By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
Oh, the stories members of Michigan State’s 1976 volleyball team will retell for the umpteenth time when they reunite to celebrate the 40th anniversary of their Elite Eight appearance in the national tournament.
They’ll reminisce about the times they packed into university-owned station wagons for road trips. They’ll tease team captain Cate Davis about misplacing the keys to their rental van at nationals in Austin, Texas and how they had to jog the mile or so from their hotel to the arena for their next match. They’ll recall how they held a jump-a-thon to help raise the $5,000 needed to play in the prestigious UCLA Invitational in Los Angeles.
And, the trailblazing Spartans will joke again about how Coach Annelies Knoppers was expecting them to counter 6-foot-5 future Olympian Flo Hyman, who was already a volleyball legend, in their Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) matchup with the University of Houston.
“The older we get, the better we were,” laughed Kathy DeBoer, the team leader who also starred for the MSU women’s basketball team. “And there’s no film to disprove it, so there are some advantages to having all this undocumented information.
“But, we came along at a time that was right for us and had just an incredible experience from which to build lifelong relationships and friendships. We didn’t do it with a lot of support or resources, but that’s OK. We’re just incredibly proud of the investment that’s now being made in the sport by Michigan State.”
The ’76 team’s deposit, made up almost entirely of dedication and sweat equity, will be recognized later this week during Alumni Weekend festivities. They will attend MSU’s Big Ten-opening match against Iowa on Friday night at Jenison Field House, be introduced during Saturday’s conference-opening football game against Wisconsin at Spartan Stadium, and later that night be honored during the Spartans’ match against No. 1 ranked and defending national champion Nebraska.
What the ’76 Spartans did during those barnstorming days of women’s athletics was significant and worthy of distinction, according to 12th-year head volleyball coach Cathy George.
“It’s really important to me that we have an alumni base as a family and that we’re having everybody back and giving them their just due,” she said. “They did some great things and maybe haven’t been recognized the way they needed to be in the past. We just want to love them up, bring them into the fold and have our family come together.”
Title IX, which required equal opportunities be provided for females at institutions receiving federal funding, became law in 1972 and MSU fielded its first volleyball team the following year.
Scholarship money and full-time coaches were non-existent, the NCAA was eight years away from sponsoring championships for women’s sports and when Knoppers took over as the Spartan head coach in ’74, it was as a graduate assistant, DeBoer recalled.
Knoppers’ first team finished 20-13 and in ’75, MSU won the Big Ten Tournament in Minneapolis – an event held before the conference officially sanctioned a league championship for volleyball – and advanced to the AIAW national tournament for the first time before finishing with a 41-4 record.
A year later, the Spartans did the unimaginable.
First, they successfully defended their Big Ten championship by beating Minnesota, Purdue and Ohio State on the Buckeyes’ home court at St. John Arena in Columbus. Then, they defeated Western Michigan, Michigan, Calvin College and Central Michigan to win the Michigan-AIAW’s so-called “state championship” tournament -- a qualifying event hosted by Northern Michigan University and open to all college programs regardless of division.
From Marquette, Michigan State advanced to pool play in the AIAW nationals at the University of Texas.
In those days, volleyball was dominated by teams from the West Coast and Hawaii, and as the only team from east of the Mississippi River, pale-skinned Spartans were regarded as an anomaly by their tanned counterparts.
But, MSU dominated a do-or-die match against the Longhorns (15-8, 15-0) in front of a hostile crowd to advance to the Elite Eight, where it fell to eventual national champ Southern Cal (15-0, 15-6), which was loaded with U.S. National Team players and Olympic hopefuls.
“At what point did we think we could win it all?” DeBoer mused. “It was very much prior to playing USC. “They thumped us pretty good. But the sense of accomplishment is pretty significant. We did better in 1976 than we did in 1975, and so we went another step forward. ”
And that’s why George feels it was incumbent on Michigan State to invite the members of that team – along with some from the ’75 squad -- back “home” so they can meet the current players who’ll be able to associate faces with Spartan volleyball’s “foremothers,” as DeBoer calls the members of those early teams.
“I want our players to meet them and understand that there’s a long tradition of great volleyball at Michigan State,” George said. “They need to know -- women’s athletics has come such a long way since those times.”
After graduating from MSU in ‘78, DeBoer, played professional basketball in the Women’s Basketball League (the precursor of the WNBA) for two seasons. She began her volleyball coaching career at Ferris State, were she won three conference titles and led the Bulldogs to two NCAA tournament appearances. She took over as the Kentucky head coach in ’84 and won three Southeastern Conference championships while leading the Wildcats to four NCAA tourney berths in nine seasons.
A nationally recognized leader in the sport and author of the book, “Gender and Competition: How Men and Women Approach Work and Play Differently,” DeBoer has been the executive director of the Lexington, Ky.-based American Volleyball Coaches Association since 2006.
She’ll never forget those humble beginnings in East Lansing.
The players had no choice but to be a close-knit group because of logistics and a restrictive budget. They have remained that way to this day thanks to experiencing each other’s weddings (and even a couple breakups), the births of their children, career-changes, sicknesses, the funerals of one another’s parents, the death of teammate Laurie Zoodsma who suffered a stroke and now their retirements and golden years.
“We ate cheaply, we slept cheaply, we traveled cheaply,” DeBoer said. “It was just incredible. The women who are getting together this weekend have been friends for 40 years. We’ve lived our lives closely together. Much of the bonding that happened, as is so often the case in our lives, came about because of hardships together.
