COLUMBIA — The players on the first official women’s basketball team at Missouri had to deal with many inconveniences and inadequacies during the team’s inaugural 1974-75 season, but one particularly irritated Suzanne Alt.
The team was given the swim team’s old warm-ups to wear before games, and Alt, who was the tallest player on the team at 6-foot-2, had to wear pants that ended above her ankles. Alt, then a freshman post player, did all she could to get her warm-ups to fit, but to no avail.
“I’d hang them on a hanger and hang weights on the bottom of them to try to get them long enough,” Alt said. “The uniforms were miserable, but we were quite happy just to have them, we weren’t going to gripe.”
Alt, fellow freshman Nancy Rutter, now Nancy Huerd, and Debbie Fowler, now Debbie Lovejoy, played in the first game the women’s basketball team played after becoming an official sport at MU. Thirty-three years later, the program will play its 1000th game Saturday when the Tigers take on Kansas State.
“I didn’t even realize that. That’s amazing, that makes me feel very old,” Lovejoy said with a laugh.
The players were not playing in conditions comparable to today’s Division I programs, but they were happy to be playing.
“We played for the love of it and the fun of it, and when we came in we were quite proud,” Alt said.
Alt and Huerd got on the team by trying out before the season because there was no recruiting done for the 1974-75 team. There were also no scholarships available that season. Many players had academic scholarships and a work-study program was available that Alt said would cover about a quarter of the cost of going to MU.
“You had to go either referee some intramural games, life guard at the pool, work in some of the offices doing some office work at the athletic department,” Alt said.
Other schools recruited Alt and Huerd, but they still decided to come to MU. With no recruiting done and no financial incentive offered to play, the players came to MU for academic and family reasons. Huerd came largely because most of her family had gone to MU, including her father and grandfather who each played football for the Tigers.
“I just came because of the school, for an education,” Huerd said. “It was a tradition. I went mainly because of that and the basketball was almost secondary, although I did want to play basketball.”
The opportunity to play became available for the first time in Huerd and Alt’s freshman year. While things were far from ideal then, it was definitely a step up from years past. Lovejoy was a junior guard on the 1974-75 team and had played the season before when women’s basketball had not yet been recognized as an official sport. She said that back then the players had to personally pay for certain necessities including uniforms.
“The university took care of things that it hadn’t before,” Lovejoy said. “We still traveled on buses, we did those kind of things.”
While many improvements had already been made, additional ones were still needed. The team played its home games on the main floor at the Hearnes Center, but players had to change in public bathrooms because no locker room was available to them that season.
“Nothing was set up for us yet. They weren’t accessible to us for whatever reason,” Huerd said.
The team practiced in a small gym in the upstairs of the Hearnes Center, and played a schedule that didn’t have them travel out of state. Almost all schools they faced were from Missouri, and MU only traveled to Springfield for the Turkey Tournament and the MAIAW State Tournament and played road games at Columbia College, Truman State, Central Missouri and Missouri Western.
Huerd played high school basketball at South Shelby High School in Shelbina, where she won a state championship her senior year after losing in the first girls state championship game the year before. Huerd was unimpressed with the state of MU’s program upon arriving in Columbia for her freshman year.
“In some ways it was a little bit of a step backwards,” Huerd said. “It was a little hard that first year, because I had a good high school program to compare it to. So in that way, it was a little bit disappointing, but that quickly changed.”
Before the program’s second season, MU hired Joann Rutherford to coach the team. She got the program going and coached through the 1997-98 season.
By the time Alt and Huerd graduated, they had athletic scholarships and the program began recruiting.
And another change was made.
“By the time Rutherford came in, we got really cool sweats, and we thought we were on top of the world with new uniforms,” Alt said.