her first season. This season, her young squad has won nine of their first 10 contests.
"I' am a little bit surprised," said Stockard, who has only two seniors, four sophomores and five freshman on her team. "I know I have the players, but they've really been picking up the game. These girls are students of the game."
One of the freshmen is Alice Butler, a highly-sought recruit from DuVal High School in Lanham, Md., who has scored 26.6 points per game this season and is being touted by Stockard for All-American consideration.
Butler said she chose AU because Stockard's running style of basketball reminded her of her high school coach Sandy Sprinkel. "It (AU) was close to home and I liked the program., Those were the two reasons," said Butler, a 5-foot-9 center-forward. "And I liked the coach, her style of coaching. She's very disciplined."
While Stockard, still a physical education instructor at UDC, is only a part-time employee at AU, she says she doesn't let her status there prevent her form getting the job done to her satisfaction.
"It's a job to me. If I was coaching on the high school or elementary level, it would be the same. My goal is to have the best team with the best record," said Stockard, who aslo coached cheeleading and varsity volleyball, as well as leading the tennis and softball clubs at FCC. "To me its' full-time job - you may say it's full time job, part time job, a part way job - but I consider it a full time job. I don't weigh a job for minutes or hours, for if that was the case, I would feel I wouldn't ever get paid."
Some say Stockard has been successful because she requires the same devotion from her players that she contributes herself.
"Interest and then dedication. If you have young ladies who are interested in what they are doing and dedicated enough to want to work to become an outstanding player, you almost don't have to worry. The program operates itself," she said.
She also said she was pleased with the cooperation she has received at AU. "They haven't given me everything, but for a start, it's been fine. I can't ask anything more from this school as far as being cordial and warm."
Stockard said her most urgent need is a coaching staff to help with recruiting and game preparations.
Still, controversy manages to follow Stockard. Last week, Lynn Goerge, director of women's athletics at George Washington University, complained in a press release that a recruiting violation for which AU had been penalized last year, had never been made public. The penalty does not allow AU to compete in post season tournaments this year and has cut their current number of scholarships from 12 to 11.
The incident involved a transfer student last year, who received aid while playing on the team, said Ray Murphy, assistant to the athletic director at AU. According to the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women regulations, transfer students may play but may not receive aid in their first year at a new school. The AIAW is the governing body for women's college sports.
Murphy said the snafu happened because the AU staff processing the application were unfamiliar with AIAW rules. He said the university reported its mistake as soon as it was realized.
"It's not that controversy follows me," said Stockard of the incident. "There's always going to be controversy around winning teams."