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Emory Athletics: Rapid Rise to Excellence

Emory Athletics: Rapid Rise to Excellence

With 20 NCAA Division III championships and 184 University Athletic Association titles, Emory University is an athletic powerhouse. Yet it wasn't until it began competition in the UAA that Emory achieved athletic success, having gone without a single All-American in its 150-year existence until 1986.

As a matter of fact, intercollegiate athletics had been banned at Emory by the university's 10th president, Warren Akin Candler, who served as president from 1888-1898 and as chancellor from 1914-1920. Instead, Emory joined Purdue University as one of the first institutions to have an extensive intramural program, using the motto, "Athletics For All." Most of the sparse varsity programs began in the early-to-mid 1970s.

'We were reasonably terrible," admitted Gerry Lowrey, who served as Director of Athletics at Emory from 1984-90 after serving in the position in an interim role in 1983. "When I became men's track and field and cross country coach in 1980, we had seven teams. I then started the women's cross country and track and field teams."

Heading into this season, Emory men's and women's swimmers and divers have combined for 45 individual national titles, 24 relay NCAA champions, and 221 All-Americans. The women's team has captured nine NCAA Division III titles, including the past seven.

Photo, L-R: Myra Sims, Sandy Tillman, Gerry Lowrey, Joyce Jaleel

Lowrey remembers a much different time in the Eagles' swimming history. "We had a lifeguard in the pool when the teams practiced. Some of the swimmers could not make it across the pool," he said. "An Emory medical school student was the interim coach. Whoever wanted to get wet was on the team."

The foundation for future success began with a new athletics facility, the George W. Woodruff Physical Education Center, in 1983. "The building immediately improved the experience of our students," Lowrey recalled. "We believed we could now get on the map with additional good coaches and student-athletes."

"We were nothing before that building and before the UAA," commented Sandy Tillman, Emory's former Associate Athletic Director. "When I got to Emory, we had a few competitors in tennis, track, and swimming. When we joined the UAA, we needed to add more women's teams so we added basketball, soccer, and volleyball."

The other major change would also involve a significant financial investment, this time from the university itself, in order to become a member of the fledgling UAA. "I went to the NCAA meeting in Dallas in 1984 and I met (Washington University Dean of Students) Harry Kisker and (Washington University Athletic Director) John Schael. They wanted to have a drink with me and said they had an idea about a kind of Division III Ivy League," Lowrey stated. "As Athletic Director, I was struggling with what to do with my program. We were competing against small liberal arts colleges that were nothing like us. This was a chance to interact with large, urban research institutions like us. I knew this was a good fit for us."

The first thing Lowrey needed to do when he got back on campus was to talk to Vice President Bill Fox about the idea. "I was very excited when I told Bill and he asked his usual 427 questions," he chuckled. "I know he and Kisker met and Harry was able to answer a lot of his questions. Bill was supportive from the outset."

Fortunately for Lowrey, the timing could not be better. "When this opportunity (to join the UAA) came along, the faculty loved the idea of being associated with these other schools," he commented. "Bill sold it to them and to President (James) Laney. We had actively been trying to find a context for our athletic program to compete against peers and measure our success versus comparable programs and schools. It came along at the right moment."

"It was a huge deal for Emory to put forth the financial backing and I am really surprised we did it, " Tillman said. "The key was the president was behind it and Bill Fox was behind it." It was clear that President Laney wanted to commit fully to being competitive. "He wanted to lift all of Emory up, including athletics," Lowrey added. "He said, 'If we are going to play, I want to win!' He was supportive of athletics in a way other presidents might not have been at the time. All of those involved got excited about the possibilities."

Photo: Bill Fox and Gerry Lowrey

Without Fox's support, Lowrey and Tillman are convinced Emory would not have joined the UAA. "The key for us was the faculty buy-in and central administration," Lowrey remarked. "We needed to increase our budget from $30,000 to nearly $1.5 million. That allowed us to travel, outfit the teams appropriately, and support them with facilities and equipment."

