Sheryl Swoopes led Texas Tech to the 1993 national title before helping the United States capture gold at the 1996 Olympics. File AP
Sheryl Swoopes led Texas Tech to the 1993 national title before helping the United States capture gold at the 1996 Olympics. File AP

Women's Basketball

How West Texas became the cradle of women’s basketball

By John Henry

Special to the Star-Telegram

March 29, 2017 04:34 PM

UPDATED March 31, 2017 01:09 AM

When Texas Tech returned to Lubbock after the ultimate triumph in Atlanta at the NCAA women’s Final Four in 1993, tens of thousands awaited their arrival at the university’s Jones Stadium.

“When we landed in Lubbock, they put is in limousines,” said Marsha Sharp, then the coach at Texas Tech. “The city was so quiet. And when we turned the corner onto University, you could see the people at the stadium.

“There were 40,000 waiting — and had been waiting for several hours — for us to get there. When I saw all those people, I knew it was life changing. Certainly that was the case.”

They were there to express appreciation for a team that had done the university proud, to be sure, but the throngs also turned out for a far deeper reason.

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To celebrate a culture.

It’s not just anywhere, after all, that they name freeways after the women’s basketball coach.

Before standard-bearer Connecticut — which heads to the Final Four in Dallas this weekend in search of its fifth consecutive title — ever heard of women playing basketball, West Texas had created an ancient empire, whose beginnings were rooted in the president of Wayland Baptist believing that the game could be a vessel to spread the Gospel.

Faith is important in West Texas, and women’s basketball became a close second.

With the possible exception of cotton, crude and cattle, perhaps nothing sprouted out of the soil of the wide expanse of West Texas like women’s basketball.

And it was here, appropriately, that women’s basketball in America changed forever that spring day in 1993 because of a player born and raised less than 40 miles from Lubbock.

Few deny the impact of Sheryl Swoopes’ contribution to the growth of the women’s game and the timing of her arrival.

On the back of Tech’s victory, seen on TV by record numbers, were international competitions in 1994 and 1995 before Swoopes helped lead the U.S. to Olympic gold in 1996 — in Atlanta, of course.

When the creation of the WNBA was announced in 1996, there sat the nation’s women’s basketball queen at the news conference.

“There’s no question with Sheryl’s demeanor and her smile … she became the nation’s sweetheart for women’s basketball,” Sharp said.

And from afar, Fort Worth’s Wanda Edwards, now 82, smiled and smiled, knowing the living history she was witnessing and who was responsible, in her informed opinion.

“She was great … as good as they come,” said Edwards of Swoopes. “She was great. She did so much for college basketball.”

‘Born too early’

Not everyone is cut out for the climes of West Texas or the culture of Southern Baptists in the middle of the 20th century.

In Wanda Edwards’ case, it was West Texas.

The daughter of Texas Wesleyan men’s coach Johnny Edwards, Wanda desperately wanted to play sports in college, especially basketball.

There was really only one place to do it: Wayland Baptist in Plainview, 47 miles north of Lubbock, home of the Hutcherson Flying Queens, who became the first college to offer women scholarships for basketball.

A quarter century before the landmark Title IX (and almost 35 years before the NCAA incorporated women’s basketball in 1982) there was no funding available for women’s athletics — anywhere. Moreover, there existed a prevailing thought that sports weren’t for women.

Colleges that had women’s programs used benefactors of the business community for sponsorship and funding. The business entity, of course, hoped the advertisement, as it was, would increase visibility and thereby its return.

Except Wayland, most, if not all, were not even associated with colleges or universities. Many of the players were hired out of high school by the sponsoring company and worked during the day. Their real job was basketball, however.

After high school graduation in her hometown of Port Arthur, Babe Didrikson took a job as a secretary for the Employers’ Casualty Insurance Company of Dallas. She played as an amateur for the company’s Dallas Golden Cyclones.

Competing in the Amateur Athletic Union were the Arkansas Motor Coaches, Atlanta Tomboys, Hanes Hosiery Girls of North Carolina, Pine-Sol Queens of Jackson, Miss., and the Rocky Mountain Girls.

