'Unless the pass is closed, we will be there'

How Luella Lillly became one of the greatest administrators and coaches the University has ever seen

Female AD Luella Lilly holding a budget in her hand

Luella Lilly was a groundbreaking figure at the University. During her tenure as director of women's athletics at the University from 1969-76, she was a progressive, determined and principled administrator and coach who championed the rights of female athletes to realize their fullest potential.

'Unless the pass is closed, we will be there'

How Luella Lillly became one of the greatest administrators and coaches the University has ever seen

Luella Lilly was a groundbreaking figure at the University. During her tenure as director of women's athletics at the University from 1969-76, she was a progressive, determined and principled administrator and coach who championed the rights of female athletes to realize their fullest potential.

Female AD Luella Lilly holding a budget in her hand

Luella Lilly was a groundbreaking figure at the University. During her tenure as director of women's athletics at the University from 1969-76, she was a progressive, determined and principled administrator and coach who championed the rights of female athletes to realize their fullest potential.

When Luella “Lue” Lilly arrived at the University in the summer of 1969 as a 31-year-old faculty member in the Department of Physical Education and women’s volleyball and basketball coach, there was no place for women’s athletics at the University to go but up.

There were no scholarships. No recruiting budget other than a flier that was given to players to remind them about registering for classes. The athletes on the volleyball and basketball teams were still wearing blue shorts and white blouses and not actual uniforms. The winless volleyball program had reached a point where if the weather was bad over Donner Pass, they simply wouldn’t travel to games in the Bay Area.

Yet even with the inherent limitations, Lilly wasn’t about to let anything stop her. At her core, having been an outstanding athlete herself as a national-level swimmer in the mid-1950s, Lilly knew the life-affirming power that young women could find when they were allowed to pursue their dreams.

“I always wanted the women to be respected, and I didn’t want them to be pushed around,” Lilly said in a 2013 University oral history on the development of the women’s athletics program. “I didn’t want them to have less than what would be expected of women who were trying to achieve their goals.”

What would happen over the next seven years would be historic. Not in the sense that the Wolf Pack women’s athletic program would win countless championships and earn the rapt attention of the nation.

No, this was an incremental struggle, one women had faced their entire lives. It was to be measured in slow and steady and sometimes frustrating progress that would see Lilly become one of the most influential figures in the history of Wolf Pack athletics. There are few administrators and coaches who brought their programs as far as Luella Lilly did during her time as the successor to Ruth Russell, the University’s director of women’s athletics from 1948-69.

Lilly did it with ingenuity, creativity and an abiding belief that all women deserved a chance to compete and excel in intercollegiate athletics, even as she faced miniscule operating budgets and even, later, an effort to take away her responsibilities and minimize her influence on her athletes.

That she is today, at 84 years old, one of the most decorated administrators in the history of women’s intercollegiate athletics shouldn’t be surprising, given her progressive and positive style of coaching that viewed her athletes not as unfeeling automatons but as human beings, and in her ability as an administrator and advocate for women’s athletics to stand firmly with her principles intact.

The beginnings: ‘You either apply or reject what you learn, but all your experiences are built into your personality’

Luella Lilly was born in Newberg, Oregon, on Aug. 23, 1937. Her mother was an elementary school teacher. Her father was a skilled workman and cabinetmaker. Neither of her parents were particularly athletic. No one in her family had ever been college-bound. But as their daughter began to excel in a variety of settings, they supported her. Lilly was a straight-A student throughout her time in school. She graduated in 1955 as her high school’s valedictorian. From the ages of 12 to 19, she was a competitive and national-caliber swimmer for the Multnomah Athletic Club in Portland, Oregon. Often, since her family wasn’t well off, she would ride a bus 23 miles to Portland, then would walk 15 blocks to the athletic club in order to get to swim practice.

“I often had to leave right after practice with wet hair to catch the bus (back home),” Lilly said in a January 1976 interview in the Reno Evening Gazette. “By the time I got to the bus station my hair was frozen. My dad would meet me at the bus station at 11:30 at night and drive me home for dinner.”

Lilly was an up-and-coming talent. She was an alternate for the United States’ Pan American Games swim team in 1955. She continued to compete while a student at Lewis & Clark University in Portland, though her interests began to shift toward academics and the many perspectives that were shared in Lewis & Clark’s classrooms. This would become a theme of Lilly’s life. She would graduate with a double major in physical education and psychology. In 1961, she earned her master’s degree in physical education and counseling from Oregon State. In 1971, she received her Ph.D. from Texas Women’s University.

