A College Football coach, the joke goes, is asked why he's opposed to equality in his school's athletic department. "I'm not," he protests. "I'm a firm believer that all the pom-pom girls should be equally pretty."
Consistent with his contrarian reputation, Florida football coach Steve Spurrier takes a far more progressive stance toward gender equity than the coach in the joke. Not only does he encourage his players and staff to follow Lady Gators teams, but he also has cut practices short and ordered his guys to join him in watching a women's tennis or soccer match. Once, when disappointed by the performance of his team, he said, "We need our players to start showing some of the mental toughness of [Lady Gators tennis player] Andrea Farley." Doesn't exactly conjure up memories of Woody Hayes.
Spurrier's appreciation of women's sports is shared by the rest of the university. When the Lady Gators' soccer team played its inaugural game, in September 1995, 4,442 fans showed up, the most ever for a regular-season NCAA women's soccer match. Only a few months before, Florida had approved the construction of a 1,200-seat, $2.6 million state-of-the-art softball stadium, replete with a Camden Yards-style pavilion behind home plate. And that was before a coach had been hired or a player recruited for the softball team. Florida is also the only school in the country with a practice facility used exclusively for women's volleyball. "It's not just the financial resources, it's how much people care about all sports here," says women's volleyball coach Mary Wise, who in late January turned down an offer of more money to coach fellow volleyball power Texas.
The following aspect of Wise's story neatly distills Florida's passion for women's sports: As associate athletic director Greg McGarity was leaving a Florida Quarterback Club meeting the night before Wise announced her decision not to take the Texas job, a gaggle of football boosters cornered him. Although the Gators were getting ready to enter the final, frantic week of the football recruiting period, the boosters had another concern. "What we want to know is this," said one. "What are you guys doing to keep Mary Wise?"