The role of women in college sports has come a long way in half a century. In 1972, only 15.6% of college athletes were female, while a significantly smaller percentage represented the number of women in coaching or administrative roles. In 1993, partly thanks to Title IX legislation, the percentage of female athletes rose to 34.8%. Today, that number is even higher, with more young women than ever playing collegiate sports. But there is still a long way to go.
The 30 women on this list are the most influential in all of college sports. They are athletes, former championship title holders, coaches, assistant coaches — even a university president makes the list. They come from sports ranging from football, to soccer, to swimming and diving, but they all have in common the fact that they have undoubtedly helped to pave the way for women in college sports.
1. Pat Summitt
Though Pat Summitt has retired and is officially “head coach emeritus” of the University of Tennessee’s women’s basketball team, she remains hugely influential to female coaches and players across the nation. During her nearly 40 years of coaching, Summitt achieved the record for the most all-time wins for a coach in NCAA basketball history — men’s or women’s! She led the Lady Vols to an amazing eight NCAA championships, the most of any female coach. She remains the NCAA basketball coach with the most career wins, and was the first coach to achieve 1,000 wins (she ended her head coach career with 1,098). Sporting News places Summitt at number 11 on their list of the 50 Greatest Coaches of All Time, while the ESPY Awards honored her in 2012 with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award.
2. Missy Franklin
Missy Franklin hasn’t yet graduated from UC Berkeley, but she is easily one of the most successful college athletes — male or female — of any competitive sport. A five-time Olympic medalist (four of which are gold), Franklin holds the current world record in the 200-meter backstroke, and the American records in the 100-meter and 200-meter backstroke. Before going pro in 2015, Franklin continuously refused prize money in order to maintain her amateur status to compete in college events. She is a four-time individual NCAA champion, having won the 2014 and 2015 200-yard freestyle and 200-yard backstroke, and 2015 individual medley.
3. Tara VanDerveer
The name Tara VanDerveer is one that is well known throughout women’s basketball. Though she served brief stints with Idaho and Ohio State, VanDerveer has been the head coach of women’s basketball at top-ranked Stanford University since 1985 — with one year taken off in 1996 in order to coach the U.S. national team in preparation for the Olympic Games in Atlanta. In 1990 (the year she was awarded the Naismith National Coach of the Year award) and 1992, VanDerveer led the Stanford Cardinal to NCAA Women’s Division I Basketball Championships, though the team is a practical fixture of the final rounds each year. As if that weren’t impressive enough, VanDerveer is one of only six NCAA Women’s Basketball coaches to win over 900 games.
4. Muffet McGraw
Muffet McGraw is currently the head coach of the women’s basketball team at athletic powerhouse Notre Dame. In her 27 seasons as coach, she has led Notre Dame to an amazing 662-217 record, six Final Fours, and a win in the 2001 National Championship. As if this weren’t impressive enough, McGraw has coached the lady Irish to 14 NCAA tournament appearances, including a current streak of 12 straight. McGraw has been awarded Coach of the Year awards by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association and the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association, and was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2011.
5. Mary Wise
A former star volleyball player at Purdue University, Mary Wise enjoyed brief coaching stints at schools such as Iowa State and University of Kentucky. But it wasn’t until Wise made it to University of Florida that she changed the sport and became a coaching sensation. In Wise’s twenty-one seasons at Florida, the Gators volleyball teams have won a whopping ninety percent of their total matches, nineteen Southeastern Conference (SEC) regular season championships, twelve SEC tournament titles, and an appearance in the 2003 NCAA Championship final. She has had more than 800 wins over the course of her career.
6. Dawn Staley
Dawn Staley is a basketball hall of fame player, a three-time Olympian, and the current head coach at the University of South Carolina. After playing point guard at the University of Virginia and winning a gold medal during the 1996 Summer Olympics, Staley went on to play professional basketball with the WNBA, where she was voted by fans as one of the top 15 players in WNBA history. In 2000, Staley began a six-year career as head coach of Temple University’s women’s basketball team. During that time, she led the team to six NCAA tournaments, three regular season conference championships, and four conference tournament titles. Since becoming the head coach for University of South Carolina, Staley has improved the program’s record each year.
