The little girl had a lollipop in her pocket when the baseball came sailing her way. She lit after the ball, not realizing she had run out into the street. So she didn't see the car that would plow its grille into her and drive the lollipop stick deep into her thigh.
The girl should have been on the field at Scalzi Park on this summer afternoon, in fair territory, fielding balls and, in her turn, hitting and throwing them. Why, there wasn't anyone her age, boy or girl—not in this park or anywhere else in all of the west side of Stamford, Conn.—who could catch, hit or throw better than 11-year-old Donna Lopiano. She had grown up in a neighborhood with a dozen boys, and shared their wish to become a major leaguer like Mickey Mantle or Whitey Ford. But she was watching this game, not playing in it, because of the most searing kind of childhood slight.
It wasn't that she had been cut from her Little League team. No, she had made the team, made it as a pitcher, and had stood in line one day to receive her uniform. Then it happened: An adult invoked the Little League rule book. Girls are not allowed. "It might have been the first time I thought of myself as a girl," she would say later. "I had always been one of the guys."
As she lay in the street, someone fetched her parents. But Thomas and Josephine Lopiano's girl would be all right. The hurt, however, would linger. Kids who wear dungarees and carry lollipops in their pockets only want to be told, "Yeah, c'mon, sure." To hear "No," and to carry around the scar on your thigh to remind you of how it hurt, will nurture a willingness to take a hit for a larger cause.
December 17, 1990
So Donna Lopiano never got a chance to play Little League baseball. Instead, she has spent her adult life working to ensure that young women have opportunities she never had. Her bully pulpit is the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women at the University of Texas at Austin. Today, at 44, Lopiano is the department's director and a woman respected among athletic administrators of both genders for her willingness to cajole, jawbone, beg, do anything short of throw herself in front of cars, to get to a yes.
Perhaps you have come across Lopiano's name over the years, for she has played in 25 national championships—in field hockey, volleyball, basketball and softball. Her softball exploits, with the elite Raybestos Brakettes of the '60s and early 70s, earned her enshrinement in the game's Hall of Fame in 1983. Pick up the November 1988 issue of Ladies Home Journal and you'll see her listed as one of America's 100 Most Important Women; scan the op-ed pages of the nation's newspapers and you'll probably come upon one of her lucid polemics about the unfulfilled promise of Title IX, the regulations requiring universities that receive federal funds to provide comparable programs for men and women. Most recently, you may have seen her quoted on the sports pages in connection with some NCAA caucus about the future of college athletics. Funny, that: The very outfit she took on in an antitrust suit—brought against the NCAA in 1981 for moving in on the old Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women—evidently now can't do without her intellect.
Texas has one of those rare women's athletics departments that isn't a ladies' auxiliary of the men's department. Lopiano has turned it into what may be the gemstone of all collegiate programs, male or female, a place where 91% of the women athletes who have exhausted their eligibility wind up graduating, and where one of every three has at least a 3.0 grade-point average. As a group, the Lady Long-horns have a better GPA and retention rate than the Texas student body at large. "Every year we knew which team in the department had the best grades," says Betsy Mitchell, an Olympic gold medalist and former Longhorn swimmer. "Our swim team won three national championships, but we also had a team GPA over 3.0, and I honestly can't tell you which was more important."
In Lopiano's 15 years at Texas, the school has won national women's championships in basketball, cross-country, indoor track, outdoor track, swimming and volleyball—in every sport it fields, that is, except golf and tennis. The Texas women have produced 314 All-Americas (that's about 21 a year) and. 14 Olympians (including five gold medalists). Since 1986, when The Knoxville Journal began its annual all-sports rankings of women's athletic programs, the Lady Longhorns have done a do-si-do into and out of first place with UCLA. They might promenade off with the trophy for good if Texas would only start a women's softball program. It's a conspicuous omission, in light of the director's background. Lopiano explains it by saying, only partly in jest, "I'm probably the best coach in the country and I can't hire myself."
That's the rare instance when Lopiano has said no. Otherwise, she has a pathological aversion to the word, and the comprehensiveness of her department reflects it. The Texas women have their own nutrition and exercise-physiology specialist and two strength coaches. They have access to the same training table and high-tech study-skills center that the men do. They even have their own booster group. As part of the director's belief in cross-pollination of athletics and academics, a committee of faculty members helps decide whether a coach will receive a merit raise, a courtesy car or the security of a multiyear contract. Local businesses sponsoring Lady Longhorn sports are encouraged to include benefits for community organizations such as the Special Olympics and shelters for battered women. Meanwhile, Lopiano has hustled up funding for so many athletic scholarships that Robert Heard, publisher of Inside Texas, a newsletter on Longhorn sports, says, "She's gonna wind up with every scholarship in the program endowed."
