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Volume 20 No. 42
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Champions: Judy Sweet, collegiate trailblazer

A steadfast defender of Title IX, she set the standard for women at the highest levels of college athletics

Photo by: STAN LIU
Armed with a graduate degree and backed by a few years of college teaching experience, Judy Sweet packed up her Oldsmobile and left the desert of Arizona for the coast of California during the summer of 1972 in search of a new life.

It was a roll of the dice for the Milwaukee native, who was leaving a teaching job at the University of Arizona and heading to San Diego with no job prospects and few connections. But the day before the school year was to begin, she landed an interview at Kearny High School, located just a few blocks from her newly rented apartment. The principal took one look at the fresh-faced Midwesterner and hired her on the spot — though not for the job advertised.

“I got a call for a long-term substitute teaching position, but when I walked into the principal’s office and introduced myself, he said I was the new modern dance teacher,” Sweet recalled with a laugh.

There was one small problem. Sweet, who had earned her master’s degree in education from Arizona and was a physical education and math major at the University of Wisconsin, had never taught high school, much less modern dance.

“I thought maybe he was talking to someone else in the room,” Sweet said. “But nevertheless, I became the modern dance teacher. It was a good lesson that you can do anything if you have to.”

While Sweet hastily boned up on the particulars of a high school dance class curriculum, she had no inkling that it was the break of a lifetime — and the start of her remarkable career as a true trailblazer for women in sports. It’s a journey that has taken her from her humble high school teaching days to a pioneering career at the University of California, San Diego, over to the conference rooms at the NCAA and in front of Congress. Over the course of her career spanning from the mid-1970s to today, Sweet has developed a reputation as the conscience of college sports through her work as a tireless defender of Title IX and other diversity issues.

What others are saying

“Judy is the conscience of college sports. She has a knack for navigating choppy waters and has always defended Title IX. She always makes us think, ‘Is what we are doing the right thing to do?’”
Carol Stiff, vice president of programming and acquisitions, ESPN

“Judy is like that E.F. Hutton commercial: She won’t overpower a room with conversation, but when she talks, everyone pays attention. You do not want to underestimate how strongly she feels about equal rights for women in sports.”
Celia Slater, co-director, Alliance of Women Coaches

“What made her so effective as a leader was her honesty. People trusted her, and she has a willingness to listen and understand both sides of the issues. She wanted to do what was right for the NCAA.”
Tom Jernstedt, former executive vice president, NCAA

“She is so well-respected by so many different layers of people in the industry. She can engage and motivate very prominent people to help support different causes. She has always been able to reach out and ignite a passion of getting things done.”
Peg Bradley-Doppes, vice chancellor of athletics and recreation, Denver University

“She is a quiet but tremendous leader and has a knack for getting people to work together. Because of her demeanor, she is non-threatening to people who might be threatened by talking about Title IX and equal opportunity.”
Christine Grant, former director of women’s athletics, University of Iowa

“She truly puts the focus on the student who is an athlete. It exists elsewhere, but it is a model she very much believes in and is very comfortable with. From a leadership standpoint, her approach transcended the Division III philosophy. She simply is one of those people whose capabilities make her a leader.”
Wally Renfro, vice president and chief policy officer, NCAA

“She respects various positions but tries to find common ground and build on it. During the years of her NCAA presidency, she appointed a Title IX task force and it made unbelievable progress. It was a manifestation of the changes she made.”
Charlotte West, former associate athletics director, Southern Illinois University

— Compiled by John Lombardo
“Judy is one of a handful of women who took it upon themselves to remind people on a daily basis and at every opportunity that if intercollegiate athletics is valuable because it enhances some life lessons, then that can’t be true just for men, but also for women,” said Wally Renfro, NCAA vice president and chief policy officer. “Equal rights in sports was a big hill to climb when Title IX came in, and she is one of the people who has spent her career making sure that hill got climbed.”

Her style is a blend of unmistakable calm, measure and determination, qualities that have allowed Sweet to put together a career of firsts. She was the first female athletic director to run both the men’s and women’s programs at UC San Diego, where she began her career in 1973, after spending that year teaching dance at Kearny High. Her initial job at the university was as assistant athletic director and supervisor of physical education. Two years later, she was named athletic director.

She was 27 years old, and with the new job, she was too consumed by its immediate challenges to even consider what future successes could be ahead.

In 1975, UC San Diego had a shoestring athletic budget of just $90,000, not to mention gross financial and scheduling inequities between its men’s and women’s sports. The women’s basketball program had a total budget of $1,000 compared with $10,000 for the men’s team. The women’s team played a limited schedule in a local community college league while the men’s team played a full schedule against four-year schools.

“It was quite obvious that needed to change,” Sweet said. “The whole athletic department was grossly underfunded.”

She immediately began to close the gap between the men’s and women’s programs, backed by the federal Title IX legislation that was passed into law in 1972. She shifted more funding to women’s sports, rearranged practice schedules that had always given the men’s programs prime-time access, and convinced her trustees that women’s sports deserved equal funding and support as men’s programs.

Predictably, the decisions didn’t sit well with some of the male coaches long used to having things their way.

