By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
DES MOINES, Iowa, Feb. 25, 2019 — It gives me pause to tell you that this 100th Iowa Girls High School State Basketball Tournament is the 61st that I have closely followed, and of those 61, I’ve attended at least 45.
Of course, the state tournament is the showpiece and moneymaker of the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union’s 10-sport program, which I believe is the best athletics program for high school girls in the nation.
In my view, there are three profound things all this does for girls, women and indeed all of Iowa, and these are things that may never have occurred to you:
–1. Have you noticed how happy the players look in the state tournament? That really goes for girl athletes in all sports. Oh, there may be red faces, anger or even tears right after a disappointing loss. But look again minutes later. There are huge smiles, hugs for fans and “thank yous” for coming to their games. It never seems to look quite that way for our boys in sports.
–2. About 20 years ago, I was startled to hear Lisa Bluder, the coach then of the Drake University women’s basketball team and now the coach of the University of Iowa women’s team, tell a reporter that the most important thing she and her assistant coaches were teaching their players is “confidence.” I thought, wow! They’ve always looked plenty confident to me. But then it occurred to me, I wasn’t seeing the players in their early insecurity about basketball and competition in general. I was seeing them when they’re all polished up and performing in the bright lights and big games. And that’s when I really understood: Wherever our former high school girl athletes wind up, and whether married or single, they have an extra shot of confidence and courage, developed from their experiences in interscholastic competition.
–3. Just think of it, this is our 100th high school girls state basketball tournament. Do you realize most states are not yet celebrating 50 years of their girls’ tournaments? That’s because they didn’t start having them until the federal government told them they had to provide equal opportunity for girls. That new law in the early 1970s “barely caused a ripple in Iowa,” then Gov. Bob Ray noted, because the state had a girls’ program that started a half-century earlier. Girls basketball, and the other sports added later to the IGHSAU program, have given us a wonderful kind of glue that bonds generations of women in this state – great-grandmothers, grandmothers, mothers and daughters who’ve all played, won, lost and learned from it. No other states have had girls competing in organized high school sports for four, now starting five generations.
The special centennial logo of the 100th girls state basketball tournament in Iowa was being put in place on Sunday at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines. (Photo from the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union)
THE STATE TOURNAMENT HAS REALLY BEEN SO MUCH MORE THAN JUST BASKETBALL. At least since 1955 it has. That’s when the board of directors of the IGHSAU decided to move the tournament from Drake University’s old fieldhouse, with its capacity of about 5,000, to the huge new Veterans Memorial Auditorium in downtown Des Moines. E. Wayne Cooley, the new, young executive secretary of the IGHSAU was faced with the challenge of trying to fill 14,000 seats at “Vets.”
Cooley had grown up at Coon Rapids in west central Iowa. The school was strong in both girls and boys sports, but it was also strong in vocal music, band and the arts. He noticed how the school’s concerts always seemed to attract crowds just as big as the sporting events. So in ’55, as he thought about how to draw more people to Vets for the state basketball tournament, he came up with the then-startling idea of incorporating entertainment into the halftime and between-game time periods – singers, dancers, acrobats and more. Put more Iowa kids on the floor, he figured, and he’d also be putting more parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and friends into the seats to watch and cheer. And he put them all on television, too.
That strategy worked. Oh, did it ever work!
From the late 1950s into the 1990s, Cooley turned the girls state tournament into one of the biggest sports events of the year in Iowa. Tickets for the semifinals and championships on Friday and Saturday nights were harder to get than big-game football tickets at the University of Iowa or Iowa State University. A special television network the IGHSAU put together carried the telecast of the championship into nine states across the Midwest, with ratings higher than pro football’s Super Bowl was getting then. It was such a widely-admired and fun spectacle that Sports Illustrated, the New York Times, the Washington Post and many other national publications often did feature stories on it.
A FINE MOMENT IN A CHAT WITH E. WAYNE COOLEY. I was a feature columnist for the Des Moines Register much of that time, and I was fascinated by the joy and the success of the tournament – and by Cooley, too. I pestered him often for quotes and insights. Once in 1992, when he was 70 years old, I caught him in a reflective mood in his office, then at the former governor’s mansion on Grand Avenue in Des Moines. I asked him if he ever thought of himself as Iowa’s leading feminist. He immediately said no.
But then he paused and thought some more.
“Oh, I might be a feminist,” he said. “I just never thought of that before. I have fought some battles over the years to get equality for girls. When you think of it, the athletic arena was the home of men and boys for more than 200 years. Only in recent times have women and girls started coming into athletics, and sometimes they’ve had to overcome hostility to do it. In Iowa at least, the girl athlete can walk down the street just as tall as the boy athlete. No taller, but no shorter, either.”
Cooley built the tournament, he took the game of six-on-six girls basketball to fame and glory no one could have imagined, but he wasn’t stuck in the way it was. When he perceived that the girls themselves favored a transition to the five-player game, he put in place an orderly transition to it, one that protected the financial support system for the whole IGHSAU program.
He understood, believed and taught his successors that the games, the sports, the tournaments, the pageantry, the Girls Union – all of that – belongs to the Iowa Girl.
Back then and now, too.
Chuck Offenburger, now writing in retirement from an acreage near Cooper in west central Iowa, for 21 years authored the “Iowa Boy” column for the Des Moines Register, and for about 10 years, he was part of the TV broadcast team at the girls state basketball tournaments. He also wrote the 2002 book “E. Wayne Cooley and the Iowa Girl: A celebration of the nation’s best high school girls sports program.” He is co-owner of the news & opinion website Offenburger.com, and you can reach him at chuck@Offenburger.com.