An itinerant typist last week turned up on a radio talk show in Raleigh, N.C. A caller wanted to know what the typist though of the University of Maryland basketball team. "The women's team," the caller said "We're interested down here because they're playing State pretty soon." As so often happens, the typist knew nothing. We correct that today.
Maryland's women are undefeated in 11 games and ranked eighth in the country in a weekly poll of 40 coaches. Tonight they do in fact play a Raleigh, taking on North Carolina State, the nation's second-ranked team. In the emerging world of women's athletics, this is a Big Game.
"I suppose it is," said Chris Weller, the Maryland coach. "Everybody's telling me it is. But I'm not nervous now." This was yesterday morning, a few hours before Maryland made the five-hour bus ride to Carolina. "I was much more nervous two weeks ago."
Then like all coaches, Weller tried to say it wasn't really a big game. It was important, sure, but it wasn't life and death. Whatever happens, she said. it'll be good for the team. No big deal, right?
Making small talk. Weller said her team would return home immediately after the game. "The girls are going to be so keyed up they couldn't sleep anyway. If they win, they'll be all excited, and if they lose. they'll be too depressed to sleep. So we'll drive right home."
Here Weller laughed.
"Listen to me. I'm telling you it's no big game. Then I'm telling you the girls won't be able to sleep afterward."
They're expecting more than 7,000 customers in Raleigh tonight for the Maryland-State game, about twice as many people as ever came to College park to see Weller's women. While more than 14,000 did see Maryland against UCLA, they were simply in the seats early for the Maryland-Duke men's game to follow. "But the fans were going wild in the last few minutes of the women's game," said Joe Blair, a Maryland publicist. The women rallied to beat UCLA, 92-88.
Back in the Dark Ages of women's athletics, which was all of a dozen years ago, Chris Weller played basketball for Maryland in Preinkert Fieldhouse. No stately pleasure dome, Preinkert "may be the oldest building on campus," Weller said. It is a small place, to, maybe 40 by 60 feet.
And how many people came to watch Maryland play in the Dark Ages of the mid-1960s?
"We had standing-room-only crowds," Weller said, eyes atwinkle.
And how many people was that?
"Oh, 25 or so," the coach said.
These are exciting times for women's athletics. National legislation has forced colleges to support the women's team. They've played basketball in Madison Square Garden, on national television, in front of 15,000 people. Newspapers and television are reporting the names and accomplishments of women athletics who, like Chris Weller, once played out of sight. Doomsayers see in the rise of women's athletics an inevitable corruption of innocence (it happened to the men, didn't it?), but the cost is small next to the rewards.
Listen to Weller. The Maryland women's basket-ball program, she said, is here "to give women the chance to compete in a program of excellence, to give them the right to challenge themselves. Beyond that, we can provide this area with a model of excellence. People in this area don't realize the interest women have in athletics - the interest and th abilities."
Some people say the Maryland women are getting ink and air time only because the Maryland men's basketball team is doing its impression of choas. The women are undefeated and ranked in the top 10 while the men are 11-6 and rank. Weller is happy with progress out of the Dark Ages, but she's not confident this is the Renaissance.
"I just hope the interest doesn't come down if we lose a game or two, and we'd be back to where we were," she said.
Not likely. As more girls are encouraged to be athletes (and that encouragement comes more often in more ways - "Charlie's Angels" played football on the tube the other night), women's athletics will grow in stature and importance. It is no accident that the girls' state high school basketball tournament in Iowa draws more paying customers than the boys.
Besides, Weller has the start of a solid program at Maryland. This is her third season as head coach. Her first two teams went 20-4 and 17-6. For seven years the coach at Kennedy High School in Silver Spring, she joined the Maryland staff as a graduate assistant four years ago. When the old coach left, Weller took over. "We were 20-4 and they asked me to stay," she said, explaining her tenure in terms a Lefty Driesell could appreciate.
This year's team is a running, shooting outfit, averaging 91.7 points a game while giving up only 64-20 Maryland has won games by margins of 31, 39, 55, 56 and 70 points. What's more remarkable than those numbers is the way they've been run up; Maryland's leading scorer averages only 13.6 points, all five starters are in double figures and no fewer than nine players are averaging over six points a game.
It hasn't been easy. Consider the recruitment of Kris Kirchner, a 6-foot-3 freshman center who is leading the team in rebounding. She played at New Providence, N.J. A Digger Phelps, recruiting, would fly in, rent a car, take the kid to dinner, tell the parents what a grand place South Bend is and then fly back home.
Weller drives, pays for her gas and can't talk to the prospect or the parents at the game site. Those are the current women's recruiting rules. "I called directory assistance for a "Kirchner' after I got home and talked to Kris that way," Weller said.
Still, Weller has put together a team of good shooters (51 percent this season) with good height (a front line of 6-3, 6-1 and 5-10) that has a chance to reach the women's national tournament (16 teams qualify) for the first time.
And how much money has the recruiting cost Weller?
"It's too depressing to think about," she said.
Better times are coming. The recruiting rules have been liberalized for next season. Schools can pay for a coach's recruiting trips. The Dark Ages are gone.