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Alexander's impact on women's athletics is important

38 days ago
Florida Athletics
Photo: Florida Athletics

This story, written by Scott Carter, was originally published on floridagators.com.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. - In an interview for the University of Florida Oral History Archives in March 1992, Dr. Ruth Alexander shares the story of her life and career in great detail, a document that exits the printer at 40 pages.

She was born in Kentucky. "A little town called Paint Lick,'' she said. "We lived on a farm."

She moved to Virginia when she was 2. Her mother died when she was 12. She attended Milligan (Tenn.) University over Emory and Henry College in Virginia for the most basic reasons.

"My dad and I, not having the finances to send me many places, were looking for the best economical situation,'' she said. "Those were my two choices."

Alexander took great pride that when it was time for her four sons to go to college, they had significant more opportunities than she did. They went to Yale, Cornell, Trinity and St. Lawrence. Her second-oldest son, F. King Alexander, is now president of Oregon State University.

Alexander had no idea at the time, but once she stepped foot on the tiny Milligan campus near Johnson City, Tenn., and started to figure out her path in the world, which included an opportunity to play on the school's intramural women's basketball team, a career in higher education and college athletics was born. Alexander turned 82 on April 17 and has been in failing health in recent years. Best known as the driving force behind the creation of a women's athletic program at UF - notably three months before Title IX was passed in 1972 - Alexander remains a towering figure in the world of women's college athletics.

Long before names such as Abby Wambach, DeLisha Milton, Tracy Caulkins, Dara Torres, Bridget Sloan, Lauren Embree, Lisa Raymond and many others became synonymous with the Gators, Alexander spearheaded efforts to create opportunities for female athletes at UF soon after joining the UF faculty in the late 1960s. Former UF President Stephen C. O'Connell and Athletic Director Ray Graves supported Alexander's initial requests, paving the way for UF to become the first school in the Southeastern Conference to fund a women's athletic program.

The first budget was $16,000 to support five sports (tennis, golf, swimming, track and gymnastics).

"Dr. Alexander's initiatives made this world a better place for women in sport,'' said Joan Cronan, the University of Tennessee's Athletic Director Emeritus, on Friday. "They were off and running with a budget of $16,000. I always loved the fact Ruth had such a passion for Title IX and opportunities for women."

Alexander is back in the spotlight as the recipient of the 2020 Nike Lifetime Achievement Award presented by Women Leader in Sports.

Alexander's distinguished career has overflowed with accolades, including inductions in the UF Athletics Hall of Fame and the state of Florida Hall of Fame. She was recruited to testify in front of the United States Congress about the importance of funding for female sports to help push Title IX and was the first woman appointed to the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports by President Nixon, and then reappointed by Presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan.

Still, her greatest legacy in the eyes of most remains that in March 1972, despite pushback, UF's Committee on Intercollegiate Athletics granted her approval to establish what was known at the time as the "Lady Gator Athletic" program for the coming academic year.

On the program's 20-year anniversary, Alexander reflected on the role she played and how opportunities for women began to blossom in all aspects of American society during the era.

"It gives me a great deal of pride to know that I was instrumental in opening a big door of opportunities for women that just was not there,'' Alexander said during her in-depth 1992 interview. "There was not one single woman on athletic scholarship in 1971. I think that is indicative of the degree of success for the image of women. Not only did it just happen with athletics, but I think it just spread."

Dr. Paula Welch, the first women's basketball coach at UF, was hired by Alexander from Eastern Kentucky University. Welch grew up in Miami and was interested in returning to Florida. She met Alexander at a convention and was enamored by Alexander's vision of women's athletics at UF and wanted to be a part of the program.

Soon, Welch and the Gators were loading into a team van and driving to games. The slept four to a room. They had to pay for their own meals, so trips to McDonald's became commonplace. They only had one set of uniforms, so between games, they had to go to the laundromat.

The chance to play basketball in college made it all worthwhile.

"It was a different world,'' said Welch, who continues to live in Gainesville following a distinguished career as a professor in the UF College of Health and Human Performance. "That's what people did. No one complained what we did not have. First of all, we did not know what we didn't have."

Welch served as the women's basketball coach from 1974-76 and maintained lifelong friendship with Alexander, whose impact in the local community stretched far beyond the UF campus. As Alexander began to have kids, she realized the importance of maintaining her physical fitness.

She began to jog daily at lunch, which was viewed by many as somewhat unusual in the 1970s. Newspapers and magazines did stories on her jogging habit. Soon, she had a stream of joggers running with her on a five-mile loop around campus that she devised.

"She became kind of like the face of physical fitness at the University of Florida,'' Welch said. "That's one of the things that really stands out about her."

Five decades later, Alexander is someone many Gators fans and female college athletes probably know little, if any, about. Welch and others want them to know her. She was a trailblazer whose impact is felt as much in 2020 as in 1972.

She made a difference at a time when that wasn't an easy thing to do for a woman.

"There were a lot of challengers. Everything didn't happen overnight,'' Welch said. "She was a futuristic leader and she was a pathfinder. She was really bent on leading the University of Florida women's athletic program to the forefront and she certainly did that."