The moment Boe Pearman set foot on the court in the Norfolk Scope Arena for the start of the 1982 NCAA Women’s Final Four is etched in her memory. Shiny wooden bleachers lined the track. Fans filled the gym. Reporters and television cameras jockeyed for space.
When Pearman paused to look around, she felt the electricity in the arena.
“It was a ‘wow’ moment,” says the former Maryland starter. “Wow, this is what the coach was talking about.”
To this day, Pearman can still see the crowd and hear people cheering. She also remembers her coach, Chris Weller, who highlighted the importance of the first NCAA Final Four in women’s basketball history leading up to the event.
“There were Final Fours before and there will be Final Fours after that, but we would be the very first NCAA Final Four,” Pearman recalls Weller saying. “And what a great opportunity that would be for our team, and program, individual, and so on, to be at that historic moment for the growth of women’s basketball.”
Prior to 1982, Division I national basketball tournaments for women were organized and held by the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW). Beginning in 1971 and accelerating in conjunction with Title IX in 1972, the AIAW sought to lay a foundation for growth, evolution and a path to equality for women’s collegiate sports—functioning the same way the NCAA did for men’s sports.
The AIAW has successfully raised the platform and created opportunities for female athletes, but lagged behind the NCAA in funding and television contracts. That would play a pivotal role in 1982, when the NCAA chose to hold its first women’s basketball tournament. Not every school was on board, but when 17 of the top 20 programs — including Louisiana Tech, Tennessee, Old Dominion, and Maryland — decided to participate, it marked the beginning of the end for the AIAW and the beginning of something bigger.
“It was a huge step,” said Tanya Haave, a Tennessee sophomore at the time. “You’re there with the men and stuff. Most importantly, it provided that credibility.”
Haave, now the Metropolitan State University head coach on the Denver women’s basketball team, didn’t understand the significance of it at the time. She was a young college athlete under the tutelage of legendary coach Pat Summit and focused on playing basketball.
“We had even been in a Final Four the year before, and that was at the AIAW,” says Haave. “I guess at the time I didn’t really know what I didn’t know. So we were in a Final Four, but I think you could definitely feel a difference now that the NCAA had taken over, in terms of the resources that went into it and the marketing that went into it. And it seemed to be one level up.”
In 1981, C. Vivian Stringer attended an event for the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association as the head coach of Cheyney State. The topic of joining the NCAA was raised. Other sports had already combined AIAW and NCAA tournaments and events, including gymnastics, softball and golf.
“We had a meeting and they discussed the fact that they believed the NCAA only wanted to take over women’s sports because of the Title IX issue,” Stringer recalled. “And they said that once Title IX came up, we wouldn’t get a chance to make our voices heard, and that the guys would basically go ahead and take over and there’d be nothing left.”
She spoke about the lack of bigger halls and advertisements at AIAW tournament games. The room fell silent. Afterward, other coaches trusted Stringer that she had made a good point, and they were glad she had said something.
“My father taught me to speak my mind a long time ago and don’t be afraid to say what I think one day,” Stringer says.
The benefit of joining the NCAA was too alluring to ignore. It offered more financing, transportation coverage, a wider audience, bigger locations, better marketing and promotion, and television contracts. The AIAW was unable to participate and many women’s basketball programs decided to take the plunge.
Thirty-two teams entered the inaugural NCAA women’s basketball tournament the following year. Louisiana Tech, Tennessee, Cheyney State and Maryland made it to the Final Four, hosted by Old Dominion University. The Lady Techsters were the favourites.
“Because it was the first-ever NCAA Final Four, they tried to make everything special for us,” Pearman says. “I remember talking to some of my teammates about it. For example, this is bigger than just going to a Final Four.”
Maryland had never been to a Final Four, so Pearman and her teammates didn’t know what to expect. All they knew was that they were up against a very fast and athletic Cheyney State squad.
“We knew it was going to be a tough game. We always tried to play Cheyney in the regular season, and we knew how athletic they were going to be,” said Pearman. “But we thought we could go in and at least do our best to see what could happen.”
The Wolves may have had an edge over the Terrapins from a basketball standpoint, but Maryland was a much bigger school with significantly more money. Cheyney State, the first historically black college or university (HBCU), was a small school with few resources at the time. People didn’t even know where the university was located and often asked how to pronounce it, Stringer says.
“We found our way because we were a tough team. We believed very much in ourselves. I was so proud of them, I can’t even tell you,” she says. “We didn’t have the same equipment, we didn’t even have a trainer. Our trainers were students who studied for trainers. We had nothing. But we believed in ourselves.”
