With Swimming, Track, and Cross Country already in the books, it’s time to take a look at one of Tech’s most consistent teams, the women’s basketball team.
It’s hardly surprising that Tech’s oldest women’s varsity athletic program is one that has seen a very steady level of results. Though they may not have any ACC titles, let alone national ones, to show for it, the Georgia Tech women’s team has often played a pretty decent brand of basketball. This columnist argues that a good bit of that has to be rooted in consistency. That starts at the top.
Since its founding in 1974, the Tech women’s basketball team has had just six head coaches. Though the initial three head men and women were not around for a particularly long time, the two that followed would span three decades and, quite frankly, the vast majority of the memorable seasons and accomplishments on the court of the Yellow Jackets. However, the significance of the women’s basketball program, particularly in the early years, largely stemmed from events and factors away from the hardwood.
The team’s first coach was a man named Jim Culpepper, who had been around campus for five years before the team was organized. Prior to 1974, he was most well-known for being the head of intramural athletics on campus. When he was approached in 1973 by a band of women who wanted a varsity team, not just intramurals, he knew off the bat that it would be a long sell. To make a new varsity program happen, not only did they have to find girls to round out the roster and teams to play, but convince a relatively dismissive Bobby Dodd that the team was worth making, as per the reminiscing of some of the players that founded the team. In a feature for ramblinwreck.com, they recalled that, despite two years having passed since the advent of Title IX, not only did Tech not have any women’s sports, Dodd had, well, never heard of the law. The federal government proved to be the ace in the hole, though the athletic association essentially told the three women at the heart of the inititative, Carolyn Thigpen, Deni Heitmann and Theresa McClure Caron, that they and Culpepper would largely be fighting battles on their own. It would not be the NCAA they would be participating in, nor would there be scholarships, but, rather, as financial independents in the nascent Georgia Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women. Basketballs, uniforms, and travel expenses? Non-existent. Putting a 22 game schedule together in a few weeks? Somewhat miraculous.
For all that effort, the “Jackettes,” as they called themselves, went 6-16. They played home games not in Alexander Memorial Coliseum nor the Hesiman Gym, which were the de jure home of men’s basketball and de facto domain of gymnastics, respectively. And, well, that was at least a start.
Saying Culpepper’s second year wasn’t much better would be generous. In fact, it was worse, as the Jackets went 2-24 on a hyper-regional schedule. But, by year three, things were starting to turn around for the team. In those first few years, he was essentially trying to mold very ambitious young women in the same way that, say, taking a club team to the varsity level would be today. The practice, the stamina, and the culture had to be built from scratch in a way that, say, a jump from D-II to to D-I doesn’t really compare to. The team’s record against GAIAW teams would explode to 19-8, 23-4, and 18-8 in the next three years.
In the team’s sixth year, their founding head coach finally received a paycheck for his services. However, that 1979-1980 season would also be Tech’s first in the ACC, and at the D-I level of the NCAA. Much like that first season, it was a rough one, as the Jackets sunk back down to 2-23. It would be after this season that Culpepper would resign to focus his efforts on the position as head of intramurals, as well as his burgeoning responsibilities as the coordinator of women’s athletics. It was under his watchful tutelage that softball, tennis, and volleyball all joined the women’s basketball team in the varsity athletic portfolio. Benny Dees, his replacement, would move on to the University of Alabama after just one 8-19 season.
Tech looked up the road to Chapel Hill to find their next head coach. Bernadette McGlade, North Carolina’s top assistant, oversaw a slow build over her six year tenure, netting Tech’s first record above .500 when her sixth season in 1986-1987 netted a 14-13 record and a sixth place finish in the conference. Her seventh season would prove to be her last, and, upon her departure after an 11-16 record, her own top assistant, Agnus Berenato, took over as the Jackets’ head coach.
It was under Berenato that Tech would finally see their fifteen years of hard work pay off. Right off the bat, her team went .500, which was a relatively torrid start. By her fourth season, 1991-1992, Tech earned their first postseason bid, and I wish I could tell you what their seeding was, but the media guide doesn’t specify. Anyways, that WNIT bid came hot on the heels of Tech’s first ACC tournament win, when they scored a 68-67 upset of #4 Maryland, despite being the conference’s seventh best team. They found themselves in the championship game after another one point upset of their most-played rival, the Clemson Tigers, the lowest seed in ACC history to make the championship game. Fortunately, their narrow one point loss to top ranked Virginia was rewarded with an opportunity in the WNIT.
Posted up in Amarillo, Texas, it must have been a smaller tournament in those days, since Tech had to beat just Wisconsin-Green Bay, Nebraska, and Hawaii on the way to the title. Their first game was the closest, a one point victory over Green Bay, and as the Jackets became increasingly comfortable, their margin of victory got larger and larger. To this day, it remains Tech’s only postseason title, though they took Michigan to 3OT before finally falling to the Wolverines in the 2017 edition of that same tournament and also appeared in the ACC championship once more in 2012, a three point loss to an exceptional Maryland team.
As for Berenato, she would coach Tech for another 11 years before moving on. In that time her teams would notch several more important firsts for the women’s basketball program. The season following the WNIT championship run, the Jackets were ranked in a national poll for the first time, debuting at #25 in both the AP and USA Today on December 22, 1992. Tech hovered in the low 20s for five straight weeks, peaking at #23 in the AP and #21 in the USA Today rankings, before falling back out. However, they were able to capitalize on both the publicity and postseason experience to put together their best season yet, a 16-9 slate good for a bid to their first NCAA Tournament. Although they lost in the first round, it was a monumental milestone for a program that just 8 years prior had gone 0-14 in ACC play.