“I wanted to get different approaches and be exposed to different philosophies,” Lilly said in  January 1976. “You either apply or reject what you learn, but all your experiences are built into your personality … they become part of you.”

After coaching and teaching at Oregon State, Lilly joined the faculty at American River College near Sacramento and helped start the women’s athletics program. In 1969, an opportunity to apply for a position at the University of Nevada arose.

“Dr. Ruth Russell was getting ready to retire,” Lilly said in 2013. “She asked me if I would apply for the position there. So I wrote my letter of application at the request of Dr. Russell, and then I was hired.”

Lilly was the University’s director of women’s physical education, which included athletics.

Lilly, who according to news reports of the time was a Quaker, found Reno, if a little different from any of her prior life experiences due to its legalized gambling, to be a nice fit.

“When I talked to people then they said if you avoided the four-block-square downtown, it was like living in any other small town except that there were slot machines in the grocery store,” she said in 2013. Lilly attended church every Sunday. Every Thursday night she was part of faculty and staff bowling league. “That turned out to be a very, very good description of it, and I was very happy there.”

She found a women’s athletic program that lacked many of the basics that women were beginning to see at other universities.

“Nevada was still wearing blue shirts and white blouses,” she said in 2013. “The rest of the teams – the other schools – had actually gone to uniforms, but Nevada was that far behind. They still had ‘pinnies’ (a type of pull-over vest, usually worn over clothing) with the numbers on them, and at that point in time, they had no sweatsuits or anything.”

Lilly sought out Athletic Director Jake Lawlor to see what could be done to modernize what the Wolf Pack women were wearing.

“(Lawlor) gave me the men’s gray, wool warmups,” Lilly said. “They were scratchier than anything. I don’t know how long he had had them. Anyway, they were for six-foot guys, and of course, some of our girls were five-foot-four, so we had these huge, great big outfits. But the mothers and some of the team modified them all so that they came down to our size, so at least they had some sweats.”

From their own money, Lilly and her players bought black cotton P.E.-style shorts and shirts for the Wolf Pack athletes to compete in.

“Regardless of whether it was volleyball or basketball or softball, there was one set of uniforms and they all wore the same ones,” Lilly said. “That was the way it got started.”

Lilly inherited volleyball and basketball teams that had seen very little success. She took it upon herself to instill a sense of pride in what they young women were doing. Harsh Sierra winters, which sometimes began in the late fall with major snowstorms, had become something of an excuse for Pack teams that weren’t very excited about trips to Sacramento and the Bay Area that invariably would end with lopsided losses.

The program, Lilly said, had a reputation of not showing up if the weather was bad.

“I said, ‘Well, I am here now and unless the pass is closed, we will be there,” she said.

Building pride in the Pack: ‘Better to be the stomper than the stompee’

In addition to two-hour-long practices to hone the skill level of her athletes – some of whom were beginners and hadn’t competed in volleyball or basketball before – Lilly turned to the mental makeup of her teams. Always an optimist, Lilly knew that there could be power in believing in oneself, and in one’s teammates.

“I figure that if any girl is willing to come out and spend two hours a night, that the program must be fulfilling some need for her,” Lilly said in a 1972-73 oral history. "And this is why I think it’s important.”

Still, it irked her that her athletes would tell her that the road trips weren’t very fun, that the prospect of losing more than they won weighed heavily. She recalled them telling her, “Oh, we just go down there and get stomped.”

Using her background in counseling and problem-solving – she had been the girl’s dean of students while teaching high school in Oregon – Lilly took those words and turned them on their head.

“As I was walking through the (University) bookstore one time, I saw this picture of this great big elephant and it said, ‘Better to be the stomper than the stompee,’” she recalled. “So I very casually, with no forethought other than the fact that it was a word the students used all the time, bought those posters and gave them to the kids with idea of building self-confidence.”

Gradually, Lilly’s coaching acumen was becoming apparent. Her teams improved and made program history.

Her 1975-76 women’s basketball team posted the first winning season in program history and behind the play of Cindy Rock, the first out-of-state female athlete in University history to receive a basketball scholarship, set school scoring records.

Her 1975 women’s volleyball team, powered by both Rock and Denise Fogarty, the first out-of-state female athlete in University history to earn a volleyball scholarship, won the program’s first and only conference championship in the Northern California Intercollegiate Athletic Association. They earned a berth that November in the Small College Regional.

