<
>

Life is grand for Lady Techsters

The Lady Techsters (24-6) play Fresno State on Saturday for the WAC's automatic NCAA bid. Kin Lui, courtesy of WAC

When sleeved jerseys were still the norm, box scores were run off on mimeograph machines and most "big" universities cared little for their women's basketball programs, Louisiana Tech was winning games.

The sleeves are gone (even holdout Tech finally abandoned them), Twitter sends messages worldwide in a blink and there is significantly more money/effort now put into supporting the sport by most Division I schools.

And Louisiana Tech … is still winning games.

Friday, in fact, the Lady Techsters claimed their 1,000th victory, a milestone only Tennessee has reached among Division I programs.

"It means a lot to me because of them," Tech coach Teresa Weatherspoon, one of the school's playing legends, said of the current players. "I'm proud of where they've come from."

The historic victory, 66-59 against Nevada, happened very far from Ruston, La. It was in Las Vegas in the Western Athletic Conference tourney semifinals. You figure if Tech followers at the program's start in the 1970s had tried to imagine three decades into the future, they certainly wouldn't have predicted a school from Louisiana playing in a league tournament in Vegas.

Much of what has happened with women's basketball and the Tech program, in fact, would have been difficult for them to anticipate back then. But they probably would have believed that Tech would still be cranking out wins, because that's the kind of faith people in Ruston developed in their program.

No. 1 seed Louisiana Tech faces No. 2 Fresno State at 3 p.m. ET Saturday on ESPNU for the WAC title. Another victory would give Tech an automatic bid into its 27th NCAA tournament. Tech has two NCAA titles and also won one during the AIAW

Weatherspoon was the point guard on Tech's 1988 NCAA title team, and she went onto a professional career that included a lengthy stay in the WNBA. A lot happened between when Weatherspoon left Ruston in '88 and when she came back, first as an assistant coach, in 2008.

Tech made the NCAA Final Four for the 10th time in 1999. The next year, longtime coach Leon Barmore stepped aside, and most expected his assistant and Tech alumna Kim Mulkey to take over. But Mulkey and the school couldn't come to an agreement on the length of her contract, and Barmore returned as coach for another two seasons.

Mulkey, who'd spent her adult life either playing or coaching for Tech, moved in 2000 to Baylor, where she has since won an NCAA title and advanced to an additional Final Four last year. A decade after her departure, Mulkey speaks fondly of Tech's history and Weatherspoon's stewardship of the program.

"I've said all along that F. Jay Taylor, the school president who basically went out on a limb and started that program, deserves all the credit in the world," Mulkey said of the Lady Techsters' inception. "He said, 'If we're going to start this, let's do it right.' This was when schools across the country didn't give a rip about women's basketball.

"The timing was perfect. And in the early 1980s and into the late '80s, it was the dominant women's basketball team. I'm forever grateful for the time I spent there."

Mulkey and her teammates won the first NCAA tournament in 1982. Barmore was the associate head coach to Sonja Hogg at Tech then; he would take over the program solo in 1985. Also with Tech in '82 as an assistant was Gary Blair, now head coach at Texas A&M.

In Kansas City, Mo., on Saturday, Baylor -- with Mulkey at the helm and Barmore as an assistant -- will meet Texas A&M for the Big 12 title. Two other coaches in the Big 12 -- Oklahoma State's Kurt Budke and Texas Tech's Kristy Curry -- formerly coached at Louisiana Tech.

That gives you an indication of the kind of coaching talent that has passed through Ruston. Of course, some of the game's greatest players have competed in Tech blue, too. Names such as Pam Kelly, Janice Lawrence, Angela Turner, Venus Lacy and Vickie Johnson come to mind.

.

This season's WAC Player of the Year is senior forward and All-American candidate Adrienne Johnson, a Louisiana native whose mother, Yvonne, is battling cancer. Johnson and her family have the support of the Ruston community, because that's how it is there with the Lady Techsters' program.

Yes, there were some hard times and hard feelings a decade ago, when Mulkey left to most fans' great dismay. And when Tech missed making the NCAA field for the first time ever in 2007, then subsequently didn't get in the next two seasons, either, there was real fear among Tech followers that the program was in danger of being relegated to "relic" status -- that Tech simply would not be able to really compete in the modern world of women's basketball.

"I hate that it hit that little lull, but if you look at Spoon and what she's been able to build back up -- a sense of pride in the program -- it just does my heart good," Mulkey said. "I talk to her often. I call her; coach Barmore calls her. We both coached her, and Spoon is a competitor and the right person for that job."

Weatherspoon took over as interim head coach when Chris Long stepped down midseason in 2009, and that was a turning point for Tech. The interim tag was removed in April 2009 after she'd gone 9-2 as head coach.

"I think Teresa Weatherspoon had brought Louisiana Tech back from the dead, so to speak," Barmore said. "I'm so incredibly proud of her. I think she's one of the very few that could have done this, because she has the passion, after playing there, and understands what Lady Techster basketball is all about.

"Kim and I were there for so long; we understood what it took to win in Ruston, La. We weren't gifted with a lot of money like some of the major schools. We knew we had to claw and dig and come up with the best recruits we could. Do some things workmanlike. Spoon understood the heartbeat of Louisiana Tech and what it took. She's gotten that back across to the players: 'You gotta do a little extra.'"

Weatherspoon would be the first to say that no one person did more for Tech's winning tradition than Barmore. He joined the program as an assistant in 1977 and even then was the strategic mastermind on court. He had a 576-87 record at Tech.

Barmore stepped out of retirement to join Baylor's program and now might have the chance to be a part of another NCAA championship, as the Lady Bears are expected to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. But he still keeps tabs on Louisiana Tech, of course.

"It really pleases me to see this program where it is now," he said. "To win 1,000 games and be mentioned with Tennessee, that's pretty special. Both programs really set themselves apart early with defense and rebounding."

But Tech's fans set themselves apart, too. Women's basketball became a point of pride for Louisiana Tech and a tradition that was passed down for generations of fans, male and female. Everyone who cares about women's sports should celebrate Tech's 1,000th win, to pay tribute to a program that has meant so much to athletics for girls and women.

"You couldn't get a ticket," Mulkey recalled of her time as a player at Tech. "People stood up at our games until the opposing team scored. And I remember one game in particular, it went on forever. We felt like, 'Gosh, should we let them score so our fans can sit down?'

"There was phenomenal talent on a lot of those teams. We had our All-Americans and Olympians, but it was a team thing. It was just, 'I want to be a part of this.' You'd walk across campus or go downtown, and people knew you."

To try to maintain success in today's world has provided obstacles for Tech, which joined the WAC in 2001. But Weatherspoon, who was inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame last summer, has been able to help the Lady Techsters believe they can still jump over those hurdles.

"Just her energy makes you feel so proud of the tradition," Blair said.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.