Lowrey and Tillman quickly got to work. "The program really grew and a lot of that was through Sandy’s vision, help, ideas, and encouragement. She was key to the whole process. We went through a real growth spurt." Tillman recalls those early days well. "It was a period of growth. Gerry and I had search committee after search committee to grow the Athletic Department. The student-athletes were excited about it. We weren’t great in much except tennis at first, but with great coaching and great recruiting, we got better at a lot of things quickly. Those days were hard, but exciting."

Lowrey and Tillman started the school's athletic training department, sports information department, and cheerleading program. They also computerized everything, inputting relevant information from scratch. They were also instrumental in the creation of the Emory athletics mascot, though the school did have a skeleton mascot named Dooley (who is still the star of the school's annual "Spirit Week"). "I really didn't think a skeleton was an appropriate mascot for the athletic teams," Lowrey chuckled. "We rented a pretty weak Eagle outfit and had a contest to name it. I wanted it to be named Euripides, but the students wanted Swoop (which is still the nickname to this day). Soon thereafter, we were able to buy a real costume from Six Flags and the official Swoop was born (on July 4, 1986)."

Two other people Lowrey credits with the early and continued success of Emory athletics are Susie Gillespie and current Senior Associate Director of Athletics and Senior Woman Administrator Joyce Jaleel. "Susie did everything from the books to scheduling to facilities," Lowrey recalled. "She made life easier for Sandy and I." Gillespie, who served as the athletic department's business manager from 1983-1999, passed away from cancer on June 13, 2003.

Photo, L-R: Susie Gillespie, President Jimmy Carter, Gerry Lowrey

Gillespie was directly responsible for hiring Jaleel. "Susie kept insisting we hire Joyce," Lowrey said. "I asked her if we could afford another hire and if we really needed this additional position. I vividly remember Susie saying, 'Listen, we need her!' I have to say the best thing we ever did was hire Joyce."

"Susie was a workhorse and I learned a lot from her, as I did with Sandy, about office operations and our programs. She was a special person," Jaleel stated. Gillespie worked as a student employee when she attended Emory and stayed on after graduation as an office worker. "She had a great business sense, but also great organizational skills," Jaleel added. "She was tech savy even in those days. We had a word processor as our first piece of office equipment and it was Lanier. 'Lanny Lanier' did everything for us. We had carbon paper when I first started. We didn't have a computer until (UAA Executive Director) Dick (Rasmussen) brought us an all-in-one Macintosh."

Provisional varsity teams were created with the caveat that they had to demonstrate a competitive level against local teams and occasionally a UAA team over a year or two. "We did so many things to get student-athletes to support other teams on campus. We encouraged that a lot," Lowrey said. "The Victory Bell off the USS Emory (World War II) was mounted on campus. We would have the team that had the highest finish in the NCAA come up and ring the bell with all the teams present. All the team captains gave highlights of the season." The Victory Bell Celebration continues to be an annual celebratory tradition for the senior class student-athletes.

There were a few bumps in the road though success was just around the corner. "I got ahead of myself," Lowrey remembered. "I was hiring coaches and overspent for the first time. Bill was very unhappy, as if it was the end of the world. We went over by $100,000. In the end, he would bail us out. I promised to make up the entire deficit the next year, which I did. It wasn’t easy and not all the teams were happy about it."

He recalls some tricky deliberations as well. "We convinced students to put in an athletics and recreation fee for teams' travel. In return, we added new weight equipment and non-credit recreation classes for the student body. Part of our increased budget came from charging alumni to use our athletics facility."

"Gerry and Sandy were a great team. I thought they seemed to genuinely like working with each other and were unified in their approach and how to do things," said Myra Sims, who oversaw two programs in the opening years of the UAA. Jaleel seconded Sims' assertion that Lowrey and Tillman teamed up well: "They were not afraid to try new things," she said. "Sandy would always find a way to get something done."