For astute observers of sports, like the legendary Nevada State Journal and Reno Gazette-Journal columnist Steve Sneddon, Lilly’s success spoke to an empathetic coaching style that was in direct contrast to the humorless drill sergeants of the time. Lilly was a teacher as much as she was a coach. She knew how to provide support, build buy-in and offer encouragement so that her athletes could realize their fullest potential.  

“Her philosophies,” Sneddon wrote in an August 1976 column about Lilly, “were strange and foreign for sportswriters who had grown up learning the philosophies of Vince Lombardi.”

Sneddon, who always advocated for women and minority athletes in the four decades he wrote columns for Reno newspapers, then quoted Lilly on her philosophy: “My job is to improve each player’s skills. I’m interested in helping them adjust to different situations. I don’t want to make them robots … machines. I want them to know why they are doing things.”

Sneddon wrote: “(Lilly) discovered a long time ago there’s more to the world than scoreboards. She never had had anything against success. She was a successful athlete. But for her and her teams, success came from learning to do things correctly.”

Lilly succeeded in doing things correctly even as the system at the time was stacked in favor of male athletes. Her budgets, as she attempted to grow the Wolf Pack women’s athletics program from seven sports, were miniscule in comparison to the men’s athletics program. Even with the passage of the landmark federal legislation Title IX, which prohibited federally funded educational institutions from discriminating against students or employees based on sex in 1972, Lilly was always asked to do more with a lot less than her male counterparts. In July 1975 the Reno Evening Gazette reported that year’s current fiscal year budget for Wolf Pack athletics was $764,532. Of that sum, the men’s athletics budget was $634,444. The women’s athletics budget was $130,088.

Lilly and her athletes made sacrifices in order to stretch every dollar they were budgeted.

“So one of the ways we cut back is to still have the girls either bring their own lunches, or skip lunch, or bring a bag of apples, something to this extent,” Lilly said in her 1972-73 oral history about the team’s road trips. “Oftentimes we’ll take sleeping bags and still sleep on the floor, because this is, again, where we have to cut money, rather than cutting out one of the games.”

It had been a battle, but gradually the program was moving in the right direction.

“The other teams already had uniforms, they had some per diem, they had better practice times, and so we were starting behind the eight ball,” Lilly said in 2013. “It was a big game of catch-up with the other schools.”

Leaving Reno: ‘I don’t know how this will work’

And just as her athletes were starting to enjoy some success, Lilly began to experience interference that threatened her livelihood.

First, in 1975, the male department chairman of the physical education department informed Lilly that her contract was not going to be renewed. Lilly recalled in her 2013 oral history that the termination was based on a perception that, “I was making the young women either assertive or aggressive – I can’t remember which of those words were used – and they felt it was better that I was not involved with the leadership of young women … I had never been warned, so it was a total, total shock.”

In a unanimous vote, the University’s Faculty Senate overrode Lilly’s firing. She was promoted to associate professor of physical education.

Then, during the summer of 1975, the University announced that it was reorganizing its athletic department. To this point, Lilly had overseen women’s athletics as its director. The new structure, which was endorsed by University President Max Milam, would combine the two programs, overseen by a single male athletic director.

The original proposal, Lilly said, had her listed in the organizational chart as “Assistant to” the athletic director.

“Of course, that’s a tremendous demotion,” Lilly said. “’Assistant to’ would have put me on a secretarial-staff level of being the athletic director’s gofer without any administrative authority at all.”

After some “heated discussion” with Milam and other University administrators, Lilly was given the title of associate director of athletics.

In announcing the reorganization, the University said it was following a “trend nationwide” that athletic programs throughout the country were doing in the wake of Title IX. Lilly disagreed.

In a July 1975 interview with the Reno Evening Gazette, Lilly said: “Very few departments have combined the way Nevada has. Many have taken women and put them under men. For those that have, the male is the head with the woman director underneath with her unit intact. Nevada’s situation is atypical, not typical, of other institutions. I don’t know how this will work.”

In addition to her public doubts, privately Lilly was also struggling with the new structure. With many of her administrative duties – including women’s budget considerations, which she had fought to increase from about $18,000 when she arrived on campus in 1969 to the current $130,088 in 1975 – taken away from her, she wondered what career path she had at the University.

