Murphey’s pioneering spirit lives on through UGA women’s athletics

This article, written by Chris White, originally appeared on Online Athens: Athens Banner Herald in March 2012.

Liz Murphey’s old office is gone, knocked down during the renovation of Stegeman Coliseum. Many of the women’s athletic facilities she oversaw have been converted to other things or built over, too. There are places her name can be found, in trophy cases and the Circle of Honor in Georgia’s Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall and on a bench in front of the scoreboard at the UGA Golf Course.

Outside of those tucked-away places and archived photographs and newspaper clippings, there is little else physically left to remind people of the visionary coach and administrator who helped guide Georgia — and the NCAA — through the tumultuous post-Title IX world of college athletics.

Yet her fingerprints are everywhere, hidden in plain sight.

Many of the coaches she had a hand in hiring — women’s basketball’s Andy Landers, swimming’s Jack Bauerle and women’s tennis’ Jeff Wallace — are still in those positions. Others, such as retired gymnastics coach Suzanne Yoculan, left behind their own lofty legacies upon retirement. Even athletic director Greg McGarity was hired as women’s tennis coach and a member of the sports information staff during her tenure. Their salaries, venues and resources are all things for which Murphey fought.

And today is the closing round of the annual Liz Murphey Collegiate Classic, a women’s golf tournament she began 40 years ago as the Georgia Invitational and later renamed the Women’s Southern Intercollegiate Championships. It has become one of the largest, most competitive and longest-running women’s athletic events in the country, a fitting tribute to someone who spent nearly four decades laboring for the simple pleasure of seeing other women have the opportunity to play sports.

“It’s been forty years since this tournament started, and that speaks a lot to who Liz Murphey was,” said Landers, who was hired by Murphey and then-athletic director Vince Dooley in 1979. “For her to start this women’s golf tournament when she did, when most places didn’t even have women’s golf teams then, it was a big deal when you think about it now. That shows her vision and the passion she had, as well as the courage that she had to step out and dare to dream of something different for women athletes. That’s what Liz was about — that opportunity.”


Murphey, who retired from her role as assistant athletic director for women’s sports in 1996 and died in 2005 at age 72, was a thin woman who kept her brown hair cropped short. She often wore long skirts and one of her many floppy hats to cover up on the golf course, but her skin was tanned from her years playing and coaching in the sun. Those she worked with closely described her as deliberate yet unassuming and modest enough that few of them ever heard the beautiful singing voice she rarely showcased outside of church.

Despite her diminutive stature and humble nature, she never had to overcompensate with a bulldog approach in the male-dominated world of athletics that often had little time — let alone money — to run women’s athletic programs.

Instead, the gentle Southern woman from Springfield, Tenn., worked behind closed doors with persistence and politeness to make her case, often lobbying that it was simply the right thing to do rather than any selfish dream of her own.

And more often than not, people agreed.

“There was resistance from society in general when it came to women’s athletics,” said McGarity, a former Georgia tennis player who worked for Murphey as the women’s tennis coach from 1977-82. “It was a time that, to be successful, you had to be an effective communicator, be a consensus builder and someone who brought a lot of credibility. She had all those traits. She was someone you wanted to bridge that transition period for women’s sports after Title IX was passed, and she did it in a masterful way.”

Murphey graduated from Maryville (Tenn.) College, earned a graduate degree in physical education and recreation at the University of Tennessee and a later earned a director of recreations degree from Indiana University. She spent the first 10 years of her career at Lynchburg College in Virginia, running intramural sports and coaching many of the women’s teams. She joined Georgia’s physical education department as an assistant professor and club golf coach in 1967 after being drawn to the job by construction of the UGA Golf Course, which opened the next year.

Murphey was able to find Georgia students interested in playing, but the going hardly was easy. As a club sport, the athletes funded their own travel, and Murphey often drove them to tournaments in her Volkswagen camper, stopping at campgrounds or pitching tents on athletic fields for low-budget overnight trips.

Title IX, when passed in 1972, changed the scale of everything for Murphey. It is a portion of the Education Amendments of 1972, and in short, called for an end to discriminatory funding at high schools and colleges that receive federal funding. Over several years and through various legal cases, the reach of the law was more clearly defined and eventually applied to women’s sports.

To properly incorporate the existing women’s programs, the Georgia Athletic Association absorbed them and in 1978 promoted Murphey, then the coordinator of women’s club sports, to assistant athletic director for women’s sports.

