USU restarts sport that was dropped in '87 Deseret News special
One of just three NCAA Division I member schools — and the only one in the Big West Conference — that didn't sponsor a women's basketball program has changed its tune.
In a move to make itself more attractive to a football-playing conference, and, indeed, keep itself in compliance with pending NCAA Division I-A requirements, Utah State University was to announce in a mid-day news conference in Salt Lake City Tuesday that it will reinstate a women's program starting in the 2003-04 academic year.
USU had a women's program from the 1972-73 season until 1986-87. It played in post-season games in four years, then was discontinued, along with men's cross country, because of state budget constraints. Women's tennis was added and reportedly saved almost $100,000. Women's soccer was added in 1996, but the Aggies have spent most of the 1990s and into this decade talking about returning to a women's basketball program.
A coach will likely be hired by this spring. USU will compete in the Big West and be immediately eligible to enter the league and NCAA tournaments.
University president Kermit L. Hall and athletic director Rance Pugmire both called it "right."
"Women's basketball is back and long overdue," said Hall. "It simply doesn't make sense not to sponsor one of the four premier sports on every I-A campus in the country. It is the right thing to do and a move that will enhance an already strong component of women's programs available here at Utah State."
Added Pugmire, "We currently have 15 sports so this puts us in position to meet the new criteria," Pugmire said. "Equally important is our ability to join a I-A football-playing conference. Every league in the country has women's basketball, so it makes even more sense.
"But the bottom line is, it's the right thing to do," Pugmire said. "Not to have the sport in this day and age is embarrassing."
USU competes in the Big West Conference with the exception of its independent football program; indoor track and field, a member of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation; and its gymnastics team, affiliated with the Western Gymnastics Conference. The Big West does not sponsor those sports.
Pugmire said Big West women's teams have annual budgets of $450,000-$500,000, and a combination of "student fees and department-wide sponsorship revenues" will be used to fund the new program. The Citadel and Virginia Military Institute will now be the only two Division I programs in the nation that support men's basketball but not women's.
"To be recognized as a legitimate Division I athletic program, we need women's basketball," said Aggie men's coach Stew Morrill.
Fern Gardner, the first women's basketball coach at USU, said the move is "great. Obviously it is close to my heart because I spent a lot of years at Utah State, and our team did well."
Former athletic director Rod Tueller, under whose administration the sport met its demise, said, "When basketball was dropped it was done for the right reasons, and now it is being brought back for the right reasons."