Stringer successfully led Cheyney State past Maryland, 76-66. In the other semifinal, Tennessee faced Louisiana Tech. Tennessee striker Haave remembers the game all too well.
“I remember getting kicked in the buttocks,” she says with a laugh. “From the post position I think they were taller, a little bit more athletic than us. And it seemed like we were struggling with that part of the game, struggling with scoring. I remember being beaten pretty handily.”
The Lady Techsters defeated the Lady Vols, 69-46, to advance to the first NCAA Women’s Championship game. And on March 28, 1982, Cheyney State and Louisiana Tech gave tips to 7,000 fans, and even more who watched on CBS.
It was exciting for everyone involved, but Stringer had more on her mind than basketball. As she looked out over the crowd, she kept thinking about her daughter, Janine, who was in the Philadelphia Children’s Hospital after contracting meningitis.
“I had some ambivalence about going in,” Stringer recalls. “Every time I practiced, I would immediately leave and go to the hospital.”
Janine’s health was “touch and go” for a while, Stringer explained, and the emotions of the situation weighed on her as she took her spot on the Cheyney State sidelines that day.
“My daughter couldn’t walk or talk or do anything. I am grateful that she can live. They didn’t think she could live past 14,” Stringer says. “As a parent you can imagine me sitting there in the middle of all this fuss and thinking: I don’t know what to do. I was there, but I wasn’t there.”
Somehow Stringer kept it together. And even though she knew her team was smaller than Lousisana Tech’s, she let them believe in themselves completely. They could shoot and they were fast. Those were the qualities that brought them to the championship game, and those were the ones the team now relied on.
The Wolves jumped out to a 22-18 lead early in the first half, keeping pace with Lady Techsters basket by basket. Then the shots stopped falling and Cheyney State fell behind. With Kim Mulkey leading and Janice Lawrence leading by 20 points, Louisiana Tech never looked back and won its first NCAA championship 76-62.
Despite the loss, Stringer was proud to be a part of such a historic moment.
“It’s always the first, and it’s like anything — the first love you have,” she says. †[I’m thinking during the game], I can’t believe I’m here. I’m at the Scope. Wow, we’re at the Scope.”
Pearman returned to the Final Four in 1989 as Maryland’s assistant coach, seeing how much the event had grown in just six years. Then she watched Oregon Sedona Prince’s video of the weight room at the 2021 NCAA tournament highlight the differences between the women’s and the men’s resources, accelerating the momentum behind the women’s game in a way she’d never seen before. seen.
“I think the biggest growth to date has come from COVID, because the women finally had the strength to speak up and say, ‘This isn’t okay anymore,’” Pearman said. “We are tired of being treated less. I think that can magnify the moment now, and people are doing so much more for these Final Four now than ever before.”
Haave sees it too. That’s why she makes it a point to regularly chat with her Metropolitan State players about the history of the game. She doesn’t want them to forget the pioneers, such as Kay Yow, Jody Conradt, Summit and Stringer, who propelled women’s basketball to where it is today.
“I watch Iowa play Creighton and it’s a full house. I mean, it’s great to see that,” Haave said of Creighton’s second-round victory in front of a sold-out crowd of 14,382 fans at the Hawkeye-Carver Arena. “I think we’re at a point now, with the focus on equality and diversity and inclusion in recent years, that we’re at a tipping point.”
The Women’s Final Four has come a long way since 1982, but is still not as highly regarded culturally and financially as the Men’s Tournament. Just this year, under pressure from the public and a report detailing the undervalued business opportunities in women’s basketball, the NCAA finally authorized the use of March Madness for promotion and marketing of the women’s tournament. And based on a letter sent by lawmakers to NCAA President Mark Emmert earlier this month to draw attention to “inadequate progress” in addressing inequalities, there’s still a lot of work to do.
“I don’t know if I’ll see equal footing in my life,” Pearman says bluntly. “We’re closing the gap, but it’s not just arenas or people in the stands. It’s game times, television opportunities all year round, and through the tournament and conference championships.”
Still, Pearman knows there is a special reason to celebrate the 2022 tournament, as South Carolina, Stanford, UConn and Louisville will compete in the Final Four in Minneapolis this weekend. Forty years ago, the path of women’s basketball changed forever, becoming an integral part of women’s sporting history and shaping the platform it stands on today.
“We all get together now and then and we still brag about it,” Pearman says. “We are proud of it.”
Lyndsey D’Arcangelo is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports, covering the WNBA and college basketball. She also contributes to The Athletic and is the co-author of “Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League.” Follow Lyndsey on Twitter @darcangel21†