In Plainview, the Wayland Baptist team became the Hutcheson Flying Queens, named so for Hutcherson Air Service. Hutcherson was owned by a Wayland alum, Claude Hutcherson, and he gave the team something no one had at the time: the capacity to travel by air.

The inspiration for the Flying Queens was inspiration. Wayland’s president thought a women’s basketball team was another opportunity to win converts to Christ. James Marshall envisioned players passing out scripture before games and giving testimony at halftime.

The first coach took it very seriously. Rather than talk strategy, adjustments, or pep, Sam Allen prayed with the team during timeouts, remembered Harley Redin in an article published by Texas Monthly.

Redin eventually took over the program, but only after overcoming the fear of his wife, who he said probably wouldn’t want him hanging around coeds, and the stigma that went along with coaching women’s teams.

“If the truth be known, I wasn’t sure I wanted to coach a bunch of girls,” Redin, now 97, told Texas Monthly in 2013. “They made me a little nervous, with all their emotions and what have you. I was used to Marines.”

It was under Redin that Wanda Edwards, a Polytechnic High School grad, traveled to Plainview in the early 1950s to try out for the Flying Queens.

She said that she initially was selected to the team.

The visiting girls were staying in what Edwards described as an Army barracks. On her last night there, Plainview was greeted with one of West Texas’ notorious dust storms.

“When we woke up the next morning we were covered in an inch of sand,” Edwards remembered. “I decided I didn’t want any more of it.

“My family really couldn’t afford it anyway. And to tell the truth, I was kind of a momma’s baby.”

Passing on the only place to play in college, Edwards instead went to Texas Wesleyan and played for a team put together by the Fort Worth Parks and Recreation Department, which went by the names of the Tandy Motorettes, Tandy Leatherettes, and the Wooten Motorettes.

Edwards did break new ground at Wesleyan by trying out and making the men’s golf team.

“I’m not sure she can beat anybody else who might try for the team,” Rams coach W.O. Bounds told the Star-Telegram at the time, “but I can’t think of anybody who can beat her.”

By passing on the Flying Queens, Edwards missed one of the greatest runs in women’s basketball.

Sixty years before the start of UConn’s 111-game winning streak, the Flying Queens won 131 consecutive games and four straight AAU titles, from 1954-57.

Of the run the New York Times would write that the dominance “began early in the first term of the Eisenhower Administration, remained aloft as McDonald’s golden arches first appeared along with Dear Abby and Frisbees, then fell from orbit two months after Sputnik.”

The Flying Queens ultimately won 10 national titles from 1951-76 and finished in the top four in 24 of those years.

Edwards went on to a teaching and coaching career in the Fort Worth school district that spanned 35 years. Many of those years were spent telling young women that their opportunities in athletics were, like hers, limited.

“I just wanted to be in sports,” Edwards said. “I was very frustrated. Girls couldn’t play anything. Sports was my love.

“I was just born too early.”

A new day

Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in education programs that receive federal assistance, was passed and enacted over the objections of Texas Sen. John Tower and Longhorns football coach Darrell Royal, who, like just about everyone else on campus, didn’t want to disrupt the football program.

Royal eventually came “to be very supportive of the women’s basketball program,” said Jody Conradt, the longtime coach in Austin.

But as Title IX opened up opportunities for women, it spelled the end for Wayland Baptist, which ultimately couldn’t keep up with the competition.

It was Texas that knocked the Queens off the top of the mountain in a changing-of-the-guard victory over Wayland Baptist in 1979.

“They were the UConn of that era,” said Conradt, who left UT Arlington for the top job in Austin in 1976. “In the very beginning. We were going to try to compete against best programs.

Wayland was the real standard in our area. We started to play them on an annual basis and they beat us soundly. When we did beat them it gave us more visibility and credibility.

“It all had to do with resources and opportunity.”

To put it into context, Sharp got her coaching start as a junior at Wayland. She coached the freshman team.

“So many young women wanted to go to school there. There weren’t enough places to play,” Sharp recalled. “There were two spots available and 25 showed up to get those. So, they had a good freshman team.”

Conradt’s 1986 national championship team, led by Clarissa Davis and Andrea Lloyd, was the first to go undefeated as an NCAA program.

“It was a team made up of Texas high school players,” said Conradt, noting only one who was not, Lloyd. “At that point in time no one outside Texas understood the talent pool in our state. The high school sports scene produces fantastic athletes.”