“It wasn’t easy,” Sweet said. “Several male coaches whose programs had received a disparate amount of resources and attention didn’t like the fact that I was changing the landscape to make things more gender equal. There were many times when we would disagree when I would suggest we make a decision based on the best interests of all student athletes.”

But Sweet prevailed, quietly but firmly battling against gender discrimination, a fight she had grown familiar with while growing up in Milwaukee.

From the Auburn Opelika Touchdown Club to NACDA, Sweet has been widely recognized for her service to collegiate athletics.
Photos by: STAN LIU (3)
As the youngest of three children in her family, Sweet was a good athlete who held her own in backyard sports against her two older brothers. But she never played high school or college sports — not because she lacked talent, but because she lacked opportunity before the passage of Title IX.

“I have loved sports all of my life, but I never had the opportunity to play on a high school or college team because there weren’t any,” Sweet said. “We had girls’ athletic associations, which amounted to sports days where you had no formal coaching and you’d go mix with girls in other schools and then have punch and cookies. That was all that was available.”

As Sweet began her overhaul of UC San Diego’s athletic department, she also earned her MBA, bolstering her qualifications on the business and administrative side of her job. Despite her steady run of success, she always felt the burden that came with blazing a trail for women athletic administrators.

“I felt a responsibility that I had to be true to my commitment and couldn’t be scared away by individuals who wanted me to fail,” Sweet said. “If I had failed, it would have been very easy for other universities to say, ‘That is why we can’t hire other women.’ I absolutely felt that pressure.”

Her ability to navigate both the financial aspects of college athletics and gender-equity issues soon became clear to the NCAA.

In 1981, a local NCAA council nominated her to serve on the NCAA communications committee. Other appointments followed, and from the early 1980s through the mid-1990s, Sweet served on some 20 NCAA committees and gained a firm grasp on virtually every issue confronting the NCAA.

Her efforts at consensus-building also began being noticed by others.

“I have never seen anyone like Judy who can take a committee and its various points of view and arrive at a consensus,” said Charlotte West, former associate athletics director at Southern Illinois University who worked on various NCAA committees with Sweet.

By the late 1980s, Sweet was chairing key NCAA committees and drawing national attention both inside and outside the NCAA. In 1989, she became the first woman to serve as secretary treasurer for the NCAA, a move that raised eyebrows within the male-dominated NCAA hierarchy.

In addition to her stewardship at the NCAA, Sweet was also a leader in groups for athletic directors and for women administrators.
But Sweet’s biggest — and to some, most unsettling — feat was when she was elected by NCAA delegates as president of the NCAA, becoming the first woman to have that role. With a two-year term (1991-93), she’d be in a position that was largely representative of the membership, given that it was an elected position.

Unlike today’s NCAA structure, in which the president’s title marks the top staff job, in the early 1990s it was the executive director who was at the top of the organization. Dick Schultz held that executive director job during Sweet’s tenure as president. Still, as president, she had tremendous influence and reach within the organization. The president was responsible for presiding over the NCAA annual convention as well as serving as a chair of the powerful NCAA Executive Committee and the NCAA Council.

Equally groundbreaking as her gender was that the newly nominated, reform-minded NCAA president came from a Division III school, the land of no scholarships, no television money and miniscule budgets.

“To a lot of people, it was more startling that a Division III administrator was elected as NCAA president rather than a woman,” Sweet said. “But I always tried to look at what was best for all divisions. Anyone who had an issue with my gender or what division I came from, that was their issue. I did not let it become my issue.”

But the letters and public opinion of protest regarding her role as NCAA president still ring as loudly for Sweet today as they did when she was elected. She cites a 1991 column penned by the late Furman Bisher, former sports editor of the then Atlanta Journal, who reportedly called Sweet’s appointment as NCAA president “pure tokenism. Like having a debutante as head of the National Mule Skinners Assn.”

“There were people who were supportive,” Sweet said, “but it was amazing to me at the number of negative, hateful letters I received.”

A key ally for Sweet was Wilford Bailey, former president of Auburn University who preceded Sweet as NCAA president, and Christine Grant, former athletic director for women’s sports at the University of Iowa.

“I watched, listened and learned in terms of how they handled themselves in difficult situations,” Sweet said.

Sweet stayed focused on her role during those two years. Among her accomplishments was her stalwart ability to address gender-equity issues not just within the NCAA, but also while stressing the balance between student and athlete.

“One of her greatest accomplishments is setting the tone for female leadership in the NCAA, which she did brilliantly,” Grant said. “She is a strong believer in education and sports. But it’s not that she is opposed to bringing in revenue. Every athletic director is concerned with that. But her top priority is the education of the student athlete.”

Sweet’s tenure as UC San Diego athletic director began in 1975 and included 26 NCAA championships and the 1998 Directors’ Cup from NACDA. She stepped down in 1999.
Any doubts that a female administrator from a small college could effectively lead the bureaucratic NCAA were quickly put to rest.

“She was clearly a pioneer,” said Tom Jernstedt, former executive vice president of the NCAA who worked closely with Sweet. “Her overall contributions during some challenging years were extraordinary. She always understood the issues and was sensitive to the political views of all the membership.”

