When Mary Bell came to NIU in 1957, she was told to spend 75 percent of her time teaching Physical Education and the rest leading intramurals and intercollegiate sports for women.
“Pretty soon, they took intramurals off,” Bell says. “I was excited about that. The intercollegiate role was what I was really interested in.”
Considered “the founding mother” of NIU women’s athletics, Bell soon accepted an offer to escort some female Huskie students to Illinois State University to play basketball against two other schools.
The schedule was standard for such “Sports Day” events then – one game in the morning, one game in the afternoon, and lunch with the other teams and coaches in between.
Game rules in that era prohibited snatching the ball from another player’s hands, more than three dribbles and crossing the center-court line; women were expected, Bell says, to preserve their bodies for childbirth.
It all might seem archaic now, but coming 15 years before federal Title IX legislation, it was a good start.
“Back then, we didn’t have practices. We didn’t have uniforms. You just waited until another school invited you,” Bell says. “But I told the girls, ‘If you go with me, you have to practice at least once.’ ”
Sixty years later, Bell happily applauded with several of her fellow retirees and successors from the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education (KNPE) during a Sept. 27 celebration of the Jacoby Trophy.
Awarded to the top women’s athletic program in the Mid-American Conference, the Jacoby came this year to the Huskies for the first time in program history. NIU, which competes in 10 women’s sports, saw nine of those programs finish in the top half of the MAC during either regular season or tournament play.
Visiting the College of Education with the Jacoby “just makes sense,” says Frazier, who holds two graduate degrees in education-related disciplines and is co-teaching a KNPE course this semester.
The NIU College of Education prepares and graduates leaders in the field – many Huskie student-athletes among them – who go on to create and maintain vital academic experiences, he adds.
“For us, it’s just a natural fit. It just works,” Frazier says. “It gives me a great sense of pride that Athletics is contributing to the college’s mission.”
“We’re very proud of our women student-athletes,” Elish-Piper says, “and this ceremony [was] a wonderful way to honor their hard work while acknowledging our longstanding relationship with Intercollegiate Athletics.”
Boughton, who is also NIU’s senior associate athletics director for Finance and Operations and senior woman administrator, told the room full of coaches, faculty and annuitants that she had carefully tracked the university’s progress toward the Jacoby win.
Near the end of the school year, with final results from softball and women’s track and field still pending, victory was in view – and a friendly trip to pump up the coaches was in order.
“I said, ‘We’re super, super close here. I need you not to screw this up,’” Boughton told the audience with a laugh, adding that NIU “is a great place to be right now, and we’re moving in the right direction.”
Lou Jean Moyer, who taught Physical Education at NIU from 1962 to 1992, would agree.
Moyer, the first head coach in the history of NIU Volleyball, led the Huskies to a 75-43 record in five seasons from 1970 to 74, including 26 wins during the 1973 season.
She also served in a number of leadership roles in the growth of women’s collegiate athletics, including as president of the National Association for Girls and Women in Sports and as Ethics and Eligibility chair on the Association of Intercollege Athletics for Women.
“When I was here, women’s sports were very limited,” Moyer says. “It’s wonderful to see how the opportunities for young women, not only in high school and college but also in the pros, allow them to test their limits. I never had that opportunity. I would much rather have been outside playing sports and having a good time than sitting inside.”
Moyer and Bell, who also coached field hockey, basketball, badminton, volleyball, swimming and softball at NIU between 1957 and 1976, appreciate the modern landscape better than many.
Before Title IX became law, Moyer says, “the two of us were fighting” for equality in sports.
They received an updated look at the law – Title IX is celebrating its 45th anniversary this year – by attending the LESM 341: Administration of Intercollegiate Athletics class co-taught by Frazier and Chad McEvoy, chair of the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education.
Guest lecturer Boughton described Title IX’s complicated parameters to remain in compliance, a task measured in accommodations of interests and abilities; athletic financial aid; and “other athletic benefits and opportunities” that include equipment, supplies, locker rooms, schedules and more.
“What I appreciate the most, which comes after many decades, is that women have an opportunity to practice, to learn and to get to be good,” says Bell, for whom the NIU softball field is named. “It’s not just to play around. It’s about improving your skills.”
Other alums, annuitants and special guests joining the class and the Jacoby Trophy presentation were Dee Abrahamson, Linda Conrad, Ruth Heal, Tony and Carolyn Kambich, Donna Martin, Judy Sisler, Sally Stevens and Nadine Zimmerman.