Basketball continues to be the most common sport in women’s intercollegiate programs. However, during Auburn’s early years, women faced significant hindrances until playing intercollegiate basketball became a regular event.
Basketball was the first sport for women at the university, with tennis following shortly after. The first season was in 1915, nine years after the men’s first season in 1906.
By 1920, the women’s basketball program experienced its first “Golden Era.” These women became quite popular rather quickly and, with Auburn being much smaller back then, games were a must-see event for students and male athletes.
David Housel’s book “Tigerettes, Tigresses, Lady Tigers, Tigers: A Story of Women’s Athletics at Auburn” lists various events that labeled this era of women’s basketball as “golden.
Housel states in the book that the 1920 team was thought to have played its first intercollegiate game. Even better, it was against the Georgia Bulldogs.
“We had good crowds! I mean we did!” Mary Tamplin ’25 relates. “There was a balcony in the gym [and] we had it full. There were benches all the way around, except on the side next to the door–they were full. We had good crowds–but then we had a marvelous basketball team.”
Libba Young Johnson ’25 stated that with no movies and only a few women at the school to date, women’s games led to bigger crowds.
The “Tigerettes”, as they were called back in the day, also received coverage on Orange and Blue, predecessor of The Plainsman.
“Honey,” says Tamplin, “We went out to win, and we did! We played just like we despised each other! …The other fellows, I mean.” The women played with grace, but also were also tough, and the students supported them passionately.
Eight coeds made up the 1920 team, coached by L.S. Phillips and captained by Kate Floyd ’26. The season was only six games at that time, but they won four of those six, running up 136 points that year against their opponents’ 79.
In comparison to present-day players, the Tigerettes were short, but, of course, no one was recruiting women basketball players for Auburn back then. The girls who were interested in playing got together and organized, then asked the college powers-that-be for permission to play.
In Katrina Blair Van Tassel’s thesis “Co-Eds, Basketball Players, and Beauty Queens: Women at the Alabama Polytechnic Institute, 1892-1941” women were not allowed to do much on campus–after class was finished, they were required to return to their dorms—but basketball showed them the college experience could be more than just textbooks and exams.
Johnson thinks that college administrators may have granted the women permission to play because Auburn was encouraging more women to enroll. But, she is careful to add, “we had so much enthusiasm that I imagine we were hard to get rid of.”
Around this era came the founding of the two most important and largest women’s organizations on campus: The Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), founded in 1922, was the largest women’s organization on campus in the 1920s. Shortly after, the Women’s Athletic Association was founded, an organization independent of the regular Athletic Association of the college created by female students.
At API, the WAA preceded the hiring of a women’s physical education instructor by four years, when spectators could watch basketball games for only 10 cents.
The WAA sponsored dances, assembled a handbook for female students and assisted with the “big sister” program. By 1938 it was the biggest organization on campus.
“In one fell swoop, the women students had taken steps to remove the women’s athletic program from sponsorship by the Athletic Department and take over its operation themselves,” Writes Housel in Tigerettes. “The Athletic Department, now called Athletics Department, was probably happy to see it go and made no effort to retain control or influence.”
For about 50 years after the late 1920’s, Auburn women only competed at club and intramural levels. Women’s athletics returned in force to Auburn’s Athletic program with the arrival of Title IX.
Title IX was created in order to prevent future discrimination based on sex at federally funded academic institutions, increase female participation in school sports and promote the development of athletic programs for female student athletes.
Players from the first women’s team would be happy to see the reputation that the women’s basketball program has earned. The Tigers have been an NCAA tournament runner up three times and have won five regular season SEC Championship and four SEC Tournament championships.
Needless to say, women’s basketball has come a long way on the plains.