By Chuck Gordon
In the summer of 1985, Lynn Moss was desperate to put her recently earned doctoral degree to good use. She’d taken a shine to college as an undergraduate at UNC Greensboro in the early 1970s and hadn’t really left the academic environment, either earning degrees or working at colleges ever since.
But proudly armed with that doctorate from the University of Virginia, she was about to learn what was expected of mid-level administrators at small colleges back then. She interviewed with Donald Haskins, vice president of student development at Wingate College, to be director of housing. Or so she thought.
“He said, ‘I see that you’ve occasionally played tennis,’” says Moss, who had played on the field hockey team at UNCG. “I said, ‘Yeah, not so much. I really don’t play. I play a little more golf than I play tennis.’ He said, ‘We’d like for you to consider being the director of housing and the women’s tennis coach.’ I was like, ‘Uh, no. You don’t understand. I don’t know anything.’”
Then came the ultimatum: “If you don’t do it, we won’t have a team.”
What else was she going to do? Women’s tennis had been offered sporadically at Wingate, from as early as the 1920s, but it never put down permanent roots. Tennis can be expensive. Maintaining courts costs money, and colleges generally can’t generate any revenue from the sport. Basketball, played in a gymnasium most schools are going to have anyway, was easier to manage.
The scant records available seem to indicate that basketball teams for girls were offered at Wingate starting in the mid-1910s, and most likely continued to be offered until the late 1950s. Tennis was the next-most-common women’s sport that pitted Wingate teams against other schools. But by the mid-1980s, despite the tennis boom of the ’70s, it was still questionable whether Wingate would even be able to have a women’s tennis squad.
So here was Moss, who just wanted to find her place in higher education, being guided/guilted into that place. Moss grew up in Africa as the daughter of missionaries, and she has a servant’s heart.
“I said, ‘OK. I’ll do it,’” she says. “Twelve years later I was still doing it. I did it every year I was there. I couldn’t give it up after I started. I loved it so much.”
Haskins’ request came during something of a transitional period for women: Title IX had been the law of the land for 13 years, long enough for a generation of girls to grow up expecting equal treatment, or at least treatment that was close to it. Many of them took advantage of increased opportunities to play sports, and soccer, basketball, softball and tennis teams for girls and women began cropping up in high schools and colleges around the country.
Just 15 years earlier, there were no intercollegiate athletics teams for women at Wingate Junior College. None. If you were a woman, you could play intramurals, cheer on the men, or ignore athletics altogether. Those were your choices.
But in the background, the scaffolding propping up the traditional roles the two sexes played in society was being dismantled, piece by piece. The late 1960s saw a push for women’s rights. Women wanted to become astronauts. They wanted to fight for their country. They wanted bodily autonomy. They wanted their own credit cards (something not enshrined in U.S. law until 1974, believe it or not).
Alongside Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, sports stars became leaders in the movement. Billie Jean King was one of those at the forefront, beating Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes” in the Houston Astrodome and convincing eight other female tennis players to break away from the United States Lawn Tennis Association and form their own tour. (At the time, most tournaments paid male players about four times as much as female players. Now, the four majors dole out equal prize money for men and women.)
The National Organization for Women formed, and other grassroots organizations sprang up as well, all pushing for women’s rights to varying degrees. Eventually, the Equal Rights Amendment passed in Congress, but it fell three states short of ratification and was never implemented.
In its place, Title IX did some heavy lifting.
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 is, much like the Gettysburg Address, much more powerful than its size. Over the decades it has punched above its 37-word weight, opening doors and changing the future. It reads: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” The passage proved to be revolutionary.
Initially intended to open educational, occupational and personal doors for women, today it is most widely known for its effect on athletics. By 1978, Time magazine was reporting that six times as many girls were competing in high school sports as in 1970. And the explosion has continued, with Team USA sending more women than men to the past three Olympic Games. Today, Wingate University offers 14 women’s intercollegiate sports, three more than are available to men. When the Wingate women’s tennis team needs a coach these days, there is no shortage of applicants.
This is a high point (so far!) in Wingate’s support for women’s sports, but that support has ratcheted up and down over the years. Getting from Wingate’s 1896 founding to resurrecting tennis in the ’80s to today’s volleyball stars, basketball All-Americans and swimming national champions has taken pressure from society in general, some visionary leadership at the institutional level, and the occasional arm-twisting ultimatum.
Not to mention a huge boost from Title IX.
Growth of women’s sports
From the start, the Wingate School was co-educational. Whether children of both sexes were encouraged to take identical courses of study is unclear, but Wingate has been an educational institution for boys and girls from the beginning.