No one was more appropriate or more prepared to lead the university through that period, Dooley said.

“She was the ideal person for that job,” Dooley said. “I can’t imagine anybody else other than Liz taking on that responsibility at the time she took it on. She had already established herself as a well-respected individual as a coach and as an administrator, and when the women’s department was absorbed by the athletic association, we worked together great. She had a great vision and philosophy early on, particularly as it pertained to what we should do after Title IX.”


As Murphey’s title and responsibilities grew, so did her roster of sports and budgets.

The same year she accepted the position, women’s golf was approved as an intercollegiate sport, along with women’s tennis, volleyball, basketball and swimming. Track and field followed in 1980.

When Murphey was promoted, the teams belonged to the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women. With roughly 1,000 member schools in the late ’70s, the AIAW presented women with competitive opportunities, but it did not have the funding nor the appeal of the NCAA, which first offered women’s championship in 1982.

The NCAA offered scholarships, postseason travel reimbursement and the opportunity for coaches to actively recruit, all things the AIAW could not give its members.

At the time, many universities were torn on how to approach the rift. Some chose to keep their women’s programs in the AIAW for simplicity’s sake. Others opted to join the NCAA because it meant better resources and more streamlined athletic department operations. Some allowed their teams to choose piecemeal.

The schism caused some tension among teams, conferences and athletic departments as they weighed the change from what was seen as a very principled amateur organization in the AIAW to a far more controlling one in the NCAA, said Welch Suggs Jr., a visiting associate professor of journalism at Georgia and the author of the book “A Place on the Team: The Triumph and Tragedy of Title IX.”

“Hostile takeover is not quite the right word to use, but it’s not the wrong word either,” Suggs said. “… The women’s model was killed off during that period, and it was a tremendous transition to the model that governed men’s athletics. In a lot of cases, the coaches I have talked to saw it as the affirmation of women’s sports as opposed to the loss of something. But a lot of women’s educators, which a lot of the coaches then were, saw it as a loss of the ideals of amateur competition being overridden by the men’s model.”

Several of Murphey’s former employees saw that era as the finest example of her leadership abilities and vision. It was uncharted territory, and with Dooley’s blessing and the financial backing of the athletic department fueled by a successful football team, Murphey was free to steer the programs in the direction she believed offered the best opportunities for the athletes.

“I would say her biggest challenge was the integration into the NCAA scene,” McGarity said. “Women’s athletics was generating no revenue in the late ’70s. Then, all of the sudden, you make that switch to the NCAA and over a few years you add golf, tennis, volleyball and a few other sports. It was taking on a lot all at once, and there was nothing to look back on to see how it should be done.”

During the transition, she knew when to cut coaches loose. She knew when to hold back, too, especially when it came to burdening coaches with the issues and gritty details that would have taken away their focus. Few of them from that era recall feeling much tension during the transition to the NCAA and through the growth period that followed despite singling it out as Murphey’s finest work.

“I don’t remember much of the controversy at the time,” Bauerle said. “The big concern with the coaches was over budgets and how they were made, but we were probably buffered from a lot of that by Liz. We just had a real idea that we didn’t have as much as the men’s programs did, and Liz did what she had to do to change that dramatically.”


The AIAW and NCAA overlapped briefly, both offering women’s championships in the early 1980s, but the AIAW lasted only a short time longer as schools were drawn to the NCAA for competitive and financial reasons. An antitrust lawsuit failed to stop the NCAA from steamrolling its way to prominence in women’s sports, serving as the death knell of the AIAW.

With the toughest decision out of the way by the folding of the AIAW, Murphey and Dooley were free to move forward.

“Liz and I agreed philosophically on what was right and that was the end of it,” Dooley said. “We agreed that all comparable sports in the women’s programs should be brought up to the standard of the men’s programs, in terms of facilities and office space, and I let her do what she thought had to be done.”

Under Murphey’s guidance, the women’s programs had picked up momentum in the AIAW and flourished in the NCAA. Georgia began to attract some of the country’s top recruits and win conference and national championships in the late 1970s and through the 1980s.

She led the way in the early days with the women’s golf team accumulating five consecutive top-10 finishes, placing second in the 1981 AIAW championships, third in the 1983 NCAA championships and with individual NCAA titles won by Terri Moody and Cindy Schreyer in 1981 and 1984, respectively.