At the center of the department sits the basketball team, a perennial national power that actually outdrew its male counterpart for two seasons during the late '80s. "Guest coaches," who join basketball coach Jody Conradt in the locker room for pregame and halftime talks, have included Texas governor-elect Ann Richards and novelist James Michener. Lady Longhorn basketball has developed a sort of L.A. Forum chic in Austin—not so much among the stereotypical Bubba crowd but within a circle of Texans who are comfortable with women in their statehouse and as mayors of their three largest cities.
The cumulative effect of all this is that there may be no more difficult job in college sports than that held by DeLoss Dodds, the men's athletic director at Texas, whose own department is forever being compared, unfavorably, with that of the Longhorn women. It has not always been thus. When Lopiano arrived in Austin in 1975, she was all of 28, a brash feminist who was going to blow through town and get rid of football. If she talked and acted as if she had come from New York City's outer boroughs, it's because in a way she had, via Brooklyn College, where she coached basketball, volleyball and softball for four years. At the very time she applied for the Texas job, Title IX was generating all kinds of local—as well as national—un-happiness. Texas football coach and athletic director Darrell Royal had just related to an old Michigan lineman, Gerald Ford, his fear that the proposed law would bury college football as they knew it.
So it was that Lopiano first met the man synonymous with Texas football fame. She told Royal, Willie Nelson's best friend, of her distaste for country and western music. She dared Royal to step up to the plate with a softball bat and not strike out against her. She generally behaved in a manner that, as Betty Thompson, who headed the search committee that recommended Lopiano, would put it, "scared us witless."
Lorene Rogers, the university's president at the time, wanted no part of Lopiano, whom she considered abrasive. But the search committee, while acknowledging that Lopiano wasn't exactly a box of chocolates, believed that her youth, energy and standards were exactly what the position called for.
"I hope you understand," Rogers said, in reluctantly accepting the committee's recommendation, "that you're going to be responsible to our culture."
"I thought she was the stereotypical pushy Yankee," says Conradt. "But I knew they weren't just trying to get Title IX off their backs. Donna was the signal that it was going to happen, because nobody would bring that kind of grief on themselves unless they were serious."
"If you're good, I'll end with an Aggie joke!"
Lopiano has come to Texas's School of Education to address professor Donald Rippey's class on college administration. She speaks with her usual confidence. Lopiano is a big woman, nearly six feet tall, with a countenance leavened by a ready smile and a signature laugh—a wheezy, high-pitched one that reminds you of Eddie Murphy conning his way into the pricey restaurant in Beverly Hills Cop. Her stump speech goes like this:
•"If UT football made $5 million off the wishbone under Darrell Royal, that money belongs to UT, not to Darrell Royal. Just as if a physics professor discovers some superconductive product in a university lab on university time and gets it patented, the proceeds belong to UT."
•"The NCAA is General Motors. And I'm an inventor who wants to build a car that doesn't run on gasoline."
•"Title IX has never been enforced. It's the guillotine that's been rolled out into the city square to scare people off. But it's rusting, and needs a giant can of WD-40."
She tells the class about the primary goals of her department. She articulated one of those goals several years ago, at the Associated Press Sports Editors' convention in Orlando, Fla., where she had gone to scare up more press coverage for women's sports. "I tell all my coaches," Lopiano said from the dais that day, " 'If you're not in the Top 10, goodbye.' "
Klaxons had sounded throughout the room. Isn't that the sort of win-at-all-costs thinking that had turned men's athletics into a pool of scuzzy pond life? Al Vieira, of the Albany (N.Y.) Times-Union, sent a story back to his paper. "Nice going, Donna," he wrote. "You were dumb enough to really say that. You were even dumber to defend it."
Today, she still defends it. "Your goals always reflect your resources," she says. "President Cunningham says he wants ours to be the best law school in the country. What's unacceptable is to be Number One in athletics and 50th in academics."
But Top 10 or you're gone? "It horrifies most people when I say it. But if Texas allows me to pay market value for a coach in the Top 10, it's a given, in light of the facilities we have here. Remember, I don't have just one goal."
