From Texas A&M University’s humble beginnings in the late 1800s, there are a few qualities that the school’s graduates have consistently embraced with pride. The spirit of blue-collar hard work and a roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-it-done attitude are part of what makes A&M a special place.
That work ethic has helped produce generals, innovators, statesmen, leaders and providers.
And during the last 40 years, it has produced one of the nation’s gold standards of success, support and exposure for women’s collegiate athletes.
Since women’s varsity athletics first arrived in College Station, the A&M women’s program has grown into a force rivaled by few on the national landscape.
Most Aggie women’s teams compete in world-class facilities. They receive unparalleled academic support, travel on chartered jets, are mainstays in the national rankings, make yearly trips to the postseason and are on television constantly.
There are also handfuls of conference titles. The women’s track and field team has hoisted four national crowns, and the softball program has claimed three of its own. Equestrian has tallied 11. And what Aggie fan could forget the scenes of the women’s basketball team cutting down the nets in 2011 in front of nearly 20,000 fans at the Final Four in Indianapolis?
None of these accomplishments just happened. It took the hard work, blood, sweat and tears of many student-athletes, administrators and coaches to build the program to this level.
Vicki Brown-Sobecki, Class of 1978, fondly recalls a day when, as a young girl, she and her father were strolling the A&M campus.
“I could show you the tree today where I told my dad that this is where I am going to go to college,” Brown-Sobecki said. “His retort was, ‘They don’t even allow women here.’ I said, ‘That’s okay, I’ll be the first.’ Then he said, ‘What about your swimming?’ And I said, ‘Well, by the time I get here, I’ll be the first.’”
Indeed, Brown-Sobecki tallied many firsts when she arrived on campus.
She was one of the first female student-athletes to receive an athletic scholarship in the sport of swimming. She was one of A&M’s first female All-Americans, and she was elected as the first female president of the Texas A&M Lettermen’s Association in 1990.
Brown-Sobecki said it was anything but easy in those days. Games were played in front of sparse crowds, and it was a struggle to receive any of what would now be considered basic services offered to student-athletes, like class scheduling assistance or tutoring.
At the time, they did not have much, but they had each other.
“We supported each other,” Brown-Sobecki said. “We were the ones sitting in the stands at volleyball, at basketball, at badminton…whatever sport A&M had for women.”
Months after she stepped on campus, in the spring of 1975, Brown-Sobecki and her teammates rolled up their sleeves and showed off some of that Aggie work ethic.
“They told us we didn’t have enough money to go to nationals, so we would go clean up Kyle Field,” Brown-Sobecki recalled. “We would get up in the morning—God bless me, I graduated before the third deck was built—and we would clean all of that for monies to travel.”
Now, Brown-Sobecki’s former team calls the Student Recreation Center Natatorium—a multi-million dollar facility that has hosted numerous national championships—its home. Under the guidance of coach Steve Bultman, the program has evolved into a top-10 powerhouse for the last decade while producing conference titles, national champions and even Olympic medalists.
Softball became the first dominant women’s sport at Texas A&M, claiming the school’s first national title since 1939 in any sport with an AIAW (Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women) crown in 1982. Until the Aggie Softball Complex was constructed in 1994, the team played home games at city parks around town, like Bee Creek Park.
A&M softball coach Jo Evans, who played for the University of Utah in the early 1980s, frequently encountered A&M’s powerhouse program as a player. Evans recalled the early days of limited travel options available to women’s teams.
“You got in your car, and you drove to the city league park,” Evans said. “And maybe, whoever is there to watch their kids play city league would watch you play. Or maybe your parents came.
“Back in the day (at Utah and most other schools), there was no team bus. We were in station wagons and vans. We had all the equipment and luggage in there with us. And people before me had even less than we had.”
Story of Success
Women's teams have provided plenty of memorable moments since the university first sponsored female varsity sports in 1975. The Aggies have achieved prominence in every sport sponsored by the athletic department over the years, winning Southwest Conference, Big 12 Conference and Southeastern Conference titles along the way. In fact, A&M's first national title since football in 1939 came courtesy of the softball team in 1982.
Fast forward to 2015, where the softball team chartered flights for every SEC regular-season series and saw every pitch of its conference slate (and most for the entire season) televised.
“It’s just unbelievable,” Evans said. “It’s absolutely mind-blowing to think what’s going on right now in our sport. You can’t have this conversation without throwing out a huge thank you to all those Aggies who played before our kids now, who won national championships. They did it without anything other than the sheer joy and love for the game.”
One of those was Shawn Andaya-Pulliam, arguably the best pitcher in school history and the anchor of the Aggie softball dynasty of the 80s. She still lives in the Bryan-College Station area and has had a first-hand look at the growth of women’s sports at Texas A&M.
“It’s cool to see how sports have evolved, especially for women,” Andaya-Pulliam said. “I played when it wasn’t popular for girls to play. We used to only be able to watch the national championship game on TV. Seeing how sports have evolved for women, especially at A&M, is awesome. Girls can now obtain scholarships and become leaders. Women’s athletics produces great leaders in the community and in companies. I took what I learned at Texas A&M and applied it to life, and it’s made me more successful.”
Basketball was another of the first female sports sponsored by the athletics department. A program that struggled to make its mark for the first decade of its existence, women’s basketball began to flourish under coach Lynn Hickey, who worked at the same time as an athletics administrator.
“At that time, I think we were all learning together,” said Hickey, now in her 15th year as the athletics director at the University of Texas-San Antonio. “What does it really mean to make a commitment to women’s athletics? Women hadn’t really been on campus all that long as full-time students, and the university was going through a major culture change.”
Hickey guided the Aggies to the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 in 1994 before taking on an even more important role: a senior position in athletics tasked largely with the oversight and growth of women’s sports.
“At that time, there just weren’t a lot of female leaders on campus,” Hickey said. “(Our success) was primarily because of caring, understanding male leaders. I think you have to give a tremendous amount of credit to (former athletic directors) Wally Groff and John David Crow. They took on this burden and tried the best they could to get this started and make this happen.”
Under Hickey’s watch, A&M saw the continued growth of sports like volleyball and soccer, the building of first-class facilities for soccer, women’s swimming, women’s basketball and women’s tennis, among others. A&M added the sport of equestrian in 1999, which offered even more opportunities to female students.
The vision continued when A&M hired Bill Byrne as athletics director in 2003. Byrne’s impact included overseeing facilities for track, golf and basketball, and he hired coaches like Pat Henry (four national titles, 11 conference championships) and Gary Blair (10 straight NCAA tournaments, five conference titles, 2011 national championship) to take their sports to never-before-seen heights.
Under the leadership of current athletics director Eric Hyman, hired in 2012, A&M has continued an emphasis on powerful women’s sports, as Aggie programs are getting stronger on and off the field. This year, all of A&M’s women’s teams will have competed for a national title by advancing to the NCAA postseason.
“The changes have been substantial and are nothing you frown at,” Hickey said. “I think everyone needs to be proud of them. For Texas A&M, when you look back at how the university was started, they had more obstacles to work through than some campuses. How they made the change of adding women, and have since stepped up so that the opportunities for participating at the very highest level is there for all women’s sports—that’s something that Aggieland needs to be extremely proud of.”
Hickey points out when she first arrived at A&M, women’s golf coach Kitty Holly sewed the team’s uniforms by hand, herself.
“Look at Traditions Club now,” Hickey said. “Baby, we have come a long way.”
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