Joann Rutherford’s life is coming full circle.
Rutherford guided the Missouri women’s basketball program from its infancy in 1975 and made it a contender in the Big Eight Conference.
Rutherford started her basketball career at a YMCA when she was 5. After leaving Missouri in 1998, she returned to the organization that gave her the opportunity to play sports as a child. Rutherford, 54, is the executive director at the YMCA in Lake Ozark and follows the Tigers.
When Rutherford took over, she was 25 and the Tigers had gone 9-8 its first year of competition. Recruiting in the early days wasn’t a matter of getting the best players for her program, it was getting players.
“We didn’t have any scholarships, so we just put an ad in the paper for anybody who wanted to come out,” Rutherford said.
Things didn’t get any easier for the women’s team once it got players, though.
No scholarships, facilities didn't slow Rutherford
“You have to realize we didn’t have scholarships, didn’t have facilities, didn’t have anything,” Rutherford said. “We had one sets of warm-ups we had to share with all the sports. You’d get in at night and have to go wash those warm-ups so the swim team could take them.”
Rutherford said coaches did everything during that time. In addition to coaching nearly 40 games that season for the varsity and junior varsity, Rutherford also taught six physical education classes.
Rutherford is reluctant to take much credit for her role in getting Missouri’s program started. Instead she said it is the people who played during those years who deserve the recognition.
“Those are the pioneers, those kids who came out,” Rutherford said. “They came out for the true love of the game because there was no money.”
In a day where teams fly to games so players won’t miss as much school, Rutherford talks about the 1976-77 season where her team played nine games in 10 days, all the while traveling in a van.
“It was brutal, but we had to get in the most games we could for the time that we had because we didn’t have any money,” Rutherford said. “So you look back and you know (those players) loved the game.”
Rutherford lead 1976 Tigers to runner-up finish in Big 8
In her first year, Rutherford coached the Tigers to a 10-9 record and finished the 1976 season as the Big Eight runner-up. The team improved to 28-12 the next season and Rutherford won her first Big Eight title in 1978, finishing No. 13 in the Associated Press poll.
“All we knew was Big Eight,” Rutherford said. “Just like now, KU was probably our biggest opponent and Oklahoma was a big rival of ours at that time.
“The competition was what was so great. It was a great league, and we had great coaches and great players. I can’t say enough about how fun the conference was.”
Rutherford said she always thought there are two dimensions to coaching. The first is the winning and losing and the basics of how the game is played. The second dimension, and the one most important to Rutherford, is caring about the players.
Relationships with players meant a lot to Rutherford
“You become very attached to those individuals,’’ she said. “It’s kind of a process, you bring them up as freshman and hopefully when you send them out the door when they are seniors they are ready to get out in this wonderful world and get a good job, make some good decisions and be very successful in life and that is what you have got to look at.”
Rutherford’s loyalty to Missouri is evident when she declined to leave MU. When Stanford called Rutherford after a few years at Missouri and offered her an interview, she entertained the idea, but passed on the offer because Missouri was where her allegiances were and it was where she wanted to be, she said.
“I say that place has a special place in my heart and it always will have,” Rutherford said. “Once a Tiger, always a Tiger.”
Known for her ability to yell at her team, Rutherford earned the respect and admiration of players, coaches and fans. Named Conference Coach of the Year in 1984, 1985 and 1990, Rutherford’s record at Missouri is 422-262.
Rutherford won five conference titles at Missouri, including the Big Eight Tournament in 1994 after finishing seventh in conference in the regular season.
Rutherford left Missouri to return home to take care of personal matters. Rutherford went to work for the YMCA because she felt it would be a good way to give something back to a program that gave her so much as a child.
Rutherford still coaching, now at YMCA
Working at the YMCA allows her to continue to teach basketball to kids as young as 5 and to teach them good habits and the fundamentals of the game, Rutherford said.
Her work with the YMCA is not much different from her work at Missouri in the 1970s, Rutherford said.
“Starting here is kind of like starting at MU,” she said. “(We have) no facility, we have to borrow everything, and now we are building a facility. So I guess I am starting all over again.
“I guess I am kind of a fool; I take these projects where I have to start from the bottom and work up.”
Rutherford said she doesn’t miss coaching in front of crowds or for conference championships; that part of her life is finished. Competition is the one thing she said she does miss, though. It is something she said she tries to teach to the kids she coaches at the YMCA.
“That is probably one thing I teach them right off because life is competition, to me,” Rutherford said. “When you get out there, you better know how to compete.”
For Rutherford, the emphasis in college basketball should not be on records, but the types of people a program produces.
Rutherford said she is excited that MU is moving forward and getting a new arena, but at the same time, she is nostalgic for Hearnes Center.
“Hearnes will always be home for me,” she said.