And many now, unlike years past, guided by a coach dedicated to girls basketball.

No longer the assistant football coach who, as Conradt wryly noted, “drew the short stick.”

‘A great teacher’

Leta Andrews’ 50-year coaching career began in her back yard in Granbury.

“Daddy mounted a basketball goal in the chicken pen,” said Andrews, winner of 1,416 games, more than any other high school girls coach. “I became a great rebounder, and you know why. And a good shooter. I wanted to play basketball. It was a passion for me.”

She did get to play, helping Granbury to the state finals in 1954 and 1955. Each time, the Lady Pirates lost to Dimmit, the small town in the Panhandle that in 1953 delivered to Wayland Baptist one of its all-time greats, Lometa Odom.

In addition to winning, Andrews gained a reputation as one of the best teachers of shooting.

“Fundamentally, she was a great teacher,” said Conradt, who recruited Andrews’ daughter, Linda, to her first team at Texas. “So consistent on what she demanded of the players. And if she could have taught everybody to shoot … Linda was a tremendous shooter.”

Andrews admitted that she was initially opposed to girls playing baseline to baseline, a rules changed pushed by Redin, believing it benefited programs already rich in talent. She acknowledged she was wrong.

“People didn’t think the women could run baseline to baseline. I found out from [Redin], women could run baseline to baseline.”

Power in the high school game belonged to the small communities and most of them were in West Texas and the Panhandle.

Canyon has 26 appearances in the state final, winning 18 titles, most recently last month. Three of those championships were won by Bob Schneider, the future coach at West Texas A&M and Gerlich’s predecessor at the school.

Claude has won six titles in the 1970s. Nazareth won seven at one point.

Spearman, under future Wayland coach Dean Weese, won multiple titles.

The list goes on.

The prosperity spread east, to Duncanville in the 1970s.

Sandra Meadows won four titles, Sara Hackerott led the Pantherettes to the title in 1997, and Cathy Self-Morgan, who played for Conradt at Texas, won titles in 2003 and 2012-13.

At one point, the Pantherettes didn’t lose a district game for 16 years, from 1983 to 1999.

The streak was snapped by a new dynasty, Mansfield, which under coach Samantha Morrow won four state titles, led by future Texas Tech star Erin Grant.

Game changer

Unlike Wanda Edwards, Krista Gerlich was born right on time.

As far as basketball genealogy goes, the UT Arlington women’s coach is royal blue blood.

Gerlich’s basketball family tree has all the essential elements of the game’s history, including growing up in the mother country.

Her mother and father, who went on to win two state championships as a high school coach, played for the hall-of-famer Weese at Spearman in the upper reaches of the Texas Panhandle.

Gerlich’s first game was as a two-week old.

Her aunt played for the Wayland Baptist Flying Queens in Plainview, and her college coach, Marsha Sharp, mentored under Redin.

And for such nobility growing up, Thanksgiving was spent at Furr’s cafeteria.

“We went to the Queens Classic every Thanksgiving,” said Gerlich, who played on her father’s state championship team at Sudan in 1987. “Eight high school teams, eight college teams. We always had dinner at Furr’s. That’s just what we did.”

What they do today on the court is even more different than how Gerlich, the starting point guard on Texas Tech’s national-title team, did things. The coaching is even better, the talent even deeper.

She thinks she knows why.

“I do think when we won the national title, Sheryl Swoopes opened the door for women and young girls. On a national scene, people became more aware of it.

“I think young girls, were like, ‘Oh, wow.’ 

And there’s room for more growth simply because of the foundation set so many years ago.

“The history of girls basketball is fascinating,” Conradt said. “Hopefully that history will not be lost. I think its important motivator going forward.

“Today’s young people don’t get the significance. You’re glad they didn’t have to go through the same struggles. If you had a car you made the team because we needed to get to the game.”

John Henry: JFHenry1970@gmail.com, @John_F_Henry

LD Bell's Lexi Gordon signs with UConn

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Women’s

Final Four

Friday

Stanford vs. South Carolina, 6:30 p.m., ESPN2

Mississippi State vs. UConn, 9 p.m., ESPN2

Sunday

Championship, 5 p.m., ESPN