The other goals—the satisfactory progress of athletes toward a degree, and coaches' adherence to NCAA rules—aren't incidental, and she'll fire in a nanosecond a coach who doesn't meet them. She actually holds her coaches responsible for the academic performance of their players. "If a coach can say you won't play if you don't go to practice, a coach can say you won't play if you don't go to class," Lopiano says. "Our mean SAT score went up 100 points the first year after we started holding coaches accountable. You can't allow for excuses in this area, or it will kill you. And kill your kids."
The Texas coaches are tested on NCAA rules at the beginning of every school year. "There are only 70 pages in the NCAA Manual that pertain to recruiting and your function as a coach," she tells them. "You'll never get in trouble if you know those 70 pages. We make it your responsibility to know them."
A coach who breaks a significant rule unintentionally receives no merit raise and is stripped of all departmental perks for a year. "And if it's intentional," says Lopiano, "you're outta here."
The class period is winding down. "The public knows our graduation rate and work in the community," Lopiano says. "The public knows us. They'll be there when we lose." Whenever that day comes.
Professor Rippey's students have been good. "How can you tell," Lopiano asks them, "when an Aggie's been using your computer?"
"When there's Wite-Out on the screen!"
She laughs, Eddie Murphy about to slip past the ma‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√útre d'.
Tom and Jo Lopiano opened their restaurant, Casa Maria, in Stamford when Donna was seven. The chef quit one Saturday night, forcing Jo into the kitchen, and she didn't leave for 18 years.
Neither of Donna's parents had finished high school, and as Donna grew up, the eldest of three children, she sensed the compensatory dynamic so often at play in such situations. "I knew intuitively that my parents loved me to death, that they would do anything for me, and the only thing they wanted in return was for me to get an education. I doubt they ever said that to me. But I knew it."
After the Little League affair, Tom and Jo tried everything to make their firstborn happy. They called up and pleaded with coaches of industrial-league teams to give her a chance. They tried to distract her with horseback-riding lessons. They bribed patrons to go behind the restaurant and play catch with her. Sometimes even they did; today, Jo's pinky finger is crooked from trying to catch one of the pitches her daughter would later dare Darrell Royal to hit.
And then one day several months before Donna's 16th birthday, a friend of Tom's from Bridgeport, Conn., a scout for the Pittsburgh Pirates named Sal Cagginello, wandered into the restaurant. Cagginello, it turned out, knew Wee Devitt, the coach of the Brakettes, the storied women's softball team in nearby Stratford, Conn. So Tom plied Sal with food, and wine, and more wine. And at some point during the course of the meal he extracted from Cagginello a promise to take Donna for a tryout.
Cagginello showed up a week later with scant idea what, if anything, Tom's girl could do with a softball. As he drove Donna to the Brakettes' compound, he didn't say a word. Even as Donna took the field, he stayed holed up in his car, too sheepish to watch. Twenty minutes into the workout he crept to the outfield fence, curious. Another 20 and he was alongside one baseline, intrigued. Eventually, he was in the dugout, chesty as all getout, with Devitt's arm draped around him.
"Sal! You're the greatest scout in the world!"
"Ah," Sal said. "Was nothing."
Suddenly, the little girl's world opened gloriously up. At 16, Lopiano started at second base in a national championship game at Stratford. By 17 she was touring France, Hong Kong, India and Australia with the Brakettes. For 10 years she played with the team, and in between she attended Stamford High School, Southern Connecticut State (where she received her bachelor's degree in physical education) and Southern Cal (where she earned her master's in phys ed). By the time she played out her softball career-pitching a no-hitter, socking a grand slam and leading the tournament in hitting as the Brakettes won the 1972 national title—Lopiano had begun work on her doctorate, which she would eventually get from Southern Cal.
"No question, I stayed in sport because I had been denied the chance to play Little League," she says. "I always regretted that I never got a chance to see how good I could have been at pitching a baseball. I could never have been Whitey Ford. But I could have been Don Larsen."
In Italian, donna lo piano means, very roughly, "the quiet lady." As misnomers go, it's a whopper. Consider her first year in Austin: Lopiano badgered Royal to establish the women's athletic department as part of the men's. She figured she would get more money that way. Royal wasn't buying.
Then she began cleaning house. She asked all her coaches what, if the department were suddenly favored with money, they would spend it on first. The incumbent basketball coach said, "New uniforms." He was the first to go.
To replace him, Lopiano wanted the best coach possible, but preferably a Texan, someone who could help her negotiate the hostile political landscape. One name, Conradt's, kept coming up.
