Skip to main content Skip to footer

Title IX: Herd Women's Hoops Started with Pioneer

Marshall head coach Donna Lawson (right) in Nov. 1979 with captains Paula Hatten (left) and Becky Williamson (middle).

June 21, 2012

“The competition was interclass and played out-of-doors since there was no gym. The 1903-04 (Marshall) College catalogue included team pictures of the Eagles and Amazons. Because the sport was visible to men and a short skirt was worn that was midway between the knee and ankle, the administration discouraged women’s play until a gym was finished.”

--Dr. Dot Hicks, on history of women’s basketball at Marshall



HUNTINGTON – With the 40th anniversary of the signing of Title IX into law being celebrated nationally – the date is Saturday – a trip in the way-back machine can be fun as well as instructive.

Marshall didn’t play women’s intercollegiate basketball until the 1969-70 school year, but women on the college’s campus started to play the game in 1902, the year after women’s rules were adapted from Dr. James Naismith’s development of the game in 1891 in Springfield, Mass.

Hicks, the retired MU professor and administrator, was coaxing the birth of Thundering Herd female athletics from the women’s physical education department, and MU helped form the West Virginia Women’s Intercollegiate Athletic Association (WVWIAA).

And in basketball, the first Marshall coach was alumna Donna Lawson, a Chesapeake, W.Va., native who went from the Pioneers to a pioneer. She graduated from East Bank High School three years before Jerry West.

A PE professor like Hicks – as were all of the Herd women coaches in the day -- Lawson graduated from Marshall in 1957, and played much of her hoops in the industrial leagues in Charleston, working summers at the Libbey-Owens-Ford glass plant.

Lawson went 139-134 as the first of six Marshall women’s basketball coaches – newcomer Matt Daniel is the latest – and she still has the longest tenure on the MU sidelines, at 12 seasons. The program’s only NCAA Tournament bid came in 1996-97, under Coach Sarah Evans-Moore.

“We didn’t have much in the way of a budget, but the girls loved to play; we all loved the game,” Lawson said earlier this week from her home in The Villages, Fla. “When Dot Hicks came to us and asked us to coach, she told us what they were and to choose.

“I picked basketball. I knew something about the game, but I wanted not just to have a team. I wanted to build the program, so even though we didn’t have much of a budget, we had a JV team, too.

“That’s kind of how we started.”

Lawson said she wasn’t much on recalling records, but her so-called “Green Gals” had a 21-1 season, and her last season was an “unfortunate” 1-28, as she called it, after a promising recruit went home for Christmas and didn’t return.

She recalled that when Tennessee coaching legend Pat Summitt retired after this past season due to early onset Alzheimer’s, the Herd “had contributed to her great record” of 1,098 victories.

Lawson’s teams lost three times to the Lady Vols in the first eight seasons.

“We used to go on the road during the semester break and play a game every day in one stretch,” Lawson said, when asked about one such trip in 1973-74 that went from Tennessee to Western Carolina to Winthrop to Elon. “We did that in a lot of the years.

“It wasn’t easy. Some of the things we did they’d laugh about now. It’s so different.

“We used to travel in two cars. I’d drive one, and my grad assistant, who was a volunteer, would drive the other. We didn’t get vans or buses. And we’d leave campus late when we’d go to somewhere like Eastern Kentucky so they didn’t miss class.”

Lawson said her players learned after a while that “you made sure your shoes were in the car with you,” after one road trip when the Green Gals ran into some bad weather and when they got their game shoes from the trunk, they were frozen.

“You’d play the games, and we had some good girls and they played hard, but to me what was important for them was building friendships with one another and even with players on other teams,” Lawson said.

“We started playing Western Michigan, and we’d go to Kalamazoo once and they’d come to Huntington to play, in the same season (home-and-home). We were operating on a shoestring, so when we went there, our players would stay with their players, and I’d stay with their coach, and they’d do the same when they came to Huntington.

“Some lifelong friendships started that way. One time we went there and a team from Toronto was playing and we met them and got invited to play in Canada, the first time a Marshall team went outside the United States.”

In the Western Ontario Tournament in January 1979, Lawson’s team went 3-0 in two days, beating Ottawa, Western Ontario and St. Francis (Pa.) … but it wasn’t only hoops that intrigued the Herd.

“Before we left, our girls were talking about how they couldn’t wait to get up there in the snow and go cross-country skiing,” Lawson said. “I don’t know anything about skiing, but when we got to Canada, it turned out there wasn’t even enough snow to go skiing.

“We hit that on the way back. It snowed in West Virginia and in Huntington. We had more trouble getting back than we did on the roads up there.”

So from that Green Gals’ two-car family, the Herd women head for their 34th season in 2012-13. Tough finances aside early, it’s been a break-even proposition.

The all-time record is 581-581. You can look it up.