Jennies Basketball: the first decade

Coach Millie Barnes Launched the Legacy

By Mary Jo Sandberg, '81

Millie Barnes First Team Jennies Basketball

It’s hard to imagine a time when women didn’t play basketball.

James Naismith invented the sport in 1891 as an “athletic distraction” for rowdy students confined to the indoors during a harsh winter in Springfield, Massachusetts. The following year Senda Berenson Abbott, considered the Mother of Women’s Basketball, introduced the sport to her students at Smith College, also in Massachusetts. The first women’s intercollegiate game was played in 1896 between Stanford University and University of California, Berkeley, but both schools and several others were then banned from team play because it was deemed too competitive and a bad influence. The University of Central Missouri (then known as State Normal School No. 2) experienced the same obstacles establishing women’s basketball, dating back to 1906.

This changed decades later when the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) was founded in 1971 ('70-'71 team pictured above), the year Coach Millie Barnes took the helm of women’s basketball after Jane Markert, also the head field hockey coach, ushered in the inaugural season in the fall of 1970. Barnes, who earned her doctorate from Boston University and came to Warrensburg from the University of Iowa to teach physical education, could rightfully be called the Mother of Women’s Basketball at UCM. 

In June 1972, due to a growing interest in women’s sports, Title IX was enacted, prohibiting schools that received federal funding from gender discrimination. This opened the door for increased budgets for women’s sports and leveled the playing field for funds to travel, buy uniforms and maintain practice time and facilities. Coach Barnes remembers that when Title IX passed — the same year the university changed its name from Central Missouri State College to Central Missouri State University — transformation was slow. The budget needed to improve. Women needed inclusion in access to equipment and gyms for practice and games. With gymnastics equipment in the Morrow gym, Barnes had to coordinate a practice schedule with the Mules for time in the Garrison and Lovinger gyms. Finding opponents was no easy task.

“I continued to call schools to find teams to schedule games,” Barnes recalls. “Since the women were governed by AIAW, we were all in one division. We found that larger schools from the Big 10 and Big 8 conferences had teams, so that’s who we played.”

In the beginning the university offered no scholarships to women athletes. Uniforms were donated by an athletic apparel company. The school provided cars for transportation to away games and a box lunch for each player. It wasn’t much, but Debbie Brown, who graduated in 1974, the year women athletes became known as “Jennies,” was grateful for the chance to play basketball.  

Jennies Basketball Reunion Display

“Since we didn’t stay in hotels, we drove five hours to a game in Claremont, Oklahoma, played the game, and drove back to campus,” Brown recalls. “We missed the curfew and bed check that was set up for women students. Luckily, the housemother knew we were basketball players.”

After the passage of Title IX, the team began to travel predominantly by a university bus rather than school cars. Marilyn Carlson, ’77, who in 1973 played on the first post- Title IX team, recalls that pregame meals were often in drugstore cafeterias, and after-game meals were often at McDonald’s with each player given $3 to spend. In the 1975–76 season, the team started to travel more and stay in hotels instead of “old dormitories provided by the home team.”

Barnes’ reputation and success led to more players from across the country seeking to play at UCM. It was common to see players from outside Missouri, and the 1979–80 team had only three players from in state.

Players came from Washington, Kansas, South Carolina, Iowa, Indiana and Nevada. Why? They came to play for Millie Barnes.

In her last season, Barnes realized the most success as she found the perfect complement of players. In 1979, a team led by Kathy Anderson, Margie Nielsen and a host of experienced players went to the AIAW National Tournament and finished with a national ranking and an all-time best 26–5 record. Barnes retired at the end of the 1980 season with a 156–63 career record.

One of the biggest achievements for Coach Barnes was her participation with USA Women’s Basketball. As the coordinator for the U.S. Olympic Trials in 1976, she helped select and train the first-ever Women’s Olympic Basketball Team in Warrensburg, putting this small college town on the sports map. In 1978, Coach Barnes brought the Republic of China and Czechoslovakia national teams to Warrensburg to play the Jennies in games using international basketball rules. Barnes herself authored three books on girls’ and women’s basketball and served as the Rules Interpreter for the Division for Girls and Women’s Sports. She helped set the stage for women to play a full-court, five-player game, proving they could indeed run the full court and did not require an extra player.

The Jennies had their share of representation on USA basketball teams. In 1977 Kathy Anderson was a member of the USA Junior Basketball Team and traveled to Taiwan. In 1978 and 1979 she was a member of the USA Senior Basketball Team that played in China, Japan, Hong Kong and Russia. She was an alternate on Team USA for the Pan-American games.

“Playing on the U.S. team exposed my weaknesses,” Anderson says of the experience, “and when I returned to UCM, I knew exactly what I needed to work on to help the team.” Being on her own in a foreign country at a young age helped her mature not only as a player but as a person. UCM basketball players still enjoy the experience of traveling for the sport, with Jennies and Mules joining players from other Division II teams across the country to represent the USA in Brazil each summer.

Jennies Basketball Reunion

As UCM celebrates 50 years of women’s basketball (pictured above: former players reunite with Coach Barnes in 2019), the legacy of this legendary coach is clear with the Jennies’ continued success on the court. Since Barnes retired at the end of the 1980 season, the Jennies have won 819 games against only 338 losses for a 71% winning record. This includes two national championships, a second-place and third-place finish. Barnes herself has been inducted into seven Halls of Fame and will always be remembered as a driving force in overcoming adversity and shaping women’s basketball into the game it is today.

Mary Jo Sandberg, ’81, played Jennies basketball from 1977 to 1981. Jennies Basketball is celebrating its 50th anniversary during the 2019-2020 season.

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