She recalled in her 2013 oral history having a conversation with one of her athletes, Pat Hixson. Hixson’s mother was another groundbreaking female figure in Nevada history, Mary Gojack, a single parent who raised her two children by dealing blackjack in local casinos as she worked on earning her degree from the University before being elected to the Nevada State Assembly and Senate in the 1970s. Hixson was another groundbreaking figure in University history. She was one of the first former female Wolf Pack athletes to become a head coach at the University, eventually becoming the Wolf Pack’s women’s softball coach.

Hixson was a senior athlete at the time of the reorganization. She asked her coach of four years, “Why do you stay here?” Lilly recalled. Lilly said professional and institutional disappointment aside, she was hoping to stay at the University “for you students.”

Then Hixson said, ‘We’re all going to leave. Why don’t you go someplace else where they will really appreciate what you’re doing and you’ll be able to have a better situation?”

Lilly said, “Yes, but then the program will most likely go downhill.”

Hixson said, “The people who are here will never know the difference. They’ll have an athletic program. It can be at whatever level the University wants it. Why don’t you go and do something well someplace else?”

Lilly reflected in 2013, “You feel a real obligation to stay, because you have convinced (the athletes) that this is the best school for them … So it was very hard for me to detach myself from the students, too, but I’ve many, many times thought about what Pat said. I kept studying it in my mind and thought, ‘You know, this is really getting ridiculous here with what does happen.’”

Lilly coached through the 1975-76 academic year. In January 1976 she told the Reno Evening Gazette that she was “working in good faith” with the reorganization of athletics, though she added, “Men and women have different philosophies about athletic programs. I’m concerned as to what direction women’s college sports will go now.”

On Aug. 21, 1976, Luella Lilly announced she was resigning, in order to accept a new position at the University of California, Berkeley, as Cal’s director of a new intercollegiate sports department for women. There had been more than 100 applicants from across the nation for the position.

“I’m glad I’m getting into it at a developmental time for women’s athletics,” Lilly told the Reno Evening Gazette. “I’m glad I’m able to work with the development, and see where women’s athletics will end up. I just want a good opportunity for the students. I think Berkeley is trying to have programs for women at every level, whether it is club sports, intramurals or intercollegiate.”

In talking about her new position at Berkeley where there would be 12 women’s sports teams as opposed to seven at Nevada, there was also an unmistakable sense of pride in what she had accomplished at the University.

“Our teams at Nevada beat Berkeley last year and in basketball we set our scoring record against Berkeley,” Lilly said. “So it will be interesting to see what happens.”

Lilly’s departure was noted immediately. A few days later, Anne Howard, the longtime University English professor who had chaired the Women’s Intercollegiate Athletic Board, wrote in a letter to the editor in the Reno Evening Gazette that, “In spite of minimal financial sport, constant frustration in implementing changes and an administrative decision that essentially dissolved her job in May of 1975, Dr. Lilly has maintained a steady devotion to a program that was finally submerged last year … The new position (at Cal) is distinctly a promotion for a true professional who has demonstrated her energy, integrity and restraint in increasingly trying circumstances for seven long years.”

Historic career at two schools: ‘Figure out where the Joneses are going and get there before them’

At the University of California, Berkeley, as the school’s first AD of women’s athletics, Lilly  during her historic tenure of 1976-92 demonstrated the administrative prowess, clear-eyed strategy, strong leadership and deep care she felt for all of the program’s athletes, coaches and staff that had been in evidence from 1969-76 at the University.

During her 17 years at Cal, the Bear women won 28 conference championships in eight of 11 sports, plus four national crew titles in 1979-80 and 1983-84. In USA Today rankings that listed the overall excellence of women’s sports programs in the country beginning in 1985, Cal ranked among the nation’s top 12 each of the final eight years of Lilly’s time leading women’s athletics.

In 1999, Lilly was presented the Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Association of Collegiate Women’s Athletic Administrators. As the school’s original women’s AD, she established the Cal Women’s Hall of Fame in 1977-78, of which she is now a member. In 2018, Lilly was inducted into the Wolf Pack Athletics Hall of Fame.

Lilly said in her 2013 oral history that she had followed a simple, but highly telling, philosophy throughout her career.

“I think one of the things that has been my guideline, and I made this up, as far as I know – ‘Don’t try to keep up with the Joneses. Figure out where the Joneses are going and get there before them.’ That’s kind of what I tried to do.

“I think that I have taken that to various school situations, where you had to really evaluate and then figure out some rather unique ways of accomplishing what you wanted to do.”













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