Interview by: Abby Gilbertson, Jinjin Han, Lily Kopplin, Kara Vande Brink, Skyylar Brescia, & Zoe Hazel
Front Row Kneeling L-R: Jack Christ, Lily Kopplin, Abby Gilbertson. Back Row Standing L-R: Jinjin Han, Elaine Coll, Skylar Brescia, Zoe Hazel, Kara Vande Brink
Imagine being one of the first people to overcome the gender barrier in college athletics. Elaine Coll was the founder of the modern-day women’s intercollegiate athletic program at Ripon College. She began her career at Ripon in 1973, just a year after Title IX was put into effect, governing intercollegiate athletic programs for women.
When asked about her adolescence, Coach Coll described herself as a tomboy because she always wanted to be around sports:
I don’t know if anybody remembers tomboys and so I liked to hang around the little league field, you know and see if I could get anybody to show up and we could play ball or something. So I always liked sports. I wanted to be able to play, but there was no place to play.
Coll attended Ohio University, where she studied physical education and biology. She tried to participate in some athletics through the Girls Athletic Association (GAA), but it was a very flawed system:
Maybe once a month, and it was only once a month, and it was only basketball - six players. Six-player basketball was three offensive players and three defensive players and the court was divided in the middle. You were either a shooter or a guard, and at first you only got one dribble to do something with it. There was no shot clock, probably no clock. And then they got up to two dribbles you could have, and that’s what we had and you might get to play in high school maybe three games a year. . . . That’s all there was, there wasn’t anything else other than half-court basketball.
After school, Coll coached track at UW Oshkosh until she came to Ripon:
I went to Ohio University and then I married my husband, we went off and got advanced degrees, and then we came - we went to a couple other schools, ya know. And I was hired and taught and coached track at UW-Oshkosh. They had a little women’s track team, and so I was there for three years. Ripon had one woman here: the dance instructor. She was full-time with a dance studio and everything, it was lovely - and she was really good. Well they decided after Title IX they had to have somebody, some woman come in here and coach. So they made her half-time and I came in half-time to coach volleyball, track, basketball, and teach - and that was half-time. But I was so happy to do it, I felt - I loved Ripon College, I love it.
Women were not typically allowed to participate in sports, and Coll was able to remember just a few so-called “reasons” why:
The [supposed] reason that women couldn’t play is that they didn’t have any talent, you know “what’s that big orange thing?” You got two girls who could shoot, there was no three point. The reason that women didn’t get to play was that their uterus might fall out, [so] we only played half court. I’m not kidding, they were all worried about our innards. And they had no talent, which of course they wouldn’t. You just weren’t worthy of playing, it wasn’t worth the time for somebody to give a little space to the women to even practice.
While at Ripon, Coll coached women's basketball, track and field, and volleyball. Over the course of her twenty-year coaching career, she coached ten Conference Championship teams, as well as two All-Americans and 60 All-Conference players. Her combined record as both the basketball and volleyball coach was 391-326.
She retired in 1993 and was inducted into the Ripon College Athletic Hall of Fame in 1995 to honor her coaching successes. Nowadays, the Ripon College Women’s Basketball team gives out an award every year called the “Elaine Coll Red Hawks Spirit Award.” The award is given out each year to the player who has “competed with outstanding enthusiasm each day for our team and the player who truly ‘gets over herself’ and ‘puts the team first day in and day out.’”
Due to Coll’s great successes as a coach and all that she has overcome, Professor Jack Christ found her to be a great interview subject to gain knowledge and leadership advice from in his Business Leadership course at Ripon College in the fall semester of 2021.
Coll continued to discuss the gender differences in sports and how Title IX had an impact on women in sports. Title IX was implemented as a part of the Education Amendments of 1972 and is a fundamental piece of demolishing gender-based discrimination. It states that:
No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.
Once it passed, Coll also said that “everybody got in an uproar.” It caused some chaos because athletic programs had to readjust to make room for women’s teams. At Ripon College specifically, Coach Coll explained that
There was only one locker room for everybody. And so after a game at home, we would shower with our opponents. And I mean, you know, it was cozy, very cozy in there. And so finally the best I could do was paint the back two rows of the lockers red, so that was our locker room. The last two rows of the locker room.
Coach Coll also had to find time and a place for her athletes to practice. This was easier said than done because women’s sports back then had to compete with men’s sports, which were used to having the gym all to themselves. Coll said,
All of a sudden, you need the gym. Another person, another group of people that wants to use the gym. And so, there was only one gym so you know I’d get the six o’clock practice time.
