Bessie Stockard is a noisy legend. A former coach of the '76 U.S. Olympics women's basketball team, she rose to prominence in the mid-seventies when she built the Federal City College (now the University of the District of Columbia) women's basketball team from a ragtag group without uniforms to a nationally ranked team. She's been twice fired, has sued for reinstatement, and been rehired. She's been called feisty, bitchy, uppity, arrogant and a marvelous coach. Earlier this week, she was terminated as women's basketball coach at UDC -- for the third time.
And the feelings are fierce: Half the women's basketball team is threatening boycott, a member of the board of trustees is calling for an investigation, some coaches she's worked with are outraged and others who've crossed her path and been bruised are sporting smiles of satisfaction. Nobody is neutral about Stockard.
But if she has trouble keeping jobs, her record in the larger issues of pioneering in women's coaching and competing in intercollegiate sports is an unqualified success. This southern black woman who entered coaching when the ambitions of black women players weren't high on society's agenda had to slice through multiple layers -- the male sports credo, the early bias against women coaches, the persistent chauvinism, especially with an uppity female.
"Given what I have done to begin women's basketball," said Stockard, "I didn't think this would be the way my middle and ending should be. If I am willing to sacrifice my energy and experience to help these young ladies and the university, I should be given the opportunity. If I am good enough to be assistant coach of the Olympics, I am able to coach some young ladies at UDC."
John Britton, a spokesman for UDC, refused to discuss details, explaining, "The university had the option to renew or not to renew her contract. We chose not to renew, which is within our rights."
In some ways, Bessie Stockard seems to be an example of the new woman in the old dilemma. To be a winner, she needed to be forceful and outspoken, but her gall, mistakes and strong-willed personality made her a boat rocker in a traditionally conservative institution.
She was first fired in March 1976; then athletic director Oliver Thompson said her "personality transcended the institution." She then coached at American University for two years and was dismissed over conflicts about not holding a required faculty teaching position at the school -- she was then still teaching at UDC. In 1979 UDC rehired her; then, in a surprise move two years later, the school fired her again in a dispute with then athletic director Orby Moss. Her team had a 21-5 and 19-6 record in those years.
In April 1982 she filed a civil suit in D.C. Superior Court seeking $3.75 million and reinstatement. By October, she was again coaching at UDC -- the courts had cleared the way.
Last April, the university told her it did not intend to renew her contract. According to a letter from Athletic Director Sydney O. Hall, Stockard was using ineligible athletes in games. Stockard called the charges "false and absurd" and filed a grievance against Hall with UDC President Robert L. Green, who supported Hall's allegations. The UDC Faculty Association backed Stockard in the dispute and said she was being "viciously penalized" by not receiving a contract. UDC spokesman Britton declined further comment because the matter is under litigation.
Meanwhile, her departure has divided the campus. "I feel that the reason they want to get rid of her is that she stands for what is right for women athletes," said Diana Bushrod, 22, one of three team members who said they may boycott the team in protest. "If she leaves, I don't know what will happen to women's sports."
Ex-assistant coach McClinton Brown was angered and baffled. "Our last season was very successful. She abided by all the rules. The only thing I can see is it is a personality clash between her and the athletic director." Even the man she replaced when she regained her job in 1982, Windy McGriff, now head coach at Cheyney State College, said, "She's unique. I like her spunk. She's in the Geraldine Ferraro category because she is a fighter for what she believes."
Joseph Webb, an alumni member on the UDC board, has called for an investigation. "Considering the success she has had over the years, I want to know why she is being terminated."
Guess what? Stockard plans (surprise) to fight.