“Long, long car trips. We’d pile six or seven kids in a station wagon that was owned by the university. The coaches would drive to the events and the players would drive home, so we spent a lot of hours together in cars, at meals, in hotel rooms – four to a room. So, we lived on top of each other, but we really enjoyed each other and we enjoyed playing the sport.”
A bargain-basement bottom line didn’t mean the DeBoer and her teammates competed any less fiercely than the football or basketball teams.
“We had our differences with our coach, which as the executive director of a coaches association I say all that time that if your players love you every day you’re not doing your job,” DeBoer said. “So it was her job to push us and make us uncomfortable and do the things she felt she needed to do to make us better volleyball players and we didn’t always appreciate that loving support.”
Winning the Big Ten in 1975 earned MSU an invitation to play at UCLA, and to pay for airfare the Spartans held a “Jump for Inches” fundraiser. Supporters pledged money for each half-inch jumped by the players and the even was even chronicled by venerable Detroit Free Press sportswriter Charlie Vincent. DeBoer, a 5-10 leaper, prevailed with a vertical jump of 28 inches.
DeBoer got a pledge of $2-per-inch from then-MSU women’s cross-country coach Mark Pittman.
“Actually, it was the largest pledge; I think my parents only gave 50 cents an inch,” she said. “But instead being gracious and grateful, I was insulted because he doesn’t think I can jump and thinks he’s only going to be giving up a few bucks. He had to pony up more than 50 bucks, and that was big money back then.”
It turned out OK, however, as DeBoer and Pittman were married nine years later.
“That’s how we met, me going over there and asking for money, although we didn’t actually start dating until a couple of years later,” DeBoer said.
With DeBoer, Diane Spoelstra and Cindy Hardy standing 5-10 and Mitzy (Hazlett) Donhoff going 6-2, the Spartans were huge by the standards of the day.
“I’m guessing there’s no front-row player at MSU now that’s under 6-foot, and their middles are 6-3, 6-4, their outsides 6-1, 6-2,” DeBoer said. “Just from the size, speed, jumping ability and height above the net that they’re playing, it’s just in a different stratosphere from where we were.”
“But, most of us are probably older than their mothers – we might be their grandmothers’ age.”
Former two-time captain Cate Davis won’t feel an ounce of jealousy when she sees the Spartans state-of-the-art equipment, uniforms, nutritional services and academic-support facility during a planned tour.
“We were so naïve about what we didn’t have, really,” said Davis, who in addition to becoming an attorney after leaving MSU officiated Big Ten volleyball for years. “To me it was like, ‘Oh my gosh, they’re giving us a pair of shoes, this is fantastic.’ I don’t feel that I, per se, was part of starting something. I’m just so very proud to be a part of the group of athletes that played for Michigan State University.”
The path Davis took to MSU’s volleyball team appears quaint given today’s specialization, an evaluation process that seemingly begins soon after birth and years-long training.
“I didn’t play volleyball in high school,” she said. “I swam my first year at Michigan State and then played four years of volleyball, and was captain my last two years. You wouldn’t see that today. But it’s been 40 years, right?”
But in some ways, the 76ers may find they have more in common with today’s players than they think.
“Sometimes we would laugh about what (Knoppers) was telling us to do, like we’re supposed to block Flo Hyman,” Davis recalled. “And we’re like, ‘OK, she is 6-8 and one of the best players in the world. We’ll try.’ Then you go back to your room after the match after you’ve just been blown out and wonder, ‘What was she thinking?’
“But it’s all good stuff. As captain, I was in charge of washing uniforms on the road. Between matches, I would go with the freshmen in the team van to the Laundromat. There was no offense taken -- I was just thrilled to be on the team.
“At the national tournament, I went with one of my teammates to do the laundry, came back and I couldn’t find where I had left the keys to the van. Then we got a call saying our seed had changed, so we had to run to the gym because we didn’t have keys. Everybody was grousing and carrying on and I’m saying ‘I know, I can’t believe somebody couldn’t find the keys.’ I never told anybody until many years later.”
Donhoff was a sophomore on the Elite Eight squad. She recalls being buddies with MSU football and baseball standout Kirk Gibson and basketball national champions Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Gregory Kelser.
“The one thing that brought us together is we just loved to win and we loved to compete,” Donhoff said. “There was no electronics so we knew everything about everybody’s family because we just talked during these five-, six-hour trips. We were so tight and I think that’s what made us so successful. And there were no restrictions – we’d have three-a-day (practices) when the football teams had two-a-days.”
While the team sensed some opposition on campus to the new emphasis on women’s sports at MSU, Donhoff said encouragement came from unlikely places, including then-head football coach Darryl Rogers.
“For the most part, I felt like people supported us,” Donhoff said. “I remember Darryl Rogers sitting down next to me and having a conversation about Title IX, and I’m like, ‘Look, we just want to play, man. What if I was your daughter? We just want to play, that’s all we want to do.’
Donhoff went from MSU to become a top salesperson for Owens Corning Fiberglass before returning to volleyball as the first assistant coach at the University of Louisville in the early 1990s. She has coached club-level volleyball in Louisville for 30 years and is the head high school coach of Kentucky Country Day.
She’s not shy about what she thinks the role of the ’76 team was: “I would say we were the pioneers because we started that winning tradition.”
Unwittingly, perhaps, that team evoked the family atmosphere that continues to be the cornerstone of Spartan athletics from George’s program to Mark Dantonio’s football team to Tom Izzo and Suzy Merchant’s basketball outfits and right on down the line.
“We shared training table with the band, the cross-country team and the field hockey team,” Donhoff said. “We had one side of Wilson Hall and the football team had the other.
“It was like a big family, honestly. It’s like that way today, too. It’s about family at Michigan State and it always will be about family. I hope all the programs always remember that.”