The women’s coaches, most of whom had desks butting up against each other in an old trophy room in Stegeman Coliseum, grew to be fast friends in that period while working in the cramped quarters and feeding off of one another’s success.

“We all learned from each other in that room,” said Wallace, who was hired in 1985. “We all saw each other every day, went to lunch together every day and we all sat so close we knew what everyone else was doing. When we finally got our own offices in the other side of the coliseum, they were in the same hallway, but it was never the same. We all miss those days because we were so close and we really believe there was so much camaraderie there.”

The center of that was Murphey, whose coliseum office was a tiny first-aid station that could fit little more than her desk, a couple of chairs and a few filing cabinets. The closet there served as an equipment room, and the coaches came in and out throughout the day.

“We were close working all together, and Liz was the glue,” Bauerle said.

Soon the quaint group began to grow in power. Their teams were winning, the athletic department was funding more of its expenses and expanding scholarships, and with that came some inevitable power struggles.

In some instances, teams successfully argued their facilities were not on the level of their male counterparts. That was found to be the case for the women’s tennis team, which shared courts with the intramural teams.

The most publicized battle was over the threat of a federal lawsuit from Landers and Yoculan, who believed their salaries paled in comparison to their counterparts coaching men’s teams and less-successful women’s teams. It violated Title IX, they said, and Dooley gave in to their demands at their deadline, nearly doubling their pay in 1994.

In each instance, Murphey was at work inside the athletic department, building inroads to help her coaches and the women’s programs. Rarely did she speak publicly about the frustrating roadblocks she met, but her coaches knew she was making progress.

“If we felt strongly about something, Liz always went to bat for us,” Yoculan said. “It was her style that was so effective. She paved the way for all of us because she had a way of moving walls without them crumbling. She wasn’t a bulldozer, but she had this way that would slowly chip away at the stigmas of the time and the way things were until she had initiated change.”


One of the first stops on Georgia women’s golf coach Kelley Hester’s official recruiting visit more than 20 years ago was to meet Liz Murphey.

Murphey enjoyed meeting all of the women’s recruits. She was an endearing figure and made them feel comfortable. Some of them, like Hester, came to know her as “Murph.”

Through her career as a Georgia golfer, Hester thought she had gotten to know Murphey and learned her story from her coach, former Georgia golfer Kelly Beans. But it wasn’t until Hester became head coach at Arkansas that she realized Murphey’s full reach.

Hester continually came across Murphey’s name as she researched Title IX as part of her graduate research. She found Murphey had been more than a major player at Georgia — she had been influential at the national level as a frequent member of NCAA committees, and coaches and administrators throughout the country cited her progress at Georgia and sought her advice.

“I hope and pray I’ve never taken that for granted,” said Hester, who points out her first head coaching job at UNLV, prior to her stint at Arkansas, was the result of Title IX expansion. “I never got to thank her for that personally, which I regret. When I was old enough and wise enough to realize what she had done for all of us, it was too late. But I don’t think she would have cared. Her thanks was just coming out here and seeing women compete.”

Whether or not she would have accepted the credit for it, Murphey did not see her work truly begin to take shape until the she reached retirement. Now the $2,000 many of her teams started with are but a small fraction of the roughly $2 million spent each year just to run the women’s basketball program and fund its scholarships.

“The great irony is that, when Liz’s career ended in the 1990s, women’s athletics were only then taking off in terms of funding and importance,” said Suggs, who also continually came across Murphey’s name while researching for his book on Title IX. “At the end of her career, you finally saw people like (Yoculan and Landers) pushing for equitable pay and getting it like you didn’t see before. Now you see the facilities, like for gymnastics and basketball, are state of the art.”

Murphey’s legacy lives on in little ways, too. The tournament named for her opened with a picnic — one of her favorite pastimes — and Hester wraps up the tournament with a slideshow featuring photos of Murphey with past champions. And most importantly, 17 teams and more than 140 women competed on the course she loved so much.

“The thing that has really endured in so many ways has been Liz’s vision for women’s athletics, which was just to see them have the opportunity to play,” Landers said. “She became a part of women’s athletics when it didn’t exist, and she became the heart of it. She was the first person to come on board, the first person to dream about what could be and then go about making it into a reality. She is the grandmother of women’s sports at the University of Georgia and at the same time was someone very pivotal in setting the course for others like her to make changes, to try and discover and facilitate something new that still lasts today.”



Posted on

February 13, 2017

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