Sporting a Miners long-sleeve navy T-shirt and a matching cap, Gloria Estrada – a member of the first UTEP women’s basketball team – stepped foot on the court in Memorial Gym where she once stood more than four decades ago.
“It brings back so many memories,” Estrada said as she looked around the gym.
Estrada – now a member of the UTEP and El Paso Sports Halls of Fame – was one of the founding members of the UTEP women’s basketball team. Little did she know, that as a young woman from the farming community of Fabens, Texas, she would leave her mark in UTEP history and pave the way for young women just like her.
This year marks the 45th anniversary of the founding of the women’s basketball team.
In 1973, UTEP students Wayne Thornton and Don Lewis believed it was necessary for women to have the chance to step on the court and represent the university. “The men’s basketball team was really hot at the time and we thought, why not have the women play just like the men,” Thornton said.
Thornton and Lewis, who also coached the women’s intramural flag football team, asked the the university administration and then-President Arleigh B. Templeton to form the team. Templeton was persuaded and gave the Thornton and Lewis $1,000 to start the program.
“We played with the least amount of money,” Estrada said. “We struggled financially.” The team, made up mostly of area players, started out as an intramural team. Teams from Fort Bliss, Ciudad Juarez, and UTEP’s biggest rival, New Mexico State, became the team’s first opponents.
At the end of that first season, Carol Ammerman, a former basketball player for the Amateur Athletic Union, was hired to direct women’s athletics and coach the women’s basketball team. Ammerman was the first woman coach on the UTEP campus.
Shortly afterward, the team became a part of the Intermountain Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (IAIAW). The new affiliation led the team to play tougher opponents like Brigham Young University, Wyoming, Northern Arizona, Utah State and others.
“Once we started playing intramurals the interest peaked here at UTEP, so that’s when I think the department decided to push for it and (Thornton) was probably the most instrumental in doing that,” Estrada said.
Thornton praised then-Athletic Director Jim Bowden for believing in the potential that the women’s team would have on campus. He described him as generous and would help the team in as many ways as he could.
Another supporter of the women’s basketball team was men’s basketball coach Don Haskins. Thornton said that Haskins inspired the women’s team members and him. He would even visit the team during practice and run plays with them.
“We were like in awe when he walked in. I remember you could hear his booming voice,” Estrada said. Haskins taught the women how to play defense and that year they were one of the highest-ranking defensive teams in the conference, she said.
The women’s team became one of the first teams to play inside the Don Haskins Center, formerly known as the Special Events Center.
The founding and success of the women’s team and women’s sports on campus would likely not have been possible on a college campus without the passing of Title IX as part of Education Amendments Act of 1972. The law states that no one can be excluded on the basis of sex from participating in any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.
“We were very fortunate that we were around that same time that Title IX came into existence,” Thornton said. “It opened the door for more funding for the girls, more respect, and more understanding of who they are and what they represented.”
Estrada who was an educator, volleyball and basketball coach for more than 30 years said she didn’t notice the benefits of Title IX until she became a coach for athletic teams in Canutillo, Texas.
“I was able to fight for my program and make the girls aware — we are just as entitled as the men in athletes.”
The women’s basketball team has come a long way since its founding. In 2008 and 2012, the team was named Conference USA champions and made their way to the NCAA tournament under the programs’ longest running head coach, Keitha Adams.
“No one thought the women’s team was going to last more than five or six years,” Thornton said.
While sexism still plays a factor throughout the world of women’s sports, Thornton, who has always been an advocate for women’s sports, wants young girls to keep playing and keep dreaming big.
“Whether its basketball volleyball or some other activity, (women should) always think of the fact that they can change the world. That’s what I feel these young ladies did, the very first team, they changed the world,” he said.
Thornton said he hoped one day the inaugural team would be recognized for its contributions to the UTEP athletics program and receive their very own letterman’s jacket.
And that wish might actually come true. UTEP announced that the plan to honor the inaugural team on Saturday, November 17 at the Don Haskins Center as UTEP plays the NMSU Aggies during the First Light Federal Credit Union Battle of Interstate 10 game.
For Estrada, a woman who would practice playing basketball outside her home in Fabens day in and day out, her time as a UTEP Miner is an honor she said she cherishes.
“We started the program and for me I will I always treasure that. I was a part of that — for me it’s just a great honor.”