Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame Class of 2014: Lin Dunn played “like a guy,” built legacy for women’s game
Trace your finger down Lin Dunn’s resume, and the legacy that earned her a place in the 2014 Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame is quickly revealed.
Drawing on a potent combination of humor, energy, advocacy, vision and straight up orneriness, she created women’s basketball programs at Austin Peay State University (1970-77), University of Mississippi (1977-78) and Miami University (1978-87). She coached at Purdue for nine years (1987-96), where she collected three Big 10 conference titles, made seven NCAA tournament appearances, four Sweet Sixteen appearances, and a trip to the Final Four in 1994. In 1997 she transitioned to the professional game, earning Coach of Year honors in her first and only year in the ABL (1998). In 1999, she spearheaded the establishment the new WNBA Seattle Storm franchise, serving as coach and general manager for the team’s first three years. She joined the Indiana Fever staff in 2004 as an assistant. Named head coach for the 2008 season, Dunn led the Fever to the WNBA championship in 2012.
For all that, one has to wonder what might have happened had she been born decade later.
“To be honest with you,” said Dunn, “I was probably was a better player than I am a coach.”
She likens her game to that of a woman she has coached for years — multiple WNBA Defensive Player of the Year winner, Tamika Catchings. “I have so much respect for her because she’s relentless. We are relentless in our desire to get better because we want to win. We’re both fanatical about time management. To be honest, the reason we butt heads at times is because we’re both so competitive.”
Dunn developed that competitive streak as a youngster growing up in Alabama in the mid-‘50s. Sports were an intrinsic part of her family’s daily life. “We had a high jump pit in the backyard,” Dunn recalled. “We played basketball, softball, baseball, we had boxing gloves.”
She, her father and her brother – 17 months her elder – competed against each other every day. When she was about 10, she remembers being profoundly disappointed that she wasn’t allowed to play football or little league baseball.
“I was good and I was tough and I was so much better than my brother but, because I was a girl, I didn’t get to play. That was the first time I realized, ‘If a girl, you’re treated differently. You’re a second-class citizen when it comes to sports.’”
When Dunn was 15, her parents separated and she moved to Dresden, Tenn. Unlike the attitudes in Alabama, girls’ basketball was revered. Her high school actually fielded a team. “I got to play two years of high school basketball. You would have thought I had died and gone to heaven,” she recalled. A 5-7 guard with a jump shot – rare in the ‘60s women’s game– she relished physical play. “I probably fouled out of every game I played because I was so competitive,” she laughed. “I played like a guy. And that was the greatest compliment you could get, when somebody said, ‘Wow. Have you seen Lin Dunn play? She plays like a guy.’”
Her days on the court ended in 1965 when she arrived at University of Tennessee-Martin. There was no women’s basketball because, said Dunn with a hint of disdain, “It was ‘too rough for girls,’ it was ‘not socially acceptable.’ You know you know the whole story.” Ironically enough, her career as a coach began when she was dissuaded from her original goal: major in French and become an interpreter at the United Nations. “I signed up for all these French courses and then the instructor called me in and said, ‘you are destroying a beautiful language. If you have any hope of doing what you said you’re going to do, I’d like to squelch that right now.’” Nonplussed, she thanked the professor, reconsidered her future, and changed her major to Physical Education. “I spent those four years in college with no basketball and that’s when I decided, ‘Okay I can’t play but I can coach. I can have a team.’”
For the next 40-plus years, that’s exactly what she did, though it took some doing in those pre-Title IX ‘70s. “When I first started at Austin Peay, I wasn’t hired as a coach,” Dunn explained. “I was hired as a physical education teacher to teach all of the P.E. classes nobody wanted to teach: archery, golf, tennis, swimming, badminton, stunts and tumbling.” When she asked the athletic director if she could start a basketball team, it was approved with the understanding that there would be no budget and few resources. “Every year I would go in and beg and borrow and steal,” recalled Dunn. She scavenged old training gear, “re-appropriated” unattended rolls of tape, and squeezed out access to the gym after classes, intramurals and men’s practices were done. Traveling to games meant waiting to see if a department vehicle happened to be available.
“If we didn’t get a van we went in my car – a big old red Impala. It was one of those gigantic cars that you get about eight or nine in,” said Dunn. Deciding the game day roster was easy: If you didn’t have a good practice you didn’t get to go. “We would drive up the day of the competition and we drive back afterwards late at night.” Tournaments that required overnight stays meant sleeping bags on a gym floor or, if she knew the opposing coach, on the floor of their living room. Dunn remembers her players as women who played for the love of the game and for the opportunity to compete. “There were no scholarships, I had no assistant, we didn’t have a manager, we didn’t have a trainer. If we had to practice at 6 a.m. or 7 p.m. at night, that was okay because it was a chance to play.”
“I think all of those years at Austin Peay, Miami, Ole Miss, working 24/7 to build the programs,” reflected Dunn. “Constantly being a pain in the ass, constantly pushing and prodding and begging and asking and demanding, ‘can we do this, why can’t we do that? Pushing envelope, trying to get more resources. Trying to figure out how to make things better for my teams. Through my entire college career, we were constantly trying to improve the opportunities. Every experience you had was a year later in our growth of equity and opportunities for girls and women in sports.”
Dunn’s induction to the WBHOF signals the end of her coaching career, but not her connection to coaches. She’ll spend next season supporting the new Indiana Fever staff while and continuing her decade-long practice serving as a consultant and mentor to college coaches. In that role, she will remind her fellow coaches that they can do more than “just coach.” “ I don’t think a lot of coaches and athletes understand they have a powerful platform because of who they are and the visible sport that they are in,” explained Dunn. “They have an opportunity to make things better in a lot of areas. Let’s say that I’m going to embrace anti-bullying, or inclusion or maybe to continue to fight for equity, equal pay for equal work, or bias against woman. I can’t make a difference in everything, so we’ll have to try to focus in on those issues that I really, really value. You can make a difference in whatever you decide to do.”
As she prepares to join her fellow inductees in Knoxville, Dunn can’t help to reflect. “People have asked me, ‘what would you do differently?’ Her response is simple: “I wish I had worked harder. I wish had been more of a pain in the ass. I came up in the ‘60s and ‘70s where there were still serious racial issues, you know, and how black athletes were treated. I’ve come up where women had been discriminated against. You do then what did you to make a difference. I wish I had done more.”
Stepping out of the limelight doesn’t mean Dunn, herself, will be abdicating her role in advocacy. It is, after all, in her blood. “I was brought up in a family that was extremely liberal, that was extremely progressive. We were encouraged from the very beginning to not think out of the box — there is no box. That’s the environment I came up in. It’s been ingrained in me. That would be a definition of me: I don’t think out of the box. I figure there isn’t a box.”
This was the fifth in a series of profiles on the six players, coaches and contributors who will be inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame on June 14 as part of the Induction Class of 2014. The 1976 U.S. Olympic Team will also be honored as “Trailblazers of the Game.”