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AP photo by Mary Ann Chastain / Mississippi State women's basketball coach Sharon Fanning looks to pass during practice in March 2005 at the SEC tournament in Greenville, S.C. She began her head coaching career at UTC and later worked at Kentucky before taking charge of the Bulldogs.

Sharon Fanning-Otis refuses to identify the guilty party. Nor will she give up the name of the institution of higher learning the neanderthal administrator worked for. But she has never forgotten the words or the sentiment connected to them.

"He said, 'If God had meant for women to work in athletics, he'd have put AstroTurf in the kitchen,'" she recently recalled. "That's the kind of mindset we were up against. That's why Title IX was so important."

If anyone understands the impact of Title IX on women's athletics and beyond, it's Fanning-Otis, who just might be the best all-around female athlete in Chattanooga history. Basketball. Volleyball. Fast-pitch softball. The schoolgirl then known as Sharon Cable from City High School was a star in all of them.

She then played volleyball and basketball at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga before becoming the head basketball coach for the Lady Mocs (the team's nickname in those days) from 1976 to 1987.

Yet after graduating from City in 1971 — one year before Title IX became the law of the land — her goals at UTC didn't even include the sport she would eventually oversee for 36 years total at UTC, Kentucky and Mississippi State, where she reached six NCAA tournaments in 17 seasons, including one Sweet 16 berth, before retiring at the close of the 2012 season.

"We didn't even have a basketball team when I started at UTC," she said. "My plan was to play volleyball, get a degree, then go back to East Lake (Elementary School) and teach physical education."

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Chattanooga sports great Sharon Fanning-Otis

But then Congress passed Title IX as part of the Education Amendments of 1972 on June 23 of that year. Amazingly — given how closely it has become tied to women's college sports — its original goal was to prohibit sex-based discrimination in any school or education program that receives federal funding. Sports was never mentioned.

A single statistical comparison to address the power of Title IX over education in general: In 1970, less than 42% of college students were female; in 2021, nearly 60% of college students were women.

"I didn't even know what it was until I heard about it in class one day," Fanning-Otis said. "But within a few years you started seeing a lot of full-time coaching positions opening up in places that had never had women's basketball before."

Including places like UTC. According to legend, James Drinnon, the school's chancellor at the time, decided to start a women's team under the direction of the late Grace Keith after his son saw Fanning-Otis spinning a basketball on her finger — Harlem Globetrotter style — one afternoon at Maclellan Gym.

"At least that's what I've always heard," she said with a laugh.

She quickly became the Lady Mocs' star player, though there wasn't much of a program.

"They gave you a game jersey," she said. "You had to buy everything else — shorts, shoes, socks, everything. We played the state tournament one year in Jackson (Tennessee), and I remember playing three games in one day. But we had a basketball team."

And after a year spent assisting some woman named Pat Head at Tennessee — you might know her as the late legend Pat Head Summitt, who became the winningest women's coach ever — Fanning-Otis took over the Lady Mocs.

"The athletic department offices back then were in a doublewide trailer where the student center is now," she said. "(Athletic director) Harold Wilkes' office was in there. (Men's basketball coach) Ron Shumate was there. (Fooball coach) Joe Morrison's office. Everybody."

And while money was tight for all the sports, both finances and respect were at their nadir when it came to the women.

"We're playing a volleyball match one afternoon in Big Mac (Maclellan), and it's running long," Fanning-Otis said. "The (men's) basketball team is supposed to have the court at 5 p.m. for practice. We had to move the final set of our volleyball match to an auxiliary court so their practice could start on time."

There were no overnight trips for the women, nor buses. School vans were the only mode of transportation. And meal money was next to nonexistent.

"We were playing at Berry College one night and we got beat," she recalled. "On the drive back, the girls wanted to get a steak dinner. Back then, you could get a hamburger, fries, a fried apple pie and a Coke at McDonald's for something like $1.89. That was our budget. We couldn't afford steak. But I didn't tell the team that. I told them, 'You play like steak, you get steak. You play like hamburger, you eat hamburger.'"

Another lack of money story: On a trip back from Middle Tennessee State, it began to snow and the defroster in the school van couldn't keep the ice off the windshield.

"We'd have to stop every few miles and pour alcohol or something on the windshield to melt it," she said. "It was crazy."

It says much about the reluctance of college administrators to embrace Title IX that nine years came and went after its passage before the NCAA started staging women's championships and putting the AIAW (Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women) out of business.

Yet gradually it all improved. By the time Fanning-Otis left UTC for Kentucky at the close of the 1986-87 season, the team was taking Greyhound buses to games. The Lady Mocs had not only game uniforms but practice gear. McKenzie Arena had opened, even if the women still often played in Maclellan.

That doesn't mean there hasn't been frustration after frustration, even as recently as the 2021 NCAA Division I basketball tournaments, when it was discovered the women's facilities and perks were far inferior to the men's.

"That surprised me," she said. "But I'm sure that won't happen again."

There's also the matter of budgets, which were vastly uneven most of her career.

"The men always say, 'It's who makes the money,'" Fanning-Otis said. "But I've always heard you have to spend money to make money, which schools are finally doing."

Still, to come from buying your own uniforms and moving games while they're being played to accommodate men's practices to today, when many women's programs have their own practice facilities and television packages, "It's much, much better than it used to be," Fanning-Otis said. "Now we just have to keep moving forward."

She paused, then added: "I've seen it from the beginning, and I'm tickled to death to have been a part of it. It's truly amazing what Title IX has done for women's sports."

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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