“You don’t have to be a victim of your environment. You learn that through sports, you learn that through teamwork. You decide who you want to be and then you go pursue that. “ I learned this key lesson from my college coach, Jill Hutchinson, a legend in women’s basketball. With that mindset, it is no surprise Jill influenced the lives of so many young women in her 28-year tenure as ISU.
She refused to be a victim of gender.
Historically in America, women and sports were incompatible. While at University of New Mexico (1963-1967), Hutchinson was reprimanded for competing in a national tournament in Gallup, NM as part of an AAU state championship team. When a professor, who was then president of the Division of Girls and Women’s Sport (DGWS), announced that women were not suited for team sport, Jill challenged her comment in class.
“She ripped me from one end to the other,” Hutchinson recounted. “I walked out of class in tears. I remember telling some kids in class that I was going to make sure girls have an opportunity to play.”
Before the time women were recruited, I chose Illinois State University on a gut feeling. Coach Jill Hutchinson won me over with her enthusiasm for life and the game.
Not only were female athletes new, but women coaches were an anomaly.
While Hutchinson racked up championships in her 28-year tenure at Illinois State, she also succeeded at the international level leading the US to a gold at the 1983 World University Games and a silver medal at the 1978 Pan American Games. On the national level, she is known for helping the women’s game grow from obscurity to its current level of popularity.
In spite of the obstacles she confronted, Hutchinson was never bitter. When inducted to the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame Knoxville Tennessee, Jill said, “I am very fortunate to have lived in the time I have. The progress from the time when we could only play three players on each side of the court to where we are today has been a great experience.”
She was a rookie coach, learning the ropes as she went along, yet she never feared asking questions or standing up for what was right. Jill gained ground with class and kindness at time when women met roadblocks. When women athletics moved from McCormack gym to Horton, they were unwelcome. “I brought brownies to the workers and won them over.”
“Her legacy is etched in stone in national basketball archives with 460 wins and an impeccable graduation rate at Illinois State,” said former ISU Athletics Director Rick Greenspan.
She coached numerous professional players and two Olympians, Charlotte Lewis and Cathy Boswell, but what makes her proudest is the fact that every senior athlete she coached earned a degree, even if she came back years later to attain it.
“If you’re willing to win at all costs, if you don’t emphasize the values in sport and the values in learning then I think you, as a coach, sell out to the big entertainment business. I still think if you’re going to be coaching at a collegiate institution you have an obligation to educate your student athletes.”
She had just as great impact off the court as on it due to her leadership on the rules committee. She was the co-founder and first Women’s Basketball Coaches Association President, an honor she held 4 times.
“I have been extremely fortunate in my career,” said Hutchinson. “I never had to go to work. I got to go to the gym.”
Yet work she did. As a graduate student at ISU, her research shattered the myth that full court 5on 5 basketball would be fatal for women. She hooked electrodes to basketball players with no ill effects proving a woman’s heart wouldn’t explode by running a fastbreak. This led to a change in rules instead of six-player game to the full court five-player game.
As first generation Title IX athletes, competitive sports for girls was so new that we came into university with raw talent, true grit and a love of the game. We were in awe of Coach Hutchinson. For the first time, we had a female role model. Everyone who played for her wanted to do right by her. Most of us remained in contact with her long after graduation.
When my former Olympian teammate, Charlotte Lewis, died of a heart attack in her early 50s, Jill spoke at her funeral.
Another, incident shows the depth of Jill’s caring. I left the States in 1980 to play basketball in Europe. Three decades later, my Franco-American daughter raised abroad returned to the States to combine sport and academics as part of the DIII program that Hutchinson recommended. My daughter, Nathalie, played for Shirley Egner, another highly acclaimed coach at UW-Stevens Point. Hutchinson attended their match-up at Illinois Wesleyan and stayed afterward to meet Nathalie. Then Jill passed on to my daughter the poem that I had written her, during my senior year at ISU, about a coach’s role shaping athletes into adults.
Hutchinson was ahead of her time. Long before sports psychology existed, she invited a psychiatrist to teach us progressive, relaxation technique before a big game.
In the day before assistants, Hutchinson was a one-woman show. She thought nothing of driving her team cross country in campus station wagons. She tracked down gyms without GPS, and followed weather reports and speed trap warnings from truckers on CB radios. She fielded winning teams on shoe-string budgets, fighting for practice space, athletic equipment and opportunities to compete. She planned practices, organized travel, scouted opponents, and fought on national committees for women’s rights. She mimeographed handwritten scouting reports detailing game strategy and opponent players’ strengths and weaknesses. Every game she scrawled individual notes to each player. Hutch had an uncanny ability to motivate players and that motivation never left us.
Her legacy lives on in the hundreds of players whose lives she influenced and in their daughters, who never doubted their right to succeed in any arena!