Trailblazer of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW)
“I pretty much devoted my life to creating opportunities for girls and women in sports,”1 said Dr. Charlotte West, the former president of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW). There is nothing but truth in that statement, but West says it so humbly. West, whose 42-year career at Southern Illinois University (SIU) as a coach, instructor, professor, and administrator, had built a sphere of influence that indeed created opportunities for others. As head coach of the SIU women’s basketball team, she recruited a player who grew up in a neighborhood so dangerous that on a recruiting trip she could not visit the player’s home. Instead, the recruit was escorted to West’s car, decided to play for West, and is now a successful Division I coach. West helped many women adjust to life on a college campus, which seemed a world away from where many of them grew up. Her influence also extended to men.
“I learned as much or more from her than I have anybody in athletics,” said longtime Arizona athletic director Jim Livengood. “Everything that I do, there’s a part of me that certainly has a Charlotte West stamp on it.”2
West arrived at Southern Illinois in 1957 as a coach and instructor in the department of physical education, and then she became so much more. She was the coach of the women’s golf team for more than 12 years, badminton for seven years, and volleyball for one year. She also coached women’s basketball from 1959 to 1975. In 1969, her golf team won the national championship and the basketball team finished fifth in the nation in the National Invitational Title (NIT) Women’s Basketball Tournament. West’s role on these teams extended past her coaching duties, as she also raised money through bake sales and car washes, coordinated travel on a limited budget, served as the public relations manager for the team, and also worked as the athletic trainer. “
We had our traditional bake sales and selling some merchandise, and mainly I think we didn’t raise a lot of money but we lived on a nickel and a dime,” West said. “Traditionally now, people go up the day before an event, spend the night, then they have a practice and are fresh for the contest that day. We never did that. We got up at 5:30 a.m. or 6 then bused up the same day then played and came back the same night. That way we only had to take care of lunch and dinner.”3 By 1959, she was named the director of women’s athletics, and in 1986, she was named an associate athletic director when both the men’s and women’s athletic departments merged, a post she would hold until her retirement in 1998. As director of women’s athletics, West was able to develop the program from a “nickel and dime” operation in the beginning of her career, to a nationally recognized program that included 11 sports and an operating budget of more than $1 million.
West had many opportunities to play sports as a child growing up in St. Petersburg, Florida, but upon arriving at Florida State University (FSU) as an undergraduate, she was shocked that there were no opportunities for women to compete outside of the university. “As I reflect back to FSU and not having that opportunity, it motivated me,” she said.
After double majoring in physical education and math at FSU, she continued her graduate studies by enrolling at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she received her master’s degree in physical education with an emphasis in dance. She fondly remembers being able to teach dance classes to a studio full of excited women eager to learn. West had danced since she was a girl and had a background in folk dance, square dance, tap dance, and ballet. Upon finishing her doctoral work, she moved to the SIU campus in Carbondale, Illinois, partly because of the opportunities for women to play sports, as the women’s teams had extramurals and received funding from student government because of their status as recognized club sports.
In the 1970s, West became heavily involved with Title IX legislation. She served as a consultant for the Health, Education, and Welfare portions of Title IX that related to athletics. The Southern Illinois legal counsel consulted with West to make sure they were in compliance with Title IX legislation at the school. West worked with the AIAWand was elected president. She was instrumental in landing television contracts for women’s sports, increasing both participatory and financial opportunities for women in sports through federal legislation, and drawing the guidelines for the AIAW.
“The ’70s as far as we’re concerned was just a glorious time because we were involved with the AIAW,” West said. “It was such an exciting time for those of us committed to providing opportunities. Individually we couldn’t have accomplished what we did. Collectively, we accomplished more than we could have dreamed. It was a tremendous volunteer organization.”
As much as the 1970s were what West calls the golden age, she recalls the 1980s as the decadent decade. In 1981, West was saddened to see the AIAW cease to exist when the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) took over women’s intercollegiate sports. By 1981, the AIAW had grown to include 41 national championships for women in different sports, and West was serving as the AIAW commissioner of national championships. In an attempt to save the AIAW, she proposed an alliance between the NCAA and AIAW in which the NCAA would give its female counterparts five years before taking over women’s athletics. She never heard a word back. As saddened as she was to see her organization fold and as much as she considered the NCAA to be “public enemy number one” in the 1980s, West calls the 1990s an age of renaissance in which women became increasingly involved in the NCAA. Her own involvement in policymaking did not diminish either.
West served on the NCAA’s Committee on Financial Aid and Amateurism, the Committee on Athletic Certification, and the Gender Equity Task Force. She spent five years on the NCAA Council, a 44-member group that governed collegiate athletics until 1997. Upon restructuring its governance, the NCAA elected West as the Missouri Valley Conference’s representative to the NCAA Division I Management Council. She also was the first woman member of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA) and later would be inducted into the NACDA Hall of Fame. West also became the first recipient of the Honda Award, given for outstanding achievement in women’s athletics.
In 1998, West retired from Southern Illinois, active as ever with her beloved school and the NCAA. At the time of her retirement she was close to breaking the record for longest-tenured faculty member. “Someone said to me, ‘You know, if you had stayed one more year you would have broken the record.’ I said, ‘No, I don’t want to break that record.” West added, “I really worked hard, I mean very hard, my last five or 10 years to get full scholarship funding for our men and our women.”4 In 2003, SIU named its new softball stadium after Charlotte West. “Dr. West has been such an important figure for women’s athletics, not just at SIU, but all over the country,” said SIU softball coach Kerri Blaylock. “She’s well known and well respected everywhere. When I go to conventions and recruiting, I always run into someone who mentions her name and asks if I know her or worked for her.”5
Looking back on her career, she’s most proud of developing the women’s athletic program at Southern Illinois prior to merging with the men’s program, noting the academic performance of its women athletes and the behavior of the athletes and staff. “I couldn’t have asked for more,” West said. “I’ve just had a very happy life here.”
1. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes in this article are by Charlotte West, from an interview with the author, June 2, 2008.
2. Ethan Erickson, “Coach Charlotte West Helps Put Southern Illinois on the Map,” Daily Egyptian, October 23, 2003.
5. Saluki Athletics.
The exerpt above was written by Horacio Ruiz