Statues honor pioneers in women’s athletics

Statues honor pioneers in women’s athletics
Statues honor pioneers in women’s athletics | Statues honor pioneers in women’s athletics
A homecoming dedication quickly developed a pep-rally atmosphere as the University of Tennessee at Martin honored three women instrumental in the history of women’s athletics Saturday.
Lady Vols Coach Emeritus Pat Summitt, former UT Martin Women’s Athletics Director Bettye Giles and the late Nadine Gearin, Summitt’s UT Martin basketball coach, were honored with the unveiling of “Coaches,” a statue display at the entrance to the university’s Kathleen and Tom Elam Center. 
A large homecoming crowd, many clad in orange, gathered on this clear autumn morning to honor three women who helped to redefine college women’s athletics. UT President Joe DiPietro, UT President Emeritus Joe Johnson, UT Martin Chancellor Tom Rakes and members of Chi Omega, Summitt’s college sorority, joined in the celebration. Hazel Head, Summitt’s mother, and other family members also attended. 
University officials be-gan discussions several years ago to decide how to honor Title IX, the federal civil rights law enacted in 1972 and best known for breaking down barriers for female participation in athletics. The statues idea was presented to the administration and approved based on a private-funding model.
On July 10, 2010, the university commissioned Lugar Foundry of Eads to sculpt the three bronze figures in loose likenesses of Summitt, Giles and Gearin. More than $130,000 has been raised to date to cover the expense of the statues. Remaining funds will be placed in the Giles-Gearin Scholarship Endowment that benefits UT Martin women’s athletics. Richard and Melba Jackson, of Columbia, S.C., and Bill Blankenship, of Sandestin, Fla., provided leadership gifts to the project. The Jacksons are Summitt’s close friends and supporters, while Bill and his late wife, Roberta, first met Giles during their days as UT Martin students and maintained a lifelong friendship with the couple’s former tennis coach.
Summitt, a Cheatham County native, earned 1,098 career coaching wins, more than any Division I basketball head coach, men’s or women’s. As a coach, she also achieved eight NCAA Division I women’s basketball championships and 16 SEC regular-season and 16 SEC Tournament championships. Most recently, she was a 2012 Presidential Medal of Freedom honoree, the country’s highest civilian award. She was named coach emeritus of the UT Lady Vols basketball program in April 2012 after being diagnosed the previous year with early onset dementia.
Gearin, a Weakley County native, led efforts to develop UT Martin’s women’s basketball program. She coached the Lady Pacers from 1969-74, taking her 1971 team to the first national basketball tournament of the Division for Girls’ and Women’s Sports. One of her brightest basketball players was Pat Head, who first rose to national fame in 1973 by qualifying for the USA World University Games team.
Giles, of Clarksville, was director of UT Martin women’s athletics from 1969-94. She served as the university’s cheerleading sponsor from 1952-73 and started the women’s tennis program in 1952, a team she coached for eight years. Summitt, Gearin and Giles are all UT Martin Athletics Hall of Fame members.
Tom Rakes welcomed the crowd and reviewed recent successes in the UT Martin women’s athletics program, connecting the honorees’ lifetime contributions to that success. “These statues represent an ongoing relationship between faculty and students, a tradition for this campus, our students and our faculty,” he said.
“Women’s athletics is very, very important across our whole University of Tennessee System,” added Joe DiPietro, noting the scholarship and academic opportunities provided through women’s athletics. “This year marks the 40th anniversary of Title IX, and today’s students and female athletes are the beneficiaries of the hard work and frustration of many people who struggled for gender equity.”
DiPietro drew laughter and applause when he told the audience about he and his wife, Deb, becoming Lady Vols fans when they moved to Tennessee six years ago. He said that he had watched Coach Summitt on television, “But the first time I ever saw ‘the stare’ live, I turned to Deb and said, ‘Man, I wished I had that when we were raising kids.’”
Charley Deal, UT Martin assistant vice chancellor for alumni relations and event emcee, then read inscriptions that appear on each statue and called project donors and supporters forward as each figure was unveiled. Summitt and Giles offered brief comments and appreciation after the unveilings.
“What a great day,” Summitt said, drawing applause from the crowd. She added, “I think it was truly one of the best things that ever happened to me to go to UT Martin, because the people here were so real and just so committed.”
Giles followed Summitt and offered appreciation all around. “I thank the university for supporting this venture and allowing it, “ she said. “And I certainly thank you folks for making it happen, and that’s what you did.” She also acknowledged Nadine Gearin, remembering “Nadine had a constant grin,” and Giles said she could sense that grin happening on this special day.
As she closed her comments, Giles referenced the statues and quipped, “… Nadine Gearin and Pat Summitt and Bettye Giles are going to be right here. Come and visit us.” Her invitation assures that future generations of fans entering the Elam Center can acknowledge three women who helped to pave the way for today’s female college athletes. Published in The Messenger 10.8.12

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