Path of a pioneer: Old Dominion is fourth program to win 1,000 games

Coach Karen Barefoot, who grew up idolizing Lady Monarchs legend Nancy Lieberman, took over at Old Dominion in 2011. Jamie Rhodes/USA TODAY Sports

NORFOLK, Va. -- The Old Dominion women's basketball history book is its own "War and Peace," a thick chronicle about a program that was a pioneer for all of women's sports. Many of the significant characters -- Nancy Lieberman, Marianne Stanley, Anne Donovan and Ticha Penicheiro -- still resonate and influence sports in 2015.

Several chapters document a glorious time, recalling national championship victories over coaches such as Pat Summitt, Leon Barmore and Andy Landers. And the plot thickens with the program's resurgence in 1997, when the southeastern Virginia university -- highly regarded for its business, engineering and distance learning programs -- reached the Final Four alongside Tennessee and modern-day stalwarts Stanford and Notre Dame.

With Old Dominion's 83-64 victory at Howard on Tuesday, the team and coach Karen Barefoot added another chapter: The Lady Monarchs became the fourth Division I program to amass 1,000 victories, joining Tennessee, Louisiana Tech and James Madison. (Tennessee began keeping records in 1903, James Madison's records date to 1920, ODU started keeping track in 1969 and Louisiana Tech began in 1974.)

ODU hasn't played in the NCAA tournament since 2008, but the program -- which had immense support from visionary athletic director Jim Jarrett and progressive president Al Rollins -- has won three national titles (AIAW in 1978-79 and 1979-80, and the NCAA crown in 1984-85) and still holds the record for most conference championships (coach Wendy Larry guided the Lady Monarchs to an NCAA-record 17 consecutive Colonial Athletic Association titles between 1991 and 2008).

Before Summitt won the first of eight titles at Tennessee or UConn's dynasty dominated women's basketball, Old Dominion helped set the standard for the sport.

"There was never a question that we players knew we were in a special place, an elite program." Anne Donovan, who played for ODU from 1979 to '83

"There was never a question that we players knew we were in a special place, an elite program," said Donovan, a former 6-foot-8 center from Paramus, New Jersey, who became the first woman to win the Naismith Award in 1983 and remains the all-time leading scorer, rebounder and shot blocker in ODU history. "Jim Jarrett's vision and leadership, fully investing in Title IX, began the tradition. Excellence in coaching from Marianne Stanley and Wendy Larry built those wins with special players from so many generations. Now, Karen Barefoot's legacy begins -- someone who cares and values the Old Dominion women's basketball history and will add to it."

Old Dominion was the first school in Virginia and among the first in the nation to offer full athletic scholarships to women. Jarrett, who retired from ODU in 2009 after 40 years, created an environment in which female athletes were not only tolerated but appreciated. He developed an athletic program that was equitable in terms of the number of sports and the support available to men and women. It was a bold move supported by Rollins.

"We got way out ahead of the curve, which really goes back to Dr. Jarrett and Dr. Rollins making that commitment in the mid '70s to women's sport," said Debbie White, senior associate athletic director at ODU. "I got here in 1979. Even though I was the daughter of a football coach, I had never been around women's sports. To come here and not just see women's sports, but to see the level at which we were playing, was shocking, educational, refreshing even."

Women's basketball, the flagship program at the school for decades, has won three of ODU's 28 national championships. Men's and women's sailing account for 15 titles, and field hockey has won an NCAA-record nine championships. The only national title won by a men's sports team was the 1975 Division II men's basketball championship.

ODU women's basketball was the first program to host a Final Four, the first to broadcast games regularly on radio, the first to draw significant crowds to games.

Consider this number.

"Ten-thousand, two-hundred, thirty-seven," White says, unprompted.

That was the attendance at Norfolk's Scope arena on Dec. 14, 1979, when the Lady Monarchs played an exhibition game against the Soviet national team, which had won Olympic gold in 1976 (and would win it again in 1980), and was universally recognized as the best women's basketball team on the planet.

"ODU put women's basketball on the map. That's a strong statement. The 1,000 wins isn't just about ODU; it's about women's basketball." ODU coach Karen Barefoot

With the Cold War still frigid, and with Soviet security guards patrolling outside to discourage any potential defectors, inside it seemed as if all of Norfolk turned out to support an ODU team that led at halftime before losing 76-66 to the Soviet juggernaut that had gone 21 years without a loss.

Upstart cable channel ESPN broadcast the game that featured the long-legged string-bean Donovan, flashy point guard Lieberman and Danish center Inge Nissen. The Russian team was captained by Uljana Semjonova, a 7-foot, 250-pounder who wore a size 21 shoe and was an inaugural member of the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame.

"You talk about undefeated seasons and the name that might pop out of your head right now is UConn -- this was 21 years undefeated," Stanley said of the Soviets. "They came here for a seven- or 10-day tour, and the only game that was even close was against us. We were winning at halftime. People were crying."

