INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Kelly Krauskopf still remembers those tough old days at Texas A&M.
Back then, the women’s basketball coach was buying paint for the players to renovate their own locker room. The team’s preseason trip was to J.C. Penny’s for discounted travel bags, and when things got cold during the winter, players simply put on extra clothing in the unheated practice gym.
Three decades later, the Aggies are drawing more than 6,100 fans to games and the program that Krauskopf called one of the nation’s worst has become one of the nation’s best.
“Bob Gates said when he hired me that he wanted us to have the best sports program in the country,” athletic director Bill Byrne said, referring to the former university president who is now the U.S. defense secretary. “We work to do that every day.”
The Aggies women’s basketball team will play for its first national title Tuesday night against Notre Dame. The softball, women’s swimming and diving teams and track and field teams are already national powerhouses. The women’s soccer team finished the season ranked in the top 10 and the equestrian team is ranked No. 1.
It hasn’t been easy changing attitudes at a university that began as an all-male military school. Some alumni opposed the decision to begin admitting women in 1963, and school administrators didn’t always see the advantage of funding men’s and women’s sports equally when Title IX passed in 1972.
The ramifications were felt by female athletes, such as Krauskopf, for decades.
The earliest players dressed in the men’s locker rooms, and some contended they were harassed on campus.
Forward Danielle Adams, the first All-American in school history, is still amazed by what she hears.
“We wore the same uniforms every year and we used duct tape on our travel bags,” said Krauskopf, a 1983 A&M graduate and now general manager of the WNBA’s Indiana Fever.
Krauskopf knew it wasn’t this way everywhere.
After graduating from high school in 1979, Krauskopf enrolled at Stephen F. Austin, a small school in Nacogdoches, Texas, with a reputation as one of women’s basketball premier schools.
The next year, she transferred to A&M and found a program in tatters. Female players drew the short stick on practice facilities and times. They crammed 13 players into a minivan to travel to games and fans didn’t even need tickets to attend games.
The lack of funding and support was reflected on game day.
“What was different? About 9,000 people in the stands,” Krauskopf said. “At Stephen F. Austin, we’d come out every night to about 8,000 people. When I transferred, I went from 8,000 to about 50.”
By the mid-1980s, things were starting to change.
Then-coach Lynn Hickey, who also served the women’s athletic director, finally had enough money to hire Krauskopf as an assistant athletic director.
And when a school rep from rival Texas called looking for tickets to the game in College Station in 1986, Krauskopf bought a roll of admission tickets that looked like they came from the county fair. She charged the Longhorns $5 apiece.
It was the first time the school had ever sold tickets to a women’s game.
“When I was there, I thought Notre Dame was ahead of Texas A&M in women’s athletics,” former Notre Dame football coach Bob Davie said. He spent nine years at Texas A&M as an assistant and said the battle of the sexes was over by the time he got to College Station in 1985.
“A&M was just starting to build its facilities and I felt there was a little more emphasis on women’s sports at Notre Dame,” Davie added. “The emphasis on women’s athletics just wasn’t as prevalent then as it is now.”
The women’s basketball program was also moving forward.
By 1994, it had earned its first NCAA tournament bid and immediately reached the regional semifinals, but the program’s reputation remained the same _ until coach Gary Blair arrived in 2003.
The man with the sharp tongue, quick wit and deep Southern drawl found himself at home recruiting Texas’ best players, and teaming up with others in the athletic department to sell the school.
Blair and then men’s coach Billy Gillispie helped raise $24 million in private funds to build a new practice facility and it made a difference in the results, too.
A&M has now made a school record six straight NCAA appearances, and nothing can compare to this season.
The Aggies have won a school record 32 games, finally got past league rival Baylor to reach their first Final Four and are now on the cusp of winning a national title that has made alums like Krauskopf proud of what their program has become.
“When I was a student-athlete there, we would get old Aggies to come up and say ‘I really like watching your team, and I was one of those people who was against this women’s thing,’” Krauskopf said. “Now when I look back on that, it does hit me. It’s like ‘Wow, we’re really breaking new ground, especially at a school that was all military and all male.”
School President Bowen Loftin said the women’s program was among the worst before Blair arrived.
“Now we’re one of the best,” Loftin said. “Football brings in the most money and men’s basketball brings in the second most, but we’ve been able to spread the money across the programs. We’ve come a long ways.”