UNC’s Beth Miller Was There When Women’s Sports Was a Struggle

By Barry Jacobs | News & Observer | May 31, 2015


The arrangement eloquently illustrated the state of women’s college athletics. When the University of North Carolina volleyball season ended in the fall, player uniforms were not placed in storage. Instead they were passed along with travel bags and warm-ups for immediate use by members of the Tar Heel women’s basketball squad.

In today’s world of multimillion dollar contracts between apparel companies and major-college athletic departments, with uniforms carefully tailored to suit the needs and marketing imperatives of each sport, such a cozy cycle of reuse is difficult to imagine. “At that time, I don’t think the kids paid any attention,” Beth Miller, then UNC’s volleyball coach, recalls of the shared clothing in the latter 1970s. “They were just glad to have anything.”

The support at Chapel Hill was actually a marked improvement from conditions at Appalachian State and other major colleges at the dawn of the same decade, when women were limited to participation on the equivalent of glorified club teams. Miller’s highest annual budget as ASU volleyball coach between 1969 and 1972 was $1,500. In contrast, UNC’s current volleyball operating budget is $200,000, not counting scholarships and salaries.

Miller, 68, also directed the ASU women’s basketball squad, which shared post-game punch and cookies with visiting opponents. Routine socializing was gone when Miller arrived at UNC as head volleyball coach in 1975 but, as at Appalachian, a constraining paucity of funds prevented most overnight stays or full meals on road trips.

Olympic sports

Much has changed since then, thanks largely to the persistent efforts of advocates like Miller, set to retire on July 1 after 40 years at North Carolina, the preponderance as an administrator. Miller won consecutive ACC volleyball titles from 1980 through 1983 and also briefly coached softball at UNC. But she is most notable as a pioneer, one of a dwindling active contingent instrumental in shepherding women’s athletics from second-class status – at best – to relative equality in contemporary intercollegiate sports.

Her steady advocacy wasn’t circumscribed by gender. During a career under four different athletic directors, Miller provided administrative support for several dozen so-called “minor” sports at North Carolina, where the overall athletic program now often ranks in the top 10 nationally. The school, thanks in part to her work, also was an early leader in referring to “Olympic” sports. “Non-revenue is a pretty negative connotation,” she says.

“Beth was an advocate for men’s soccer, Beth was an advocate for baseball, Beth was an advocate for men’s golf,” recalls Nora Lynn Finch, a contemporary and longtime women’s coach and administrator in the state. “She represented all the Olympic sports with enthusiasm, passion and purpose to ensure that those student-athletes had appropriate opportunities. It was more than a pioneering effort; it was a pioneering purpose.”

Hard work

Miller retires as UNC’s Senior Associate Athletics Director and Senior Woman Administrator, the latter a position born of painful efforts to integrate women’s and men’s sports under the NCAA umbrella.

Thirteen Tar Heel teams serving both genders are presently under her purview. Earlier this year, women’s soccer coach Anson Dorrance told the Daily Tar Heel, UNC’s student newspaper, that when Miller dies “she’s going to go straight to heaven, because in administering my free spirit she has spent her hell on earth.”

Miller was raised in Landis, N.C., a small Rowan County town near Kannapolis that produced 1950s Wake Forest football and baseball standout Bill Barnes. She recalls the public school sports options for girls were limited to basketball and tennis. She played both.

Fittingly, Miller filled a ground-breaking role new to girls basketball in the early sixties – along with the three-bounce dribble – by serving as one of two “rovers” allowed to ply both ends of the court on six-member teams. The flexible position complemented two stationary players on offense and two on defense.

Later Miller, who holds a PhD in physical education from Middle Tennessee State, realized girls basketball had long remained a static game “because they felt like women weren’t capable or had the stamina to play full court.”

Miller also competed informally with and against boys, even practicing with the Little League baseball team girls weren’t allowed to join. “When I was in high school, even junior high, I think we played just as hard, we worked just as hard,” she says. “We never thought that it was something that boys could do that girls couldn’t do.”

Those attitudes had eased but hardly dissipated by the time Miller graduated from Appalachian in 1968. The balance tipped, slowly at first, with passage of Title IX, an amendment to the 1972 Higher Education Act that banned discrimination based on sex in all educational endeavors. “Without Title IX, I think women’s sports would still be way, way behind,” Miller says.

The federal nudge was necessary for the ACC, a laggard in assuring equality. Clemson and South Carolina resisted adding black football and basketball players until the 1969-70 school year. Virginia integrated basketball and football a season later, along with finally admitting women undergrads.

The ACC didn’t change its by-laws to allow athletic grants-in-aid to women until 1973, a year after Title IX was enacted. In 1974, on the eve of Miller’s arrival at North Carolina as head volleyball coach and assistant professor of health and physical education, the Tar Heels became the first ACC program to award a scholarship to a female athlete, tennis player Camey Timberlake.

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‘Real contributions’

The imperative to divert a proportional amount of resources to athletics for women enrolled in U.S. colleges confounded many inside and beyond the NCAA. For that mostly male group, the primacy of football and men’s basketball was – and remains – a bedrock interest.

“There were still those people who preferred that there would be only two sports offered in college, and only two reasonably funded, and television only has to televise two,” says Finch, now an ACC Senior Associate Commissioner for women’s basketball. “That, if you aren’t revenue-generating, you’re clearly an expense, and expenses should be reduced and moderated and managed.

“We’re not expenses,” Finch protests. “We’re real people with real contributions.”

The NCAA apparently evinced little interest in administering women’s sports or sponsoring women’s championships until around 1980. Meanwhile, amidst the rise of the women’s movement nationally, the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women was launched in 1971.

AIAW founders asserted competitive athletics could be conducted with honor, avoiding the recruiting and financial pressures that corrupted men’s football and basketball. Sparked by that idealistic spirit, AIAW members within North Carolina were encouraged to build camaraderie around punch and cookies, as Miller’s Appalachian State teams did.

Nearly a decade later, when the NCAA came calling, its entreaties drew decidedly mixed responses. Vocal skeptics warned of control by stronger, more cutthroat, less sympathetic interests. “I think I was somewhere in the middle,” Miller says, describing herself as “hesitant” to join the NCAA at first but increasingly taken with the potential for growth the organization offered.

Out of that fraught transition emerged the position eventually formalized as Senior Woman Administrator. The post embeds a prominent voice and an assured female administrative role within school and NCAA governance, a timely precaution as collegiate sports confront a range of uncertainties that promise transformative change.


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