Although the pair of seasons in 1991-92 and 1992-93 were Tech’s best yet, that success proved a bit fleeting, as Tech would be locked out of the postseason for the next six seasons. In that span, they would finish above .500 just one time, when they went 15-12 in 1996-97.
However, a switch flipped in 1999-2000, one that I would argue still has not been flipped off. As strange as it is to say, considering Tech is now on its third coach in the span, the ethos of the Yellow Jackets’ women’s basketball team really hasn’t changed over those tenures.
That 1999-2000 team made it all the way to the 3rd round of the WNIT, defeating Southern Mississippi at home and Chattanooga on the road, before falling to Arkansas in Fayetteville. Inclusive of that run in the WNIT, Tech would find themselves in the postseason in all of Berenato’s final four seasons, going out with a bang after a 20-11 NCAA-worthy season in 2003 before being hired away by Pittsburgh.
Not only did she build quite the crescendo, but her replacement, former Purdue great MaChelle Joseph, was able to build on it, after a few seasons in transition. Starting in 2006-07, when the Jackets traded a 14-15 record the year before for a 21-12 slate, resulting in their first postseason appearance under Joseph, the Jackets would find themselves in the NCAA tournament field eight times in nine years. After that first run, when they made it to the Second Round of March Madness, they rattled out three straight ten loss seasons, good for a combination of fourth and fifth place finishes in the ACC, then a 24-11 mark in 2010-11.
I think it’s fairly easy to identify Tech’s best-ever women’s basketball team. Sure, the young teams had a lot of heart and character, but those great records in their third, fourth, and fifth seasons were against quite the motley collection of other colleges. Tech’s first postseason team, the 1992 squad, was a scrappy bunch that just kept finding a way to win in the ACC tournament, until the last game, but then turned back around to win Tech’s only piece of postseason hardware. However, all of Tech’s other editions pale in comparison to the one the Jackets rolled out in 2011-12. Their 3rd place finish in the ACC with a 12-4 record stands both as Tech’s first season with double-digit ACC wins and their highest placing in the conference standings, and therefore best tournament seed.
For the record, Tech also had double-digit ACC wins this year, as well, but we’ll get back to the abbreviated Nell Fortner era soon.
Though the Jackets spent nearly all of the 2009-10 season in the AP and USA Today top 25, it was in 2011-12 that they reached their zenith in the polls. Tech blipped into the USA Today poll briefly in November, but were there to stay starting in January. It was in the USA Today poll, too, that they would reach their highest marks, when they were named #10 in the country. It is unsurprising, then, looking back and having already noted that this was the other Tech team to make the ACC tournament championship game. In that fateful matchup, they were edged by Maryland, but still managed a #4 seed in the Big Dance. Sent off to Des Moines, they were able to easily dispatch Sacred Heart and Georgetown in the first two rounds. Pitted against the regional top seed in Baylor, though, they didn’t stand much of a chance, given the long odds of even a narrower 1-4 upset in the sport, and fell 83-68. Thus ended the best season of Tech women’s basketball.
After a disappointing down year the following season, Tech would once again return to March Madness in the spring of 2014. Although not the same heights as the previous run, the Jackets would be regulars in the WNIT the next four years, including their deep run in 2017. The Jackets seemed destined to head back to the WNIT in 2019, or even an outside shot at the Big Dance, before coming apart at the seams down the stretch. I don’t pretend to know everything that happened in that saga, so I won’t comment on it, out of deference. What is known is that MaChelle Joseph, Tech’s winningest and longest-serving women’s basketball head coach, is no longer employed by Georgia Tech.
Though this controversy led to a lot of staff and player turnover, Tech found a willing and able replacement in Nell Fortner. Though it is early in her career on the Flats, the Auburn and Team USA success story’s first season yielded a 20-10 regular season record, including a trio of upsets of Florida State and North Carolina State, all highly ranked, but none more so than no. 4 NC State, and Fortner’s combination of solid in-game coaching, recruiting, and charisma seems to bode well for her future. This year’s Yellow Jacket team was certainly a bubble tournament team before play was suspended due to the pandemic, a shame considering their anchor, Francesca Pan, a tall, sharp-shooting Italian, was one of the best to ever play for the Jackets.
In the 20 year span from 1999-2000 to 2018-19, the Jackets made the postseason in 15 times. It probably should have been 16 of those 20, and then 17 of 21, but such are the whims of unforeseen circumstances. The women of the Tech basketball team have seen quite a lot in their now nearly five decades of existence. First, institutional forces either didn’t want them to exist, didn’t know how to help them, or couldn’t do enough to improve their circumstances. Then, they were thrown into the toughest neighborhood in women’s college basketball. They succeeded in spite of that, even if they couldn’t get a proven winner to stay that had been around for 15 years when another well-endowed program came calling. Today, they persevere, after two years that saw them lose seasons to two unfortunate circumstances outside of the hardwood.
And, through it all, they’ve been one of the most reliable programs in the Tech athletic portfolio, all things considered, even if they don’t have the hardware they thoroughly deserve to match it.
A special thanks to Dress Her in White and Gold, Engineering the New South, and the Georgia Tech Archives for the background information and images used in writing this column.
If you have any events or ideas you would like to see investigated, leave a comment below and I will be sure to look into adding it to the schedule. For the upcoming plan, see the June 1, 2020 column here. The interim presidency of James Boyd is up next.