Title IX, a legislative landmark of the Education Amendments of 1972, prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex across all federally funded education programs. While the law provided several new opportunities for women, Title IX is best known for paving the way for female athletes and transforming women’s sports across the nation.

Over the past five decades, Title IX has provided a strong foundation and commitment to gender equality, allowing UofL to develop several competitive women’s programs. The women’s volleyball the field hockey teams reached their first Final Fours in 2021. Female athletes in track and field and swimming have become national champions. There are dozens of All-Americans and conference champions across UofL’s 12 women’s sports teams.

“From the first time I stepped foot on UofL’s campus, there was messaging that our women’s teams were just as important as the men’s,” said Amy Calabrese ’07, ’09, a former Cardinal soccer player who is now UofL Athletics’ senior female administrator. “It does not matter gender, gender identity, race, ethnicity, anything like that – and that’s really the beauty of sports in general.”

Leveling the playing field

Women’s basketball is no exception to UofL’s history of success. The two-time national runners-up have made an impressive 23 NCAA tournament appearances, and a total of 14 Cardinals have been drafted by the WNBA since 2000, including three first-round draft picks.

One of UofL’s oldest intercollegiate sports, the university’s first women’s basketball team was formed during the 1908-09 academic year after a handful of female students expressed interest in forming a team. Of the 15 students who attended the first practice, only two understood the rules of basketball.

The women’s program existed in a limited capacity in the decades until Title IX was passed. In 1976, Valerie Owens Combs ’81 would make UofL history as the first woman to sign a letter of intent to attend UofL on a fullride athletic scholarship for basketball.

“They had just started giving women full athletic scholarships the year I decided to go to UofL,” said Combs, now with UofL’s advancement office. “I was fortunate to get that full ride because if I had not received it, I probably would not have gone to college.”

Combs finished her Cardinal athletic career with 1,085 points, making her the first woman in UofL history to score more than 1,000 points. Although she committed to the university after Title IX was enacted, Combs recalled some of the sex-based inequities she and her teammates encountered during her collegiate career.

“I remember our practices revolving around the men’s schedule,” Combs said. “The men got first crack at the gym, so we usually had to wait to practice after the men’s team. That didn’t play in our favor because we ended up with late practices and even later training tables after that.”

UofL’s women’s basketball has flourished over the last 15 seasons. Head coach Jeff Walz, the all-time winningest coach in program history, said he has been grateful for the opportunities afforded to women’s athletics under Title IX. 

“I’ve been very fortunate to have these experiences – not only for myself, but for my family. My children have these incredibly strong, powerful and successful female role models to look up to – not just my daughters, but my son as well. I think it’s truly incredible that they get to see that success comes when you put your mind to it and you put the work in,” Walz said.

A Kentucky native and former collegiate basketball player, Walz has always coached female athletes, dating back to his tenure as a middle school and high school coach in the 1990s.

“My first coaching job was seventh grade girls, and I’ve always coached women ever since because I thoroughly enjoy it,” Walz said. “I have enjoyed the relationships I’ve been able to build, the opportunity to coach and the opportunity to be a part of athletes’ lives – both on and off the court.”

Walz’s first season as head coach culminated with the program’s first NCAA Sweet 16. UofL has since won four consecutive ACC regular season titles from 2017 to 2021 and a record-setting 36 victories for the women’s team in the 2017-18 season. The UofL fanbase contributes to the program’s momentum, ranking in the top-five nationwide in attendance over the last 10 seasons with an average 9,330 attendees per game.

As a former student athlete and current L-Club president, Combs has witnessed the positive impact of Title IX on women’s athletics firsthand. She remains an active member of the university community as a courtside season ticket holder and as a member of UofL’s staff, serving as director of development for diversity initiatives and engagement with University Advancement.

“I’m at all the women’s games; it’s such a feel-good, family-friendly atmosphere. As a former player, I love that we can fill that arena; it’s so good to see so many fans for those big games,” Combs said. “I feel like I’m the person that I am because of UofL, and I don’t know if I would have some of these opportunities pre-Title IX.”

Stepping up the pace

In advance of Title IX’s 50th anniversary, UofL Athletics launched The New Standard capital campaign. Announced in September 2021 and championed by the Cardinal Athletic Fund, this campaign supports equity and increases opportunities for women’s sports at UofL.

“We want to make sure UofL Athletics continues to push the standard and to remain at the forefront,” Calabrese said. “As part of that endeavor, we launched our women’s capital campaign last fall. We have a goal of raising $10 million to make improvements across the board to our women’s facilities.”

The New Standard will provide funding for various projects across women’s sports at the university, including renovations of softball’s Koetter Center, a considerable expansion to the G. Garvin Brown III Rowing Center and many more.

Since The New Standard’s launch, three of the campaign’s projects have already been completed. Field hockey’s Trager Stadium received a new, state-of-the-art scoreboard and turf, the locker room of the Bass-Rudd Tennis Center underwent full renovations and the women’s basketball locker room at the KFC Yum! Center was completely remodeled.

Calabrese is aware of the high standard of UofL Athletics when it comes to equity in athletics.

“There is this healthy peer pressure among the athletic departments in higher education to be inclusive and equitable in our industry, which allows us to keep raising the bar,” she said. “We need to keep reevaluating ourselves, so that we can provide all our athletes with the tools they need to compete, graduate and win championships.”

This issue of UofL Magazine was in production prior to the end of the 20222 women’s NCAA tournament. Coverage of the women’s team Final Four will be in the summer edition. 

Talia Horn
Talia Horn is a current graduate assistant with the Office of Communication and Marketing. She obtained a Bachelor of Arts in Communication from the University of Louisville in 2019 and is currently working towards her Master of Arts in Communication. Talia prides herself on her diverse, albeit random, professional experience as a gymnastics instructor, licensed court reporter, and freelance baker.