Along with not having their own locker room or dedicated gym time, women’s sports also faced the challenge of not having a large budget in the beginning:
The Midwest Conference wouldn’t have anything to do with us. We were just second-class citizens who were taking up space - using more money.
Due to not having a large budget, traveling for games was a challenge, but women’s sports overcame this challenge. In the first game that Coll coached at Ripon, the team had to stay over with their opponents.
I would stay with the coach and my kids got to stay with the players. . . . We didn’t have any money for hotels. . . . We had a little bit of money for food.
Another area Coll commented on was not having a budget for uniforms. She explained how the mothers of her athletes were fundamental in providing them for the team.
We wore pennies. I don't even know if you know what a penny is. The mothers sometimes would come in and say “What kind of uniforms? I’ll make you some shorts.” They’d make traveling bags for us, little corduroy traveling bags because we didn’t have any money to buy any.
This lack of funding is what Coll listed as one of her biggest disappointments as a coach. Although she said she only had small disappointments, the one about the budget stuck out to her:
Disappointments, I don’t know. I guess I always wanted to have more money for the women.
Instead of making a big deal over not receiving funding and battling for gym space, Coll just focused on her team:
We just had to make do. And you couldn’t complain about it. I mean you were given this opportunity but it was certainly second class.
Coll also spent some time trying to get the word out to the public about her basketball team. She went to a local news source to put information about her team in the local newspapers:
When I first got here, I asked the guy who put out all the newspaper stuff. [Ken Lay, Ripon College Public Relations Director]. I thought that they were [putting out stories about] men's basketball [but not women’s] basketball. [So I wrote stories about our team without mentioning gender.] “Basketball was going to play such and such a game at such and such a time or somebody made all-conference or somebody was high scorer.” And so I went up [to Ken Lay] and said “Gee Ken, maybe you could make some programs for us and maybe send out a little blurb to the papers.”
It was initiatives like reaching out to the local press that helped Coll develop a public image for her team. Coll also spent her time focused on leading her team. We asked Coach Coll what her definition of a leader was, and she responded “just a person who can get along and have people believe in them.”
She added a bit more of an explanation and led the conversation into talking about her leadership philosophy:
Be fair with people, don’t pick on one and love the other. I just think you have to do the best you can. I didn’t go out to be a leader, I just wanted to do something I always wanted to do.
A common theme throughout the interview with Coach Coll was the importance of being fair with others. She emphasized the importance of equal treatment for everyone, even when it was not easy. For example, Coll told a story about how she had a rule about drinking, and how some of her more gifted athletes did not listen, so she was put in the situation of either sticking to her word or letting it go so they’d have more potential to win the game.
Well, the thing is if you make a rule, don’t make a rule that you don’t want to enforce or can’t. Stick it out there. At one game, big volleyball match - big volleyball match . . . and two of my best players were out drinking the night before. And I found out. And okay now I said what was going to happen. It had to happen. So they had to sit in their street clothes behind the bench and I -- it was throwing the game -- the match. I mean they were really really good players. So you better be able to do it. Don’t make rules and then not follow up.
As a leader and coach, Coll was put in a tricky situation where it was a lose-lose situation regardless of what she did. She either could have won the game but not stuck to her word, or stuck to her word and lost the game. Coll stuck to her word and continued to follow her leadership philosophy of fairness. One of the most important aspects of being a coach is instilling credibility among their players. When Coll stuck to her word in the story above, she was treating everyone equally no matter their skill level.
We also asked Coach Coll about her coaching philosophy, which was very similar to her leadership philosophy:
I thought it was important, again, to treat everyone the same, more or less. You know everybody’s got a different personality, but I tried to teach them. I mean, I was learning. What do I know about five-player basketball? I never got to play it.
Even though Coll was not an expert on basketball, she still stuck with it and led her team fairly. One important point Coll brought up within the theme of leadership development was individual personalities. Acknowledging that everyone has a different personality is important for a leader. They have to know how to lead different types of people so that they can build relationships and trust with the people they lead. Going along with leading different types of people, dealing with different personalities, as well as accommodating people’s different learning styles can absolutely be a factor when deciding on drills, team bonding activities, and various other things. When asked to elaborate, Coll said,
Everybody has their own personalities, so you kind of try to stick with, you know, be good in a certain way to certain people. I mean, some of them just, whatever, you treat them individually. You treat them fairly.
