The most spectacular space in Pomona-Pitzer’s new Center for Athletics, Recreation and Wellness has a story behind its name.
The N&N Practice Gymnasium — the upstairs gym with a stunning view of the San Gabriel Mountains, snow-capped in winter — is named for former women’s basketball coach Nancy Breitenstein and her assistant coach Nettie Morrison. They led a program that reached the Division III Final Four in 1982, the first year the NCAA held women’s basketball championships. And during a six-season stretch that began in 1980-81, the Sagehens won 53 consecutive SCIAC games.
“The success of their teams is somewhat unparalleled, and it was time for that to be recognized,” says Libby Gates MacPhee ’86, a player from the era who was behind the effort to honor the coaches after facilitating a gift from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation toward a new building to support physical and emotional wellness on campus.
Except for a one-season sabbatical when Breitenstein went to Tennessee to sit in on a season with Hall of Fame Coach Pat Summitt, she was head coach of women’s basketball teams at Pomona from 1969—well before the program gained varsity status and began playing in the SCIAC in 1976-77—until her retirement in 1992. Breitenstein won more than 300 games at Pomona in all and went 266-107 after the program gained varsity status. Those teams won 11 SCIAC titles in 15 seasons, with Morrison as Breitenstein’s assistant from 1981 to 1989, helping more informally before and after while coaching other sports.
To their players, they were Nancy and Nettie, or Nettie and Nancy.
“Anytime you got a note from Nettie and Nancy, they signed it N&N,” MacPhee says. “In fact, many decades later, their Christmas cards are still signed that way.”
Gathering of Former Players
Now living in Oregon, Breitenstein and Morrison say they were “very humbled” by the honor, and most of all they embraced the resulting player reunion at the center’s opening weekend last fall. More than a dozen former players — a full team’s worth — returned to campus.
By the end of the night, they found they had almost subconsciously gathered in a locker room in the suite of women’s team rooms that now bears a plaque in recognition of the era’s players.
“The thing that was so cool was it felt just like yesterday, just like back in the ’80s,” Breitenstein says. “As we said at the end, ‘OK, see you tomorrow at practice at 4 o’clock.’”
That plaque is a meaningful one.
“When I first approached Nettie and Nancy about the possibility of the naming, they were hesitant,” MacPhee says. “They thought about it for a while and got back to me and said what they really wanted was for the players they coached to be honored for their hard work and success. They wanted to move the spotlight over to the players versus have it on them, which is quite lovely.”
Among the players’ collective achievements were those 11 SCIAC titles, nine postseason invitations, the ’82 Final Four, an Elite Eight appearance, four Division III All-American player honors and all those SCIAC wins. Besides the lengthy winning streak, the Sagehens won 76 of 80 SCIAC games from the 1979-80 season through 1986-87.
“We were not very popular is an understatement,” Morrison says with pride.
The dedication also notes: “These teams ‘raised the bar’ as Title IX expanded athletic opportunities for all women.”
Title IX Legacy
The reference to Title IX, the 1972 civil rights law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in any educational program that receives funding from the federal government, is an important one.
“It was just so perfect to honor Nancy and Nettie in the year of the 50th anniversary of Title IX,” MacPhee says. “And, while they were on campus, it was fun to hear them tell stories about what it was like to coach and play pre-Title IX, and to learn about the efforts that they both made to make Title IX a reality. It was great to honor them as pioneers in that effort as well.”
Women’s basketball has a longer history at Pomona than one might guess. James Naismith invented the game in 1891 in Springfield, Massachusetts, famously using peach baskets as goals. By 1902-1903, photographs show Pomona women posing with a basketball in uniforms that look like dresses and tights.
But until the passage of Title IX, women’s sports were an afterthought at best. The new law put pressure on high schools and colleges to add opportunities for women, sparking dramatic changes the players themselves sometimes took for granted because they hadn’t experienced what it was like before.
To raise the team’s profile and boost recruiting, Morrison created printed programs beginning in 1979 and wrote weekly press releases starting in 1980, both almost unheard of in small-college women’s basketball on the West Coast at the time. Only one other sport at Pomona-Pitzer had a weekly release: the men’s basketball team coached by Gregg Popovich, who would go on to win five NBA titles as coach of the San Antonio Spurs. “Gregg Popovich started writing his own,” Morrison remembers. “He and I would run into each other first thing Monday morning at the duplicating center getting them printed, then we’d go back to our respective offices and stuff them until we landed work-study students to do the hands-on dirty work.”
The facilities were something Breitenstein and Morrison couldn’t do much about. Breitenstein’s early teams played in Renwick Gym, known as the women’s gym. They moved on to the old Memorial Gym, which Breitenstein says lacked facilities for women’s teams other than a bathroom near the entry.
“We confiscated one locker room,” she remembers. “The players painted the locker room and painted the urinals and made them into flowerpots.”
Now she looks around at what the former coaches call “this magnificent facility”—one the current coach, Alaina Woo ’17, counts as a great benefit to her players and a strong recruiting tool, and not only for its shiny newness.
“To be able to walk recruits around and show them the history of women’s basketball here but in a brand-new space, it’s an optimal situation,” Woo says.