Sims was originally hired to be the part-time volleyball coach in the summer of 1987. There had been no club volleyball and there was no schedule or recruiting. "We just took the kids that were there and played whoever we could," she said.

She wanted to host a tournament, but the infancy of making intercollegiate athletics a priority and the challenges that went with it became obvious. "I grabbed the bull by the horn and found a few teams to play," Sims remarked. "I took the schedule to Sandy and she said I couldn't have the gym because it was being used for orientation. We used a church gym for that opening tournament!"

The reality of the competition in the new Association soon became apparent as well. "I remember the seeding call for my first UAA volleyball weekend. I thought we were decent for a first-year team and talked us up on the call," Sims recalled. "I remember being at the tournament and seeing Wash U, realizing this was an entirely different level. We got our ears pinned back. I remember meeting (Bears' head coach) Teri (Clemens) and asking her for advice on recruiting. I had so much admiration for her."

At the same time, Emory's women's basketball team was still a club team and Sims had another job at a local property management company. "Sometime during the middle of the season, the coach just disappeared," she recalled. "Sandy called me and said, 'We lost our basketball coach. Can you help us out? We have a game tonight." Sims couldn't make it to that evening's contest, but did lead the team through its final games.

Emory decided to make women's basketball an intercollegiate sport, beginning with the 1988-89 season and asked Sims to be the coach. "I was thrilled to have that opportunity and became head coach in both sports, she said. "We had volleyball and basketball practice going on at the same time."

Photos, L: Sandy Tillman, Emory Hall of Fame program; R: Myra Sims and Joyce Jaleel at NCAA Convention

Finally, a decision was made to have Sims coach just one sport and she knew she would choose basketball. "The volleyball convention (American Volleyball Coaches Association) was in Honolulu that year (1989) so I waited until after the trip to inform them of my decision," she laughed.

Jaleel recalls one particularly challenging event at the first home basketball contests. "Gerry, Sandy and I were standing together courtside soaking in the playing of the National Anthem at our first men's basketball game," she said. "All of a sudden, one of the officials got our attention and told us we didn't have a possession arrow. Sandy and I took off in a sprint, found a block of wood, and I drew an arrow with a marker. It's what we did, figuring things out as we went along."

By her fourth season at the helm of the women's basketball program, Sims' team reached the .500 mark and then posted a combined 121-55 mark over the next seven years with two Sweet 16 appearances in the NCAA Division III Women's Basketball Championship.

The early leadership on campus and in the athletic department helped pave the way for the Eagles' success. "Gerry did a lot in those early years. He was the guy who really helped to oversee all that and be the leader," stated Sims. I thought the world of him and have fond memories of him."

"Emory was willing to try things," Lowrey said. "If you had an idea, the administration would experiment with it. We were on the rise. In that atmosphere, the UAA and our teams were able to take hold and flourish at Emory."

"I am proud to be a part of this university, as so many of us on UAA campuses would say," Jaleel commented. "I am so thankful to get to do what I have for the past 30 years. The staying power for me is the quality of the institution, the people, and first and foremost, the student-athletes."

17 of the 18 programs at Emory have captured at least one UAA title. 13 of those teams won a title within the first 10 years of the UAA, seven within the first five years. Softball finished first in its third year as a varsity program. The first UAA title for each team:

Men's Tennis: 1987-88
Women's Tennis: 1987-88
Men's Basketball: 1988-89
Women's Cross Country: 1988-89
Men's Soccer: 1989-90
Women's Outdoor Track and Field: 1989-90
Women's Swimming and Diving: 1990-91
Men's Golf: 1992-93
Baseball: 1993-94
Men's Indoor Track and Field: 1994-95
Women's Soccer: 1994-95
Women's Indoor Track and Field: 1994-95
Men's Outdoor Track and Field: 1995-96
Men's Swimming and Diving: 1998-99
Softball: 2000-01
Volleyball: 2005-06
Women's Basketball: 2012-13