A few months before FIU opened in 1972, the landmark civil rights ruling commonly known as Title IX was passed. It prohibits sex-based discrimination by any educational institution or program that receives funding from the federal government. The law protects students in a variety of ways, among them requiring that as many resources be put behind athletics for girls and women as for boys and men. From the start, women at FIU have shown a desire to contribute at the highest levels of sport. Continuing to advance their opportunities at the university remains a priority.
“We do have a great history of supporting women’s athletics,” says athletic director Scott Carr, committed to promoting women student-athletes academically and otherwise. “We’re doing everything we can to help them be successful and to have a great experience,” he adds, pointing to a new women’s tennis complex under construction and planned upgrades to the softball team’s facilities.
Here follow the stories of Panthers who either had a hand in championing women’s sports or who themselves achieved distinction in competition.
A PIONEER FOR EQUITY
When FIU opened with a handful of intercollegiate men’s sports, there were no counterparts for women. Founding faculty member Judith Blucker, a former collegiate athlete and coach, wondered why — and then took action. Backed up by Title IX, Blucker discussed the situation with the administration and helped launch women’s varsity sports at FIU, even coaching the inaugural volleyball and softball teams. “I was not thinking about what I could accomplish but more concerned with these young women and making sure they got the same opportunities as the men did,” the late Blucker said at the time. “I assumed it should be fair play for everybody.”
Boston native Pat Bradley ’74 earned an associate degree from Miami Dade College before heading to Arizona to continue her studies and pursuit of professional golf. Unexpectedly miserable in the dry desert, she called her old coach, who mentioned that a new school had just opened in South Florida called FIU. “I have to say it was one of the greatest moments of my life,” Bradley remembered of her first meeting with Judith Blucker (see above). And out of that campus visit came great news, the now World Golf Hall of Famer recalled: “There was a team! I was it!” Bradley would go on to win 31 LPGA tour events, including six major championships. She was FIU’s first student-athlete to earn All-America honors.
In 1979 Nancy Olson became FIU’s first, and to date, only female athletic director, a rarity in the nation back then. During her tenure, she hired key people, petitioned for Division I status for the baseball program and watched men’s soccer become NCAA champions. Most ambitiously, perhaps, she started FIU’s men’s basketball team from scratch, a move designed “to grow the athletic program and get some notoriety,” she recalled. She hired one of the first black coaches to serve at a non-HBCU and then set about finding a space in which to play home games. “All we had was a ‘tin gym,'” she said of an old airplane hangar on campus in which practices took place. So the team headed to a local high school, and Olson set about securing funding to build FIU’s arena.
Hungarian powerhouse Andrea Nagy ’95 played FIU hoops from 1991 to 1995 and is considered one of the greats in school history. Recruited from Budapest by the legendary Cindy Russo, she helped the Panthers to two NCAA Tournament appearances. Nagy has 1,165 career assists, a number that ranks first in FIU history and second in NCAA history. Her 1,812 career points rank her fifth in FIU history. Nagy went on to seven professional seasons, completing her career with the WNBA as a point guard. It was a remarkable journey for a woman who had picked up basketball at age 9 and initially headed to FIU battling fears. “I was going somewhere I didn’t know anybody,” Nagy recalled of the plane trip she took alone to Miami. “I didn’t know the language. I didn’t know the culture. I had no friends over there. So it was pretty scary.”
When Tayna Lawrence ’98 took to the starting blocks in the 100-meter sprint at the 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney, a TV announcer back in the United States informed American audiences that the track favorite had attended Florida International University. Running for her native Jamaica, lightning-fast Lawrence undoubtedly had the whole of Miami-Dade County cheering her to the finish. She earned a silver medal in the event and would claim a second days later in the 4×100 relay and, eventually, a gold in the same relay four years later in Athens.
KILLER ON THE COURT
Yarimar Rosa ’10 had her volleyball jersey retired by FIU following a college career that saw the Panther become the university’s only four-time All-American and its all-time leader in kills (2,083) along with a slew of other impressive rankings. Arguably the best player in the program’s history, she relied heavily on fellow Puerto Rican teammate Natalia Valentin ’11. The pair had an oversized role in helping FIU reach the NCAA Tournament two years in a row.
Basketball standout Jerica Coley ’14, MS ’16 is FIU’s all-time leading scorer, male or female. She is one of only 13 players in NCAA Women’s Basketball history to record 3,000 points or more in a career, and she ranks seventh all-time among NCAA career Division I scoring leaders. She is a three-time Associated Press All-America honoree and finished on a 63-game double-figure scoring streak. Despite a heavy travel and practice schedule, Coley maintained a high GPA and went on to earn a master’s degree in nutrition at FIU.
A LEGENDARY LEADER
Cindy Russo guided women’s basketball as head coach for a whopping 36 years and retired in January 2015 as the most successful coach in FIU history and one of the great women’s basketball coaches of all time. She led the Panthers to 22 consecutive winning seasons, eight regular season conference titles, seven conference championships and six NCAA Tournament appearances. Her total of 707 wins (667 at FIU) ranks in the Top 25 on the all-time Division I women’s basketball wins list. “I had the chance to come in and make a mark on this university,” she said. “It’s a priceless feeling, being able to make a difference in these young women’s lives and seeing them go out and be successful and positive contributors in the world.”
A COMMITTED COACH
Beach volleyball coach and assistant athletic director Rita Buck-Crockett has spent 10 years at FIU, formerly heading both the indoor and beach teams. Notably, in 2018 Buck-Crockett led the indoor program to its first-ever Conference USA Championship finals appearance and the beach program to its first-ever NCAA Championship bid. A Volleyball Hall of Famer and a two-time Olympian, Buck-Crockett is all about helping student-athletes grow into broadly capable individuals, wherever they go in life. “Sport is a very valuable tool to learn comradery, empathy, teamwork, discipline, responsibility, how to handle pressure, how to take defeat and how to be passionate about something you love,” she said. “Sport helps you to learn how to see the bigger picture, and most of all to work hard for your goals.”