7. Kim Mulkey
Kim Mulkey has been making basketball history ever since childhood, when she was one of the first female players in the country to join the boys in an organized league. After leading her high school team to four straight state championships, Mulkey joined Louisiana Tech University as an All-American Point Guard. Currently, Mulkey is the head coach of women’s basketball at top-ranked Baylor University, with whom she has won two NCAA national championships. Additionally, she is the first person in all of the NCAA to have won championships as a player, assistant coach, and head coach.
8. Ann Meyers-Drysdale
Many of the female athletes on this list received full scholarships to attend their eventual alma mater, and for that, they can thank Ann Meyers-Drysdale. Meyers-Drysdale was the first athlete — of any sport or gender — to play for the U.S. national team while still in high school, and also became the first woman to be signed to a four-year athletic scholarship for college. In addition to paving the way for female student athletes, Ann Meyers-Drysdale is also the only woman to have ever signed a contract with an NBA team (the Indiana Pacers in 1979). She has served as a television sports analyst, and currently sits on the board of the Lott IMPACT Trophy.
9. Brandi Chastain
You don’t need to be a fan of women’s soccer to know the name Brandi Chastain — her victorious jersey removal after winning the 1999 Women’s World Cup instantly became a part of American pop culture history. These days, Chastain is living a much more collegiate life as the Assistant Coach of the top-ranked women’s soccer team at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, California (her husband is the head coach). Competitive soccer players come from far and wide to play for the Chastains. Chastain has two World Cup wins, two Olympic Gold medals, and an Olympic silver medal.
10. Cheryl Miller
11. Breanna Stewart
College basketball phenom Breanna Stewart may not yet be in the Hall of Fame, but she is definitely on her way. As a youth player, Stewart played on the USA Basketball U16, U17, and U19 teams, each of which won gold medals. Later, Stewart became only the second player in history to be selected for the Women’s Pan American Team while still in high school. Since joining University of Connecticut, Stewart has continued to dribble her way to history. In 2015, she led UConn to an incredible 38-1 record and its third-straight national title. That same year, she was awarded the AP Player of the Year award, the Naismith Player of the Year award, and the NCAA tournament Most Outstanding Player award.
12. Cynthia Cooper-Dyke
Voted by fans as one of the Top 15 female basketball players of all time, Cynthia Cooper-Dyke has won championships in college, the Olympics, and in the WNBA. As a point guard for University of Southern California, Cooper-Dyke led the Women of Troy to NCAA appearances in all four years, three of which were Final Four appearances. In 2013, after years spent playing with the WNBA’s Houston Comets, she was introduced as the head coach for her alma mater, USC. In her very first season, the team won their very first Pac-12 conference championship and their first NCAA tournament since 2006.
13. Sheryl Swoopes
Sheryl Swoopes has been out of college for nearly three decades, yet many of her college basketball records still stand in the record books. After transferring to Texas Tech University at the start of her junior year, Swoopes went on to lead her team to the 1993 NCAA women’s basketball championship, set a number of school records, win the Naismith College Player of the Year award, and have her jury retired by her alma mater. Swoopes went on to play professionally, including three separate Olympic Games. She is frequently referred to as the “female Michael Jordan” because of her offensive and defensive skills, and is currently the head coach of the women’s basketball team at Loyola University-Chicago.
14. Brittney Griner
After being named the number one female player by Rivals.com in 2009, Brittney Griner joined Baylor University’s women’s basketball team. Griner was the first NCAA basketball player — male or female — to score 2,000 points and block 500 shots. A three-time All-American, Griner was the 2012 AP Player of the Year and the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four that same year. After graduating from Baylor, Griner went on to a professional career with Team USA and the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury. In 2012, Griner received the ESPY Award for Best Female Athlete.
15. K.J. Kindler
For college-aged gymnasts, University of Oklahoma is a top choice — thanks in large part to coach K.J. Kindler. In less than one decade, Kindler has turned the Sooners team into one of the most elite in the nation. She has led them to three NCAA Super Six team finals appearances, seven All-American honors, six Big 12 championships, four consecutive NCAA regional titles, and 41 NCAA All-America awards, to name but a few accomplishments. Personally, Kindler is a two-time National Head Coach of the Year, five-time Regional Coach of the Year, and eight-time Big 12 Coach of the Year.
