Title IX: Basketball and the power of Hilton Magic


Jacob Rice/Iowa State Daily

Iowa State women’s basketball players wave to the crowd at Hilton Coliseum after the Cyclones’ 78-71 win over UT Arlington in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on March 18.

Christian Royston

Editor’s Note: This is part two of 11 stories covering women’s sports at Iowa State and the impact of Title IX. If you want more information on 6-on-6 basketball in Iowa, ESPN Fifty/50 does a great job covering the sport in this article.

Before the shining lights of Hilton Coliseum, before the “Cyclone Power” chants roaring through the crowd, before the Iowa State women’s basketball team’s successful history began, there was only a small group of women and a dream.

A dream that one day, there would come a time when women would be able to compete on a level playing field with their male counterparts, not just in the state of Iowa but across the nation. That dream would come to fruition when Title IX was passed in 1972, giving women a voice in college athletics.

When looking at the many sports that have influenced Iowa State, it is hard to look past the women’s basketball program, which has seen great success over the years and is still making history to this day.

Paving a path for the future

Women’s basketball was one of the first sports to find its footing in the U.S., and Iowa was at the forefront of that change.

Many early pioneers in basketball played on the high school level in towns across Iowa. At the time, basketball looked a lot different than it does today.

Instead of typical 5-on-5 games, girls at the time played 6-on-6 ball, which provided high-intensity, high-scoring games. And these games were a hit in the state.

Before the first state tournament in 1920, girls started playing basketball at local YMCAs in Dubuque, Iowa, according to the Iowa History Journal. Although the sport was small at the time, it wouldn’t take long before it grew to unforeseen heights.

In 1968, the biggest game of 6-on-6 basketball was played, bringing media attention and popularity to the sport and women’s sports as a whole. Over 15,000 people packed into a small auditorium in Des Moines, Iowa, to duke it out in the game of the century, coined “The Dream Game,” according to the Iowa History Journal.

Of course, girls’ basketball wouldn’t have reached those heights without the help of the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union (IGHSAU), which formed in the early days of women’s basketball in Iowa. The rising popularity at the time of “The Dream Game” was in part due to the efforts of former Executive Secretary of IGHSAU E. Wayne Cooley in bringing attention to women’s sports at the time.

While Cooley was less than 20 years into his tenure, he brought new opportunities to girls’ sports in the state and raised awareness of the need for equity within athletics. Although he focused on the high school level in Iowa, the nation saw that change needed to happen at all levels.

Less than five years after “The Dream Game,” former U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink (D-Hawaii) put a bill forward that would aim to create an equal playing field for athletes at all levels. In 1972, Title IX took effect, which birthed women’s sports across the nation, including Iowa State.

Building success

A year before the birth of women’s basketball at Iowa State, Hilton Coliseum was constructed. With Title IX in effect at this point, the newly created women’s basketball team would get to take advantage of the new facility and have a place to call home.

The team’s first head coach was Gloria Crosby, but Lynn Wheeler took over within the year. This was also around the time that Iowa State entered its first conference, the Big Eight.

Before the creation of the Big 12 in 1996, Iowa State played under three more head coaches before longtime and current head coach Bill Fennelly took the reins. Iowa State women’s basketball saw varied success across the program’s early years, but Fennelly raised the program to new heights after the birth of the Big 12.

With the NCAA tournament still in its early years as well, the basketball team had the chance to go in and make a name for themselves. In Fennelly’s 27 seasons with the team, they’ve only seen three losing seasons. 

Making the NCAA tournament also seems second nature to the women’s basketball program as well. The team has reached the Elite Eight and the Sweet 16 a handful of times, with the most recent appearance in the Sweet 16 coming in the historic 2021-22 season.

The team has also seen an immense increase in popularity among the other sports at Iowa State. Iowa has always been at the center of women’s basketball in the nation, coming in the top 10 in average attendance year after year. 

Just last season, the Cyclones gathered buzz as they ranked as the No. 2 team in the nation when it came to attendance. What used to be a niche sport has now become a cornerstone of athletics at Iowa State, and that wouldn’t have been possible without Title IX.

“I think it’s going to continue to grow,” Senior Associate Athletics Director Nick Joos said. “Look at Bill Fennelly’s first game as the head coach; there were 350 people in the stands. Now he gets about 9,500 to 10,000 a game.” 

Looking toward the future

Basketball at Iowa State has constantly been taking steps forward. Title IX provided student-athletes with the opportunities and resources, and the basketball team has taken full advantage of those opportunities.

Fifty years of women’s basketball at Iowa State has cultivated a winning culture for years to come. Even looking back five to 10 years, it is easy to see how much the program has grown and how much it will continue to grow.

The resources that athletes have now and the attention that all collegiate sports get today is worlds apart from what they had in the past.

“What we have today is so vastly different than what we had access to even 10 years ago,” Assistant Athletics Director Lindsey Long said. 

Title IX has given young women the tools they need to succeed. Women across all the sports offered at Iowa State have an equal playing field thanks to the strong women before them.

It can’t be understated how important it is to have access to education and the opportunity to compete. Without those opportunities, Cyclones women’s basketball wouldn’t be where it is today.

Scholarships, NIL deals, access to facilities like the Stark Innovation Center, and easily accessible medical treatment are possible because of Title IX. Without those 37 words, the Cyclones might not have cultivated the strong culture they have today.

“Culture within programs is so important, and our fanbase at Iowa State is second to none,” Long said.

As for the future, it’s hard to say. More success seems to be around the corner for women’s sports at Iowa State, and the basketball team will continue to prove how dominant they are.

If strong young women continue to pave the way for the future like their predecessors did before them, then the future is bright.