Thursday, May 16, 2013

THE LEGACY OF RITA KAY THOMAS

By Bob Golon
Special Contributor

. Rutgers University President Robert Barchi looks on as
 newly appointed Athletic Director Julie Hermann takes
questions. (A. Evans/AP)
        As a Rutgers’ alum, a former employee, and an aficionado of all things Scarlet, I have high hopes that yesterday will be remembered as a good day for Rutgers and its beleaguered Athletic Department. Julie Hermann was announced as the new Athletic Director. Her appointment is being called “historic,” as she becomes the first woman Athletic Director in the University history, as well as one of only three women currently serving in that capacity at BCS level schools.
        After the Mike Rice fiasco and the fallout that followed it, I was beginning to wonder if the otherwise positive historic nature of the Rutgers athletic program could ever again be appreciated. After all, good old RU is the “birthplace of college football” in November, 1869. It has a men’s basketball final four appearance in its distant past, as well as national championships and numerous tournament appearances in its storied women’s basketball program.
        It should be understood, however. that Ms. Hermann is not the first woman “pioneer” in Rutgers athletics history. The trail was blazed for her and others by a remarkable woman named Rita Kay Thomas.
Ten years ago I had the privilege of being one of the archivists at Rutgers who arranged Rita Kay’s donated papers, and they reveal the historic nature of her accomplishments.
        Title IX, the law that prohibits sex discrimination in education, was passed in 1972. Seeking to comply with the new regulations, then athletic directed Fred Gruninger hired Rita Kay Thomas in 1975 as the first Director of Women’s Athletics and Assistant Athletic Director. Perhaps understated and definitely under-appreciated, Rita Kay set out on the difficult task of building and maintaining a successful women’s athletic program. She succeeded despite many times having to deal with the inherent discrimination against women’s athletics, while fighting to create separate but equal facilities and programs for all of the women’s sports teams. Under Rita Kay, the women’s basketball program, coached by Theresa Grentz, became a national power, winning the AIAW national championship in 1982.
        Like Julie Hermann, Rita Kay was a natural athlete herself, and despite the enormity of her job at RU, she was able to also serve as head coach of the women’s tennis team. Later, in 1993, Rita Kay became head of the University’s NCAA compliance program. She retired in 2001, after 29 years of service to Rutgers.
        In recent years, Rita Kay Thomas waged a battle with cancer, which she unfortunately lost this past October. Ironically, Julie Hermann’s responsibilities at her former position as Associate Athletic Director at the University of Louisville sound much like the responsibilities that Rita Kay had at Rutgers. It is too bad that Rita Kay Thomas could not have been alive see yesterday’s announcement, because she certainly deserved to be in that room.
        Rita Kay Thomas must be smiling down at Julie Hermann and Rutgers University today. 

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