Her leadership over the NCAA membership proved so effective that when her term expired in 1993, she continued to lead key committees, including chair of the NCAA revenue distribution committee, maintaining her low-key but influential approach.

So cool under pressure was Sweet that even congressional committees could not shake her ability to defend Title IX.

“I remember when she was testifying before Congress, and she got cut off and interrupted as they tried to throw her off her game,” said Carol Stiff, vice president of programming and acquisitions for ESPN, who has dealt with Sweet over various television negotiations. “But she stayed very calm and just eloquently spoke as an advocate for change.”

Sweet continued to serve as athletic director at UC San Diego after her term as president of the NCAA expired in 1993, but by 1999, she was ready for a change and resigned her post.

“I just thought I needed to do something different,” Sweet said. “It’s good for organizations to have change at the top and allow for different approaches.”

Her legacy of success and leadership was defined by a combined 26 NCAA national championships won by men’s and women’s teams. The school in 1998 won the coveted Directors’ Cup awarded by the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics, honoring the most successful sports program from each of the three NCAA divisions.

In 2001, Sweet shelved a planned sabbatical and left San Diego to take a job with the NCAA, where she worked as senior vice president for championships and education services.

“It was a great professional opportunity, but the trade-off was that I had to move to Indianapolis,” Sweet said.

It was a drastic change not just in geography from her 25 years spent in Southern California, but also in job description. She was moving from a small-college atmosphere to the bureaucratic NCAA. There, she continued to defend Title IX, which was under attack from the Bush administration. She also ran men’s and women’s championships.

“Institutions were dropping men’s sports in favor of women’s sports, but it was about creating opportunities,” Sweet said. “There were some who felt Title IX was responsible, but they underestimated the number of soccer moms and dads who wanted their daughters to have the same opportunities as their sons.”

Sweet, 64, left the NCAA in 2006 and returned to San Diego, where she now works as co-director of the Alliance of Women Coaches (see related story) and is a gender equity and Title IX consultant to other universities. It’s a continuation of Sweet’s commitment to defending women’s collegiate sports. In so doing, she’s helped thousands of female athletes receive the same rights as male athletes. She also has paved the way for a generation of female sports administrators.

“Judy was and still is vigilant about Title IX,” Renfro said. “She will not tolerate anything that diminishes the impact.”

Nor is Sweet content to stand pat on her trailblazing in collegiate athletics. What matters more to her is that others follow behind her pioneering career.

“Being elected as the first female president of the NCAA was a matter of timing, and I am grateful,” she said. “But the most important thing is not being the last.”

Sweet takes leadership role for next generation of women coaches

Judy Sweet retired from the NCAA in 2006, but that doesn’t mean one of college sports’ most respected executives has stopped trying to have an impact.

Sweet today is co-director of the Alliance of Women Coaches, a venture that keeps Sweet close to her lifelong commitment to promoting and protecting gender rights and Title IX issues.
The alliance, which she helped launch last May, is an outgrowth of the NCAA Women Coaches Academy and is designed to boost the role of women coaches beyond X’s and O’s by developing management, communication and motivational skills. It also fosters networking and mentoring opportunities for its members.

“We have made significant advancements, but there are still some significant disparities,” Sweet said. “We have seen the number of women coaching women’s teams drop from 90 percent when Title IX was passed to a number that is now below 43 percent. That is disappointing.”

As is the case for so many fruitful ideas, the Alliance of Women Coaches began almost by happenstance. It was in 2001 when Celia Slater, then a young basketball coach looking for her next move, attended the National Association of Collegiate Women Athletic Administrators’ national convention. At that event, she paid $100 in a fundraising auction to have Sweet serve as her mentor. A relationship was formed.

Slater, through her mentoring connection with Sweet, proposed the idea of the NCAA Women Coaches Academy. It ultimately proved so successful that the Alliance of Women Coaches was born last year as a separate and broader group.

Whereas membership in the academy is open only to NCAA women coaches, the alliance is open to female coaches on all levels of athletics, including high school and club sports.

Sweet (third from left) is active in groups designed to help women coaches develop skills beyond the X’s and O’s on the court or field.

“It was the best $100 I have ever spent,” Slater laughed. “I always tell Judy that I would have paid $125 for her.”

At the time, Sweet was senior vice president of the NCAA and traveling three weeks out of every month. Despite her heavy schedule, Sweet took time to make herself available and to work closely with Slater.

“As a mentor, she helped me present the opportunity to the NCAA of the idea of starting the academy,” said Slater, who is co-director of the alliance with Sweet.

The alliance has some 600 members who pay annual dues ranging from $50 to $135 per year. The group is aiming to increase its membership through marketing efforts and appearances at sport-specific conferences.

“Judy is very well-known and very well-connected and she has helped get some big names involved to back us up,” Slater said.

For Sweet, helping expand the size and scope of the Alliance of Women Coaches is yet another example of her pioneering approach in women’s sports.

“I am reminded of my role when I talk to student athletes who are so incredulous to hear how things used to be,” Sweet said. “I have been fortunate to have been able to make a difference.”

— John Lombardo