16. Lisa Leslie
Lisa Leslie is quite possibly the most famous name in all of women’s basketball. After a stellar high school career, Leslie joined the basketball team at University of Southern California. During her four-year college career, Leslie played a total of 120 games, averaged 20.1 points per game, hit 52.4% of her shots, and made just under 70% of her free throws. After earning her Bachelor’s degree in Communications, Leslie entered the 1997 inaugural WNBA draft as the number seven pick. She went on to play eleven seasons with the Los Angeles Sparks, including eight WNBA All-Star selections and two WNBA championships. She retired in 2009 and was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015.
17. Annika Sorenstam
Few women have been as influential to the game of golf than Swedish superstar Annika Sorenstam; perhaps she is one of the reasons that the popularity of golf among college-aged women has steadily been on the rise. As a college student playing for the Arizona Wildcats women’s golf team, Sorenstam won seven collegiate titles and became the first non-American and the first freshman to win the individual NCAA Division I Championship. She was the 1991 NCAA Co-Player of the Year, the 1992 Pac-10 champion, and a 1991-92 NCAA All-American. Since graduating from Arizona, Sorenstam has solidified herself as one of the most successful golfers in the history of the sport.
18. Katie Hnida
As a teenager in Littleton, Colorado, Katie Hnida became one of the best-known female football players in the nation. As a placekicker for Chatfield Senior High School, Hnida went 3 for 3 in field goal attempts, and 27 for 28 in extra point attempts in her senior year alone. Named one of the “20 most influential teens” by Teen People magazine, Hnida intended to continue playing in college. Amazingly, Hnida holds a number of records for women in college sports: she is the first woman to score in an NCAA Division 1-A game (football’s highest level), the third woman to score in a college football game, and the first woman to dress for a bowl game (she would go on to four bowl games).
19. Sherri Coale
It is no wonder why Sherri Coale is women’s basketball’s highest paid coach in the country. An Oklahoma native, Coale went directly from coaching a high school team to coaching an NCAA Division I team. In 2002, Coale managed to turn the Oklahoma Lady Sooners, “a team in turmoil,” into a team capable of playing for the National Championship. In 2005-06, Coale’s Sooners became the second Big 12 basketball team, either men’s or women’s, to go undefeated in conference play. In addition to coaching winning season after winning season in Oklahoma, Coale has been the assistant coach for the Junior World Championship team and the World University Games team.
20. Patty Gasso
After growing up in Torrance, California and playing softball at California State University, Long Beach, Patty Gasso began her coaching career at nearby Long Beach City College, ultimately leading them to an impressive record of 161-59-1. Since then, Gasso has spent nearly twenty seasons coaching the women’s softball team at University of Oklahoma. She has compiled a record of 901-281-2 and a winning percentage of .762 — the highest all-time among all softball coaches with more than 800 career wins. Gasso’s team has advanced to the Women’s College World Series seven times and won the national championships in 2000.
21. Carol Hutchins
Another successful softball coach, Carol Hutchins has spent the last 31 years as the head coach for University of Michigan. With more than 1,400 career wins and a winning percentage of .752, Hutchins easily has more wins than any other coach in Michigan sports history, male or female. Hutchins led the Wolverines to their first NCAA softball championship in 2005, making them the first team from east of the Mississippi River to win the Women’s College World Series. Her massive success coaching softball has made Hutchins the third winningest coach in all of collegiate softball history.
22. Ghazaleh Sailors
More than 100,000 girls compete on youth baseball teams in the United States, yet the NCAA estimates that there is only one girl playing college baseball — Ghazelah Sailors. California native Sailors had to search in every corner of the country for a college that would let her play baseball, but she eventually found the place for her at the University of Maine-Presque Isle. As a relief pitcher during her freshman year, most of her opponents assumed they could hit the ball over the fence. She quickly proved them wrong. She won her first game as a Sophomore, and as a junior, Sailors led her team in ERA and appearances. She has also thrown two scoreless innings against Division 1 powerhouse University of Maine.