Stanley was 23 when she took the reins of the program in 1977 and turned it into a national powerhouse. In her first three seasons, her teams won 102 games and three championships -- the 1978 WNIT and back-to-back AIAW titles. Lieberman, whose passing and basketball IQ drew comparisons to Magic Johnson, starred alongside fellow All-Americans Donovan and Nissen her senior year. Old Dominion won 125 games while Lieberman was there (1976-80).

"I'm proudest of our championships with my class," said Lieberman, an assistant coach with the NBA's Sacramento Kings. "We were the foundation that drew people's attention to the game, that made some of the greatest players want to play for us. We set the expectations of excellence for what the program would be for years to come."

"We were the foundation that drew people's attention to the game, that made some of the greatest players want to play for us. We set the expectations of excellence for what the program would be for years to come." Nancy Lieberman, who played for ODU from 1976 to '80

Stanley remained at ODU for a decade that included an NCAA championship in 1985 over a Georgia team led by Katrina McClain and Teresa Edwards. Behind Tracy Claxton and Medina Dixon, the Lady Monarchs stunned the Bulldogs to cap a 31-3 season.

"I went out on top my senior year, the best experience of my life," said Claxton, MVP of the tournament. Today as varsity coach at Wilbur Cross High, her alma mater in New Haven, Connecticut, Claxton occasionally shares the story behind her championship ring. "I want to put it in my players' heads that the sky's the limit."

In 10 years at ODU, Stanley was 269-59. When she left in 1987, she was replaced by Wendy Larry, who had been a gritty rebounder and defensive captain at ODU for Stanley's predecessor, Pam Parsons. Larry, who had been among the first ODU players to receive a scholarship, worked as Stanley's graduate assistant for one year in 1979 before her promotion to full-time assistant.

Larry considers Stanley among the best to ever coach. But no one is more integral to the Lady Monarchs' milestone of 1,000 victories than Larry, who kept the program nationally relevant even after the major conferences began supporting women's sports with budgets and resources ODU struggled to match. In 24 seasons, Larry won 559 games at ODU; add in her numbers from her playing days and assisting Stanley and she has a hand in 793 of the Lady Monarchs' 1,000 victories.

Her ODU teams were so dominant in the CAA that often when opposing players were asked to identify one goal in a season, it was to beat Old Dominion. ODU won 50 CAA tournament games in a row after joining the league in 1991. Between Feb. 23, 1995 and Feb. 15, 2001, ODU did not lose a conference game -- a streak of 113 largely lopsided victories.

Larry also set the standard outside of the conference. ODU regularly boasted a top-10 RPI, thanks to one of the nation's toughest nonconference schedules, including a home-and-home series with Tennessee. Former Lady Vols point guard Kellie Jolly Harper has referred to ODU's Fieldhouse, essentially a high school gym where fans and players are almost on court together, as her favorite road venue given its intimacy. (The team now plays in the Constant Center.)

Added Larry: "I remember going on my official visit and walking into the Fieldhouse coming from a small town in Bloomingdale (New Jersey) and a small high school and thinking that Fieldhouse was a mecca. It was something we were going to build."

Larry's ODU teams won at least 20 games in 21 of her 24 seasons, with a pair of 30-win seasons, the last during 2007-08, the program's most recent appearance in the NCAA tournament. But for Larry, the time at her alma mater was never about numbers or the streaks.

"It's about relationships," she said. "I still communicate with my teammates; I still communicate with my assistant coaches; the players. I still communicate with Marianne. They are all people who have touched my life."

"I remember going on my official visit ... and thinking that Fieldhouse was a mecca. It was something we were going to build." Wendy Larry, who played at ODU before coaching there

Barefoot became ODU's head coach in 2011, a dream job for a kid from Newport News, just across the James River from ODU's campus. Barefoot grew up idolizing Lieberman, even wearing her No. 10 jersey while earning Division III All-American honors at Christopher Newport University.

"ODU motivated me to want to be a basketball player," Barefoot said. "ODU put women's basketball on the map. That's a strong statement. The 1,000 wins isn't just about ODU; it's about women's basketball."

Last season's 21-13 mark for ODU, which now plays in Conference USA, was the best in Barefoot's four years and included a WNIT win over Virginia. While ODU athletic director Wood Selig said he hired Barefoot with the intent of returning to the top 25, the Lady Monarchs have not come close yet.

"We have remained just as committed if not more so to women's basketball and women's athletics at Old Dominion," Selig said. "The other schools have financially caught up and surpassed us because they've got deeper checkbooks and they're throwing money and TV and conference revenue toward women's athletics that they would have never dreamed of doing in the past. They've made up a lot of ground in a hurry."

Nonetheless, Barefoot is committed to ensuring her players understand the brand they represent when they put on Monarch blue and silver. The players went to Lieberman's house during a trip to North Texas. Penicheiro, a Wade Trophy winner while at ODU who is the WNBA's all-time assists leader, talked with the team after a game with Florida International; the walls of the Lady Monarchs' film room are painted with the notable statistical accolades of the stars who fill ODU's record books.

Freshman point guard MaKayla Timmons grew up in Lady Vol country before she became a Lady Monarch.

"It's awfully exciting to be part of a program with so much history," she said. "When they started recruiting me, my brother and I went online and read about Nancy Lieberman and all they had done.

"Now I'm part of that."