Athletics was just as equal – in that there appeared to be none, for either boys or girls, at least at first. By the early 1910s, the School catalog talked about male students finding “sympathetic helpers in the schoolroom, on the athletic field, in the society halls, and, in fact, in every phase of school life.” Perhaps girls were on their own?
But just a couple of years later, in the 1916-17 school year, Wingate offered a girls basketball team (or “basket-ball,” as it was written then). Members of the boys team were named alongside their team photo, accompanied by a pagelong writeup of their results. The girls got a rather haphazard team photo, the players wearing school uniforms and knitted caps, three of the 12 looking at the camera. No names listed, no results, but at least they had a team.
It’s uncertain whether this was the first athletic team for girls since the school opened a decade earlier, but basketball and tennis were both offered, off and on, over the next 45 years. The Triangle, Wingate’s school newspaper, devoted many more column inches to the athletic feats of the campus’s male teams, and there were always more of those teams competing. But the basketball women – at times referred to as the “Yellow Jackets,” at others “the Fair Sex of W.J.C.” – got some recognition and fared pretty well against a variety of opponents: Earl High School, Comptometers School of Charlotte, Boiling Springs College.
Wingate has regularly offered intercollegiate (or interscholastic, in the pre-Junior College days) athletics for women, except for the fallow decade of the 1960s. Off the court, the ’60s were still a time of prohibition: strict campus rules kept a tight rein on women’s comings and goings, and the dress code was highly regulated. Married women were in many ways merely extensions of their husbands, even if they were accomplished in their own right. In naming her “Teacher of the Month,” an article in a 1967 Triangle referred throughout to “Mrs. Sam Gaddy,” never providing her first name (Carolyn – hers is one of 12 busts scattered around campus).
But society was inching toward something of a revolution, and Wingate was being dragged along with it. By the mid-’70s, opportunities were beginning to open up for women on the field and off, and Title IX was responsible for much of it. Wingate restarted its women’s basketball program in 1971 and then added volleyball, softball and tennis later in the decade.
Which brings us to Moss and her reluctant foray into coaching, just as girls around the country were beginning to understand that athletics could be an important part of their lives. There was demand for intercollegiate athletics for women, but a short supply of coaches. After all, few women had grown up playing a lot of sports.
“To see some of the glass ceilings break because we have allowed women to use all parts of their brain, I think we have enriched organizations because of that. The talent pool that is available for leaders of all stripes and shapes and locations and areas is just wider."
Initially, Moss, for whom Title IX helped make postgraduate studies a more realistic ambition, thought that maybe she was getting more opportunity than she had bargained for. But the idea of coaching grew on her: “I was like, ‘Wait! There’s lots of perks to this job. I’m out of the office every day at 2. I wear shorts and a T-shirt every day.’”
As it turns out, Haskins picked the right person for the job. Moss is organized and puts her all into her work. “A doctorate, as you know, is really more a matter of perseverance than being smart,” she says. She didn’t let a lack of experience or knowledge stop her from figuring out how to produce a competitive team. Lucky for her, she had Sheila Foster Pait ’86 to lean on. Pait started playing tennis as an eighth-grader in Wilkes County, which made her a relative latecomer to the game, but she performed well enough to gain some notice from Wingate, where the head coach at the time, Bill Miller, persuaded her to apply and to come out for the tennis team.
Pait played one year, and then the team disbanded, the latest twist in the on-again, off-again history of the team. Feeling connected to a host of mentors, and having met Frank Pait ’85, she remained a Bulldog anyway.
“I would have stayed at Wingate whether I played tennis or not,” she says. “Wingate has such a special place in my heart.”
Pait proved to be an invaluable resource as Moss attempted to build a team from scratch.
“Sheila really coached the team,” Moss says. “She ran the drills, taught me things I needed to do. She was a player-coach. She said, ‘You’re going to have to have scorecards. And singles sticks.’ I was like, ‘What is that?’”
Moss learned quickly. She realized she needed to win over recruits’ parents first, telling them: “I will treat your children with integrity. I’m going to treat them fairly. That’s all I can offer y’all. I’m going to be their advocate and cheer for them.”
She gradually built a competitive team. Over 12 years, Moss brought stability to a program that sorely needed it. She wound up developing All-Americans, winning conference titles and going to the national tournament in her dozen years in charge and rose to become vice president of student affairs, at which point Wingate also had its first female director of athletics, Moss’s good friend Beth Lawrence Murray. (Moss is also now a University trustee – a position held nearly entirely by men back when she was first hired.)
For Dr. Nancy Randall, longtime sociology professor and administrator and Wingate’s Title IX coordinator for the past two years, the impact of Title IX could be seen in the educational and occupational successes of people like Moss and Murray.