23. Shelby Osborne
When Shelby Osborne entered college in the fall of 2014, she had no idea just how much of a hero for football-loving women she was about to become. Osborne had played football with the boys on her high school team, and knew she wanted to play in college. Unfortunately, wanting something like that is the easy part. Osborne wrote every college in Kentucky, but most communication stopped as soon as coaches learned ‘Shelby’ was a girl’s name. But Osborne kept trying, even showing up to recruiting day at Campbellsville University and winning over the coach. While a few women have played college football, most are kickers. When Osborne signed her letter of intent to play with Campbellsville, she became the first woman to play as a defensive back in the sport.
24. Tonya Butler
As a child, Tonya Butler always loved football and knew she wanted to continue playing for as long as possible. In high school in Fayetteville, Georgia, Butler won the job of placekicker, a position in which she was good enough to become the first female to make the Class AAA all-state football team. Butler continued to play in the placekicker position at University of West Alabama. While there, she made history by becoming the first woman to score a field goal in a college football game.
25. Liz Heaston
A powerhouse on the soccer field, Elizabeth “Liz” Heaston was an All-American honorable mention at Willamette University when she decided to go out for the men’s football team. Joining the team as a backup placekicker, Heaston went on to become the first woman to play and score points in a college football game during a match between Willamette and Linfield College. Though her college football career lasted only two games, Heaston was the first of a handful of girls to earn a chance to kick for a college team, and her jersey is currently hanging at the College Football Hall of Fame.
26. Donna Shalala
Former President of the University of Miami
As President of the University of Miami, Donna Shalala takes two things very seriously: academics and Miami sports. In 2004, it was Shalala who spearheaded the University’s move from the Big East to the ACC, a smart move that resulted in the decline of the Big East and major conference realignment. More recently, Shalala has taken the NCAA head on, questioning their authority over a case in which a student was “mishandled.” Shalala’s aggressiveness towards the NCAA may be controversial, but what cannot be denied is the fact that she has paved the way for college presidents to defend their schools and students in the face of an athletic giant. Shalala left her position at University of Miami in 2015.
27. Aliceann Wilber
Aliceann Wilber helped to found the women’s soccer team at William Smith College, and since then has led the William Smith Herons to winning season after winning season, including two NCAA Division III Championships. The secret, says Wilber, is “leadership.” As a coach, Wilber has more than 500 career wins, the most wins on the all-time list for Division III women’s soccer coaches and the best record of all female soccer coaches in the entire NCAA.
28. Lynette Woodard
Kansas native Lynette Woodard remains one of the top female basketball players in the history of University of Kansas. Having played at the university from 1978 to 1981, Woodard was a four-time All-American athlete. She averaged 26 points per game and scored 3,649 points total during her collegiate basketball career, feats that were rewarded when Woodard became the first woman in KU history to have her jersey retired. After college, Woodard became the very first female member of the massively popular Harlem Globetrotters.
29. Dot Richardson
Dot Richardson has been a powerhouse in softball since the tender age of 13, when she became the youngest player ever to play in the ASA (Amateur Softball Association of America) Women’s Fast-Pitch National Championships. Throughout her college career at UCLA, Richardson continued to rack up awards and accolades, including three NCAA All-American awards, the Amateur Athletic Foundation Athlete of the Year, three UCLA MVP titles, and the 1983 All University Award. She has been inducted into the UCLA Hall of Fame and the National Softball Hall of Fame, and is currently the head softball coach at Liberty University.
30. Kristin Day
Each year, the NCAA chooses a Woman of the Year in recognition of women’s accomplishments in college sports. In 2015, the 25th anniversary of the award, the winner was Kristin Day, a diver. Only the fourth Division II athlete to be named Woman of the Year, Day is an eight-time All-American, and three-time NCAA national champion. She won the 1-meter dive two years in a row, plus set an NCAA record for the 3-meter dive in 2015. As if that weren’t impressive enough, Day also competed competitively in trampoline, going so far as to represent the United States by winning gold at the Loule Cup in Portugal. Day is currently attending graduate school.
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