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Title IX 40 for 40: Chris Wielgus

Entering her 28th year as head coach of the Dartmouth women's basketball team, Chris Wielgus has won 12 Ivy League championships and earned seven NCAA Tournament appearances. Wielgus has led the Big Green to four of the last eight Ivy League Championships (2005, 2006, 2008 and 2009) and five straight postseason appearances from 2005-09.

What impact has Title IX had on you/college athletics?  
Coach Wielgus: Title IX and I grew up together. We did not meet until after I graduated from College in 1974. I was part of the first generation to encounter Title IX. My generation had no idea where we were going. We had no road map and no compass. But we knew we had to get moving. So we plunged ahead taking one step at a time, but never sure we were doing things correctly. Our journey took place on our campuses and not across the nation.  

The road was very bumpy and full of emotion as societal roles were re-defined. The law was clear, but the resistance to change on a daily basis was great. The cavern that existed between the men’s sports and women’s sports in the early days of Title IX was enormous. Change did not come easily on either side of that cavern. It took years and generations to bridge that gap.  

My Title IX journey has landed me in a beautiful corner office opposite a gym with 17 Ivy League Titles. When I look back on Title IX, I see inevitability. Of course women should compete and of course they should have equal playing time, practice time, uniforms, travel per diem, etc. The reality is that in the early days of Title IX none of these things were certain. We did not know that women’s athletics would explode. We did not know if our teams would survive. We just tried to keep moving and hopefully that movement was forward.

Who was an influential woman to you and why?
Coach Wielgus: Without a doubt the most influential person to me in regards to Title IX, women’s athletics and me was Louise O’Neal. Louise was a pioneer who came to Dartmouth just in the nick of time. She had a wealth of knowledge about athletics and coaching when few women did. She was a remarkably accomplished and respected coach, but she lived in an era when no one knew about her except the small circle of women in pre-Title IX athletic world.

To those of us in that small world she was a giant. She successfully coached at Southern Connecticut and Yale. Her teams played in 14 national championships tournaments; she was President of the EAIAW (pre-NCAA women’s governing body), Chair of Division I Basketball championships, Chair of the Olympic selection committee and an assistant AD at Yale.

And luck would have it she came to Dartmouth as assistant AD. She led the college through the murky waters of the early Title IX era.  She had a vision of where women’s athletics should go and the skill to get us there. She was steadfast and determined in her effort to be fair. She set a tone and a standard for athletics with the central piece being the students.  

Along the way she mentored me as a young coach. She taught me about the game and I mean, game specifics, such as the secrets of her 1-3-1 zone defense. She was very clear on how to handle student-athletes. And she included me on many of her various administrative adventures. For example, she brought me to a meeting with the NCAA on the importance of having the Ivy League represented in their national tournament. No one in the NCAA listened to her, but that argument for the League was merely a beginning for her and eventually we got to the NCAA tournament.  

She never let up when faced with “no.” She was relentless in pursuit for women’s athletics.  She fought our battles, so we could coach. Her impact on women’s athletics at Dartmouth was felt for generations. One of the interesting things about Louise and women like her is that they had so much influence over what happened, but never received any credit for their accomplishments.  Perhaps that is an element of the nature of change.

Title IX opened the door for women’s athletics and Louise O’Neal threw that door wide open for generations that followed her.

What is the biggest challenge to women sports and why?
Coach Wielgus: The biggest challenge for women’s Division I sports is not to become men’s Division I sports. Women’s athletics are fortunate to have men’s sports as an existing template.   Men’s sports went first. They have blazed an amazing trail though our society and have embedded themselves in the fabric of our lives. There is so much to be learned from them both positive and negative

Along with all of their accomplishments men’s athletics have created a lot of problems. Blatant commercialism, student-athletes who are just athletes, corruption, greed and loss of the educational mission of college athletics are just a few of these problem areas.

Women’s athletics must keep integrity at the forefront of our existence. At all costs we must work hard to avoid the pitfalls that have befallen men’s college athletics.

How did Title IX change the perception of women in athletics?
Coach Wielgus: There was no real perception of women as serious athletes before Title IX. We were “tomboys” who liked to play games and not really compete as athletes. It was all about "playing and burning calories." We were considered active girls.

After Title IX took hold we became competitive women who did not back down. We were out of vans and on buses. We worked as hard and as long as our male counterparts. We played in front of admiring crowds and we managed to get some coverage on the sports pages of some newspapers.

As a result of Title IX, we were no longer an afterthought, but a given. Now girls expect to be able to compete on every level. Athletic girls and women are the norm and not the exception.