Conradt is a stylistic opposite to Lopiano. Her Baptist parents still flinch, fearing the profane worst, when Lopiano begins an utterance with the syllabic "gee." "I thought I was a passenger in a runaway car for those first few years," Conradt says. "Donna didn't understand how laid-back this town was, or how much of a threat she was perceived to be. She wanted to do everything at once."
Aghast that her new basketball coach might have to occupy an office with bare walls, Lopiano painted a few acrylics herself that Conradt, wincing, hung. The director made sure soft drinks sold at events were drawn from the tap in her own finicky, foam-minimizing style. When Texas hosted the 1976 AIAW volleyball championships, Lopiano tried to turn it into an extravaganza, with a battle-of-the-sexes-style serving "contest" in which the female contestants' serves, rigged to a motor-driven guy wire, went sailing into the gym's farthest reaches as a gunpowder charge went off. "It was a fiasco," says Conradt. "Literally, no one came."
Yet sometime during those early years, Lopiano made several larger and more sensible decisions. She pledged herself to two tasks, raising money and hiring top coaches, believing that the first would attract the second. The finest athletes, Lopiano reasoned, would then go where the coaching was. Thus began a process that, a decade and a half and a 50-fold budget increase later, still hasn't played itself out.
During her first 10 years, Lopiano went through 16 different coaches in eight sports. "They were my mistakes, every one of them," she says. "But you can't live with your mistakes, because you're destroying kids."
Track coach Terry Crawford arrived in 1984, largely because her former employer, Tennessee, didn't have the funds to enable her most vulnerable athletes—those who had exhausted their four years of eligibility—to graduate. "Other schools, other coaches say, 'They're so intense at Texas,' " Crawford says. "They try to present that as a negative. But the intensity comes from caring for people. In any job there should be some standards."
As for the "culture" that university president Rogers had so worried about, it has been won over. "Texans love go-getters," says Crawford. "They're of pioneer stock, and Donna thrives on being a pioneer."
Perhaps the supreme irony of the Lady Longhorns' prosperity is that when Lopiano originally tried to bring her program in under the men, it was Royal's refusal to let her do so that assured the women's success. Lopiano is the first to say so, now. Nothing in the women's department is deemed secondary to the men's department. Of the 296 colleges in the NCAA's Division I, only eight have autonomous women's athletic departments, but they are six times more likely to have teams in a women's Top 10 than are schools with merged departments.
It takes hustling, but Lopiano collects $3.68 million a year to make her department go, including $1.3 million from the discretionary funds of president Cunningham, whose son is a Lady Longhorn basketball ball boy. Only slightly more than 10% of the women's budget comes from revenues generated by the men. It's a sum even Royal could live with. "Our school spends $12 million on the men and $3.68 million on the women," Lopiano says. "That's comparable and fair. [Title IX mandates comparable programs.] All but one of our coaches have the same salaries as theirs do. But it costs them $900 to outfit one football player. I'm not going to buy chinchilla warmups for my basketball team just to equal that."
The most encouraging part of turning your attention to the Lady Longhorns is that you come away believing there's no good reason why Lopiano's working model of an athletic department can't be adopted anywhere else, for either gender. "I've never gotten a 'No' here," she says. "I've gotten a 'Wait,' or a 'Think this through,' but never an outright 'No.' This place has an extraordinary desire to be the best."
The other is Lopiano herself. After the basketball team went 34-0 in 1986, only the athletic director could see the flaw in the perfect season. "An alumnus went up to Donna and said, 'We ought to have a big party for Jody and all she's done,' " says Heard of Inside Texas. "Donna just said, 'Jody has a girl who's not making her grades.' I'd like to see her run the whole damn department, men and women."
Unmarried, Lopiano lives in a three-bedroom house in northwest Austin with her Great Dane, Ali Baba. Or, rather, she catches naps there. Most days she is up by 3 a.m. and soon thereafter is at her desk in Bellmont Hall, on the seventh floor.
"I would love it if no one would compare us to the men and create the tension that's been created," Lopiano says. "But I'm not going to apologize. I've chatted with DeLoss a number of times about all this. If he's good at something, I want to be as good."
One afternoon last spring, a university official took Lopiano and Dodds on a tour of the new recreation and intramurals building that's going up on campus. They were issued hard hats at the entrance. Before Lopiano put hers on, Dodds turned to a companion and said, "If anything hits her head, her head'll break it."
Dodds meant it. But he didn't say it without admiration. If today brickbats and other objects roll so easily off Donna Lopiano, it's only because a lollipop stick once made its impression.