Coach Coll takes a lot of pride in her overall philosophy of fairness. Based on her response, she tried her best to embody fairness throughout her role as a coach and a leader.
Well I do stress fair play in everything. I think you’re - you’re the model. You know, I’m not intentionally doing something. I’m trying to be the best I can be so they’ll be the best they can be and whatever my best was I - I was pretty happy doing it. I loved doing it.
Coll also touched on how coaching has changed over the years and how recruiting worked when things were getting started:
Well, I don’t know, the women were catching up. When I started, I never recruited, nobody recruited, we didn’t know anything. So, if we were going to have tryouts for the team, I would put flyers up in the commons on each table. “basketball tryouts,” “volleyball tryouts,” whatever, “volleyball tryouts today or tomorrow at four o’clock.” And whoever showed up, that was the team. And nobody had thought about recruiting, and then we came along and we started to recruit. And again, it wasn’t like it is now at all. I would, on Sundays, call anybody that I had any inkling was interested. They would tell me up in the Admissions Office if somebody even plays a sport, so whoever showed up, that was it.
Nowadays, recruiting is a year-round process and coaches take a lot of their time to recruit. When Coll recruited, it was maybe two hours out of a Sunday afternoon. Now, Coll explains that recruitment is
Year round, the coaches now, the women coaches, everybody. I mean they are recruiting year round and they are going to watch the women play. All these high schools, sometimes they’ll go to see the club sports, but club sports is another thing. It just doesn’t stop. At the beginning of the summer they were recruiting for next year.
Besides coaching women’s sports, Coll was given the task of coaching men’s track, which, to her surprise, she found was fun and she was very respected by the male athletes.
The last three years I coached track, I had the men. I never in my life thought I would be coaching men’s track and you know what? I have to tell you this, ladies: not one guy in three years rolled his eyes at me, not one! We just had fun!
Coll continued to explain why she loves Ripon College after being asked by Professor Christ:
Just the atmosphere. The atmosphere is nice, the kids are nice, the men are nice - mostly. Nobody tried to kill me, that was good. It was just a pleasant place to be, and I wanted to get to know the professors, ya know I don’t wanna be the dumb jock coach down there. So I liked to socialize. I ate lunch, the faculty had a lunch at the Hughes House Faculty Club once a week, and I’d go. Once a week you made a pot of soup, and I got to know all kinds of faculty members, and they got to know me. And whatever they thought, we got to be friends, and so I knew very many of the professors. Men, women, everything. So I really just liked it here. I felt blessed.
Towards the end of her career, Coll found coaching to be too much:
You know, track’s an entirely different sport, track is so fun. Stressful . . . but they all are. It got to be so stressful I couldn’t do it any more.
Throughout Coll’s coaching career, coaching evolved into a large time commitment and brought new pressures with it, which is what led Coll to retire.
That’s why I finally retired. It went from a small, as it were, part of my life, it was a big part of my life, but it didn’t take all my time. Like I said, these coaches now, there’s no time for anything but coaching and all the things that go with it.
At the beginning of the course, Professor Jack Christ’s students were asked the question “Why try?” so Coll was presented with the same question. She provided a lot of reasons while focusing on trying as a woman:
Because you do get something out of it. You get to be with other women, you know, have the same interests. You get to help women in some way, and in this way it’s athletics. They wanna play, you know you should have the right to play.
The work that Elaine Coll has done not only for the Ripon College community, but for women’s sports associations nationwide, by setting such an idealistic example of leadership, is beyond comprehension. The disproportionate struggles that she and her players had to face as they stepped into a post-Title IX sports world were vast, but not only did Coll lead by example with pride and enjoyment in every opportunity, she also made sure that her players and students grew from the opportunities and lessons she’d taught them.
So why try? Because not only could you have the opportunity to do something you have never done, but you may also be able to lead others to follow their highest aspirations and make a difference in many lives in the future. In the words of Elaine Coll, when finally asked what piece of advice she had for the future generation of leaders, she said,
Be yourselves and do the best you can - that’s all you can do. I mean you know what, you know who you are . . . maybe. But you’ll just evolve. And my thing is just be yourself and do the best you can. And you have to; there’s work involved in doing that.
What would you do?
Please check out our podcast and slideshow featuring a brief excerpt from our interview with Elaine Coll.