The University of Tennessee at Martin hosted a birthday party to honor Bettye Giles, former director of women’s athletics, on her 90th birthday Jan. 11 in the Champions Club of the university’s Hardy Graham Stadium. Giles served UT Martin from 1952 until her retirement in 1995 and was instrumental in the establishment of women’s intercollegiate athletics programs at UT Martin and across the country.
When she first entered the higher education field, women were only permitted to play sports on the intramural level. Some exceptional players were added to “extra-mural” teams that visited other schools to play off-campus games, but there was no budget for transportation or accommodations for these trips.
“Our players bought their own food and, if we stayed overnight, we slept on the floor in our sleeping bags in the opponents’ locker rooms. I can remember we would stop at the grocery store and buy bologna, bread and Cokes,” said Giles in a 2011 interview with the Weakley County Press.
Giles and other athletic administrators across the state, particularly at Memphis State University and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, gathered to establish the Tennessee College Women’s Sports Federation in 1966 to promote intercollegiate competition and organize state championships for a variety of women’s sports. This organization grew from an initial group of 18 colleges and universities to 34 institutions by 1973. Giles served as the organization’s first president.
These efforts eventually contributed to the passing of the Educational Amendment Act of 1972, a piece of national legislation most famous for its Title IX component – the requirement that higher education institutions provide equal opportunities for women’s athletics in order to receive federal funding. This legislation began a gradual change in women’s athletics nationwide that Giles says is still a work in progress.
“Things are not totally equal, but they are getting that way. So, things are getting better as far as women in colleges with athletic opportunities,” said Giles in a recent interview with WBBJ-TV.
Giles began her UT Martin career as an associate professor of physical education and served as UT Martin’s cheerleader sponsor from 1952-1973. She also started the women’s tennis program in 1952 and coached that team for eight years. Tennis ultimately became the first women’s sport to achieve varsity status at UT Martin. Giles became the university’s first and only director of women’s athletics in 1971 and held the position until 1994.
Giles influenced countless athletes during her decades at UT Martin, including Pat Head Summitt, the basketball player who would later become the winningest coach in the history of women’s basketball during her tenure as head coach of the Tennessee Lady Vols, and Jerry Reese, former general manager of the New York Giants.
She is the recipient of numerous awards from both academic and athletic organizations, and she was inducted into the UT Martin Athletics Hall of Fame in 1985. The UT Martin Bettye Giles Softball Field is named in her honor, as is the university’s Bettye Giles Female Athlete of the Year Award. Summitt also established the Bettye Giles/Nadine Gearin Endowed Scholarship in honor of her mentorship as well as that of Nadine Gearin, who coached the women’s basketball team of which Summitt was a part. All three of these women are memorialized in a bronze statue titled “Coaches,” which stands outside the main entrance of the Kathleen and Tom Elam Center where the Skyhawk basketball teams play on Pat Head Summitt court.
For more information, contact the UT Martin Office of University Relations at 731-881-7615.