“I came here in the late ’70s, and there were no women in leadership roles on campus,” she says. “To see some of the glass ceilings break because we have allowed women to use all parts of their brain, I think we have enriched organizations because of that. The talent pool that is available for leaders of all stripes and shapes and locations and areas is just wider. And then the discourse has become more powerful, because we’re drawing on diverse people – and not just women. We’re adding diversity of all kinds to who gets to sit at the table.”
Since the tennis program was dormant when she got to Wingate, Moss could develop it under the radar and without a ton of pressure. Besides, women’s basketball soaked up the lion’s share of the attention.
Explosion of opportunity
Save for perhaps baseball, no athletic program at Wingate was as consistently good in the ’80s, ’90s and early 2000s as women’s basketball. By the mid-’80s, head coach Johnny Jacumin was building a powerhouse that would compete on the national stage and post twenty 20-win seasons. Jacumin, who died in 2010, took the Bulldogs to the NAIA Final Four in 1988 and backed that up with back-to-back trips to the NCAA Division II Elite Eight in the mid-1990s. The former high-school coach, a part-time employee his entire Wingate career, produced All-Americans and national scoring leaders and created a buzz on campus. “For a women’s team to dominate the press, the local papers, the attention at school,” Moss says, marveling at the team’s impact on the school. “It was really women’s basketball that held the attention of everybody.”
The team did more than simply give Wingate fans something to feel proud about. It also gave an educational opportunity to many women who otherwise might not have even gone to college.
“Without the financial support that I had earned, I am not sure if I would have been able to afford what it would have cost for a four-year college or university,” says Lyndia Rushing ’82, who played basketball on scholarship at Wingate for four years and is now a benefits-verification specialist with the Lash Group. “Title IX opened doors which allowed females to be rewarded for their talents.”
For all players, regardless of background, playing a sport at a high level brings its own benefits.
“You learn how to lose,” says Jade Montgomery ’15. “You learn how to work hard. Things aren’t always going to go your way. You have to figure out a different way to approach things, which definitely helps you in the real world.”
Montgomery, who grew up in eastern Union County and was a standout soccer and basketball player at nearby Piedmont High School, became one of the top female athletes in school history at Wingate. An All-American soccer player, she was three times named the South Atlantic Conference’s Female Athlete of the Year. Growing up, she didn’t spend much time at home on the weekends, playing soccer and basketball on her older brother’s teams until she got to high school. At that point, the family would go separate ways on the weekends, one car heading to, say, Asheville while the other went east to Raleigh or Greensboro or the coast.
“Either my mom would take me to a game and my dad would drive the other way to take my brother to a game, or dad would come with me and mom would go with him,” Montgomery says.
For her, it was an idyllic upbringing, a chance to spend time with her close-knit family (her younger sister also tagged along) and to have an outlet for her innate competitiveness – an outlet girls of another generation might not have had.
“Sports was just a way for me to compete,” she says. “It didn’t matter who I was competing against or what I was doing, I always had to make it a game. Without sports, I don’t want to say that my life would be boring, but I wouldn’t have had the opportunities I was able to experience without it. So it probably would have been boring.”
Montgomery wound up accomplishing one of her biggest athletics goals: playing professionally overseas. In 2017 and 2018 she played in Finland’s top-tier league, winning the league title in 2018.
Players like Montgomery don’t spring out of nowhere. All those Saturdays spent playing soccer and basketball honed skills more quickly than if she were trying to horn in on games the neighborhood boys were playing – which is how things were before the 1970s.
“If you go out to the YMCA on Saturday morning, you see these young girls starting to play,” says Steve Poston, Wingate’s director of athletics from 2002 to 2021. “Those opportunities weren’t there before Title IX. Obviously we wouldn’t have good college athletes if we didn’t have girls training coming up.”
Moss left Wingate in 1997 to work full-time at Camp Seafarer, a YMCA camp where for years she had worked during the summer months. She missed the explosion of women’s sports at Wingate. During Poston’s time as AD, Wingate added five women’s intercollegiate sports, taking its total to 13. This year, Wingate added yet another: acrobatics and tumbling, which will begin competition in the spring of 2024.
Women have learned over the past few decades what men have known for centuries: sport builds character. “Sports at any level, whether it’s high school, college, etc., teaches resiliency, toughness, competitiveness and so much more that is helpful in all aspects of life,” says Bryanna Troutman, a senior basketball player at Wingate.
“The whole competitiveness of the female athlete has changed over time,” Poston says. “I think that bodes well for them when they move out into the business world or whatever, that they’ve developed that sense of competition, and obviously the sense of teamwork that comes with that as well. I think those skills translate very well into careers.”
Having women acquire those skills benefits us all.