(Excerpted from James F. Willis, Southern Arkansas University: The Mulerider School’s Centennial History, 1909-2009, pp. 305-306)
The new campus majority [female students] did not save the women’s swim team from disbandment in 1978. Coach Delwin Ross cited Title IX’s equal rights provision to overcome other AIC coaches’ opposition when he placed the abandoned SAU women swimmers on the men’s team. For the next four years, SAU was the only Arkansas university with a gender-blind swim team, which included Cindy Efferson, Pam Jones, Mary Humphries, Cari Rummel, and Melody Voss. These women did not match their record-setting male teammates. College Swimming Coaches Association of America named butterfly specialist Rob Wood to the all-American Swim Team for his performance in the 1983 NAIA national meet. The best all-around SAU swimmer, the coach’s son, Wayne Ross, was named all-AIC four years in a row. The coed swimmers did, however, gain enough team points in AIC meets to earn their SAU letters just like their male counterparts.
Title IX’s equal rights requirement for women in college sports continued for years to have positive and negative consequences, often the result of unsympathetic male implementation. SAU awarded scholarships for the first time to women athletes in 1977 in basketball and volleyball, but that step undermined the minor sports of swimming and tennis. Title IX also led to the disbandment of women’s sports associations like the Arkansas Women’s Intercollegiate Sports Association (AWISA). Coach Margaret Downing, who had long been a pioneer in AWISA, decided after eighteen years of coaching to retire soon after SAU, like all the state’s universities, ended AWISA membership. Downing would later serve as the School of Education’s dean. After 1982, SAU women’s teams, like the men’s, competed in the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference (AIC).
Volleyball became the most successful women’s sport in the 1980s, for Downing’s successors never matched her record of eight basketball championships. No coach after Downing won a basketball conference title during the remainder of the school’s first century. However, teams in the 1980s featured several champion-caliber athletes, especially, Gail (Sanders) Buffington-Kimbell from Stephens, who averaged more than 21.5 points in 89 games over three years from 1985 to 1988 to achieve a career-setting record of 1,913 points. She became a member of SAU’s Sports Hall of Fame in 2004. After Ginger Hurst became volleyball coach in 1977, she led outstanding players like Shirley Easter, Dolores Watson, Jackie LeDay, Tracy Morgan, and others to three championships during the 1980s. Hurst also coached women’s tennis teams and had several individual champions but won no team title. Hurst was named 1988 AIC Volleyball Coach of the Year and entered the SAU Sports Hall of Fame in 2008. New volleyball coach, Michelle Shoppach, led the team in 1990 to an NAIA District 17 title and to the national tournament in Hawaii.
Women were the stars of the new rodeo team. State senator Wayne Dowd of Texarkana, a ’66 alumnus, and Columbia County’s legislative representative, Leon Hardin, an SAU education professor, urged Dr. Brinson to fund a rodeo team. Worried about the costs, the president reluctantly gave the team “scholarships” in 1981 (at first just expense money for weekend rodeo trips). The president was amazed at the resulting impact. Scores of students came to SAU because it sponsored rodeo. Edman Smith of the agriculture department succeeded Hardin as team sponsor and led the team for most of the 1980s. Rodeo riders competed in nine contests a year in the twelve-state Ozarks Region. SAU rodeo coeds won that regional title ten years in a row. In 1986, SAU rodeo women won the national college rodeo championship at Bozeman, Montana. Three SAU women—Nancy Rae (1984), Sherry Lynn Rosser (1987), and Cathy Dennis (1989)—won the individual national title, National All Around Cowgirl.[ For the women’s track team, see Mens’ Sports.]