Jayhawks, Wildcats come together to celebrate 50 years of women's sports

Kansas retired the No. 21 jersey of Adrian Mitchell, who played for the Jayhawks from 1975-79, on Sunday. Mitchell was 21 years old and playing AAU basketball for fun when she was offered a partial scholarship to Kansas. Courtesy Kansas Athletics

LAWRENCE, Kan. -- There is an old adage, perhaps equal parts truth and cynicism, that maintains that history is written by the victors. But you could say of women's basketball, history is written -- and has been made by -- the persistent.

The facts aren't always as readily available, the stories typically not as well-known. But they are especially meaningful if you get to talk to the people who lived them.

Such was the case Sunday at Allen Fieldhouse, as the women's basketball teams from Kansas and Kansas State met for 117th time. If that's not the longest collegiate women's sports series, it has to be up there. Kansas and Kansas State began varsity women's athletics in the 1968-69 school year, so in 2018 each university is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its women's sports programs.

In basketball, the first meeting between the Jayhawks and Wildcats was Feb. 23, 1969, at a neutral site in Emporia, Kansas. Both schools' record books agree that the Wildcats won, but they have different final scores for the game. There's no dispute, though, that after Sunday's 63-59 overtime victory, Kansas State leads the series 71-46.

The Jayhawks took the opportunity to honor their history Sunday with several alumni present, and Kansas State will do the same when these teams meet again on Feb. 24 in the Wildcats' home of Manhattan, Kansas.

"You looked at these as two programs that committed to women's basketball early, and meant so much to the area," said coach Jeff Mittie, who's in his fourth season at Kansas State but grew up in greater Kansas City and has long been familiar with both the Wildcats and Jayhawks. "I told the team yesterday, 'You're going to step out there and play in a rivalry game that is important to women's basketball and this region. There's 50 years of this; soak it all in and appreciate it.'"

His counterpart, Kansas coach Brandon Schneider, has directed the Jayhawks since 2015 but also has an extensive history in the sport. His father, Bob Schneider, was a successful coach at the Division II level in Texas.

"My father was a women's basketball coach for 46 years, and I grew up around the game," Brandon Schneider said. "I got a chance to [know] coaches that fought really hard for practice times on the court, for locker rooms, for scholarships.

"To be able to reconnect the eras [at Kansas] -- that's something that's been priority No. 1 for me since the day I got the job here, and we'll continue to make that a big part of what we try to do."

Admittedly, this wasn't one of the bigger highlights nationally on a drama-filled day of women's basketball. No. 5 Notre Dame, undaunted by multiple injuries, thumped No. 8 Florida State. No. 7 Oregon's Sabrina Ionescu notched her fifth triple-double of the season and ninth of her career. No. 9 South Carolina and No. 11 Missouri feuded like adversarial reality-TV neighbors in their rematch won by the Gamecocks.

But what was celebrated here in Kansas on Sunday was part of what made everything we have now possible.

(Oh, and if South Carolina fans think they don't like Mizzou, they should talk to Jayhawks fans. One who was at Sunday's game in Lawrence was wearing a very old T-shirt from Big 12/Big Eight days that read, "The Good: Kansas, the Bad: Kansas State, and the Ugly: Missouri.")

Actually, when that Clint Eastwood film came out in 1966, there were women's basketball teams at Kansas and Kansas State, but neither was an officially recognized program yet. The Jayhawks, for example, then had what were called "playdates" -- usually two a year -- on which they'd have a chance to compete with in-state teams at one site.

"Back then, you thought, 'This is the way it is, and you do the best you can with it,'" said Beverly Gray Land, who went to Kansas from 1964 to 1968, played on those teams and still has a detailed scrapbook of that time. "It all impacted me more when my daughters got into sports, and that was so eye-opening."

One of her children, Lisa Davies, played at Missouri State from 1994 to '98 for then-Lady Bears coach Cheryl Burnett -- who, it happens, was the first female athlete in any sport to get a full-ride scholarship to Kansas, in 1976.

"I always knew I was blessed just by my age," said Burnett, who also was in attendance Sunday. "I was here at the right time. There were people who came before me who didn't have that same opportunity.

"I saw women's basketball before scholarships. I saw its growth. I see it now. What a historical perspective."

Burnett's playing career at Kansas coincided with the two leading scorers and rebounders in Jayhawks women's history: Lynette Woodard (1977-81) and Adrian Mitchell (1975-79). Woodard, now head coach at Winthrop, wasn't at Sunday's game, but Mitchell was. It was an extra special day for her, as Kansas retired her No. 21.

That number was also how old Mitchell was when former Kansas coach Marian Washington discovered her. Mitchell had gone to a large Kansas City high school that didn't have girls' sports then. She had a child and was working at city hall, playing AAU basketball for fun, when Washington saw her and offered a partial scholarship to Kansas.

"Playing basketball and coming here changed my life," Mitchell said. "It wouldn't have been a bad life, but it wouldn't have been this life. I met my husband here. I got a chance to play in the WBL [the former women's pro league]. I was drafted by the Chicago team and stayed there.

"Coming back here now is truly amazing, to hear the stories and talk to people. I'm so proud of the honor I got today, and to be part of 50 years of women's basketball at Kansas."

Washington, a native of the Philadelphia area, took over as coach of the Jayhawks in 1973, which was about the time the women were first allowed to play in Allen Fieldhouse. Before, they played at Robinson Gymnasium, which they shared with intramural sports.

Washington became the iconic coach of the program, winning 560 games in a career that extended to 2004. She retired during that season when facing medical challenges. Washington wasn't present Sunday, but former players like Mitchell and Burnett paid tribute.

"Marian was so ahead of her time in national recruiting, really going out and finding kids all over the country," Burnett said. "She had a vision, and we had a lot of opportunity ahead of other people."

But predating even Washington was Marlene Mawson, the first to guide the Jayhawks when they became an official program in 1968. She also oversaw five other sports, coaching some of them, on an initial total budget of $2,000.

Mawson grew up on a farm in western Missouri in one of the few counties that had girls' basketball in the 1950s. By the time she started working for Kansas in the mid-1960s, she was ensconced in the collegiate athletics movement for women.

"It's unbelievable; it's more than I could have dreamed would happen in my lifetime," Mawson, 77, said of how women's sports have grown. "We started with so little and had so little support. We didn't really have anyone trying to stop us here, because they didn't think we were anything to stop.

"Mostly, we were ignored. Other than when needed a facility's floor space or field space, and then it was usually, 'Don't bother us.' So, it's phenomenal to think how much has happened in 50 years. That sounds like a long time, but it seems like so little time to me. I can recall it vividly, like it was almost yesterday."