GORHAM — Gary Fifield has won 601 games in 24 seasons as coach for the University of Southern Maine women’s basketball team. He has seen a huge improvement in the quality of the game across the state, thanks in part to Title IX.
“When I came here 25 years ago, there were probably six to eight quality Division III basketball programs in New England,’’ he said. “Now there’s six to eight quality women’s programs in Maine. And that’s the case all over, in every state.’’
Fifield has led the Huskies to the NCAA Division III Final Four five times. He has been named national coach of the year and was inducted into the New England Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003. His program is considered one of the very best in New England. As he built the program at USM, he also watched other schools beginning to take women’s sports more seriously.
“You’ve gone from coaches coaching two sports to now having full-time head coaches with full-time assistants in some of these programs,’’ said Fifield. “I think a major emphasis has been placed there, to not only offer opportunities but to have them be successful.’’
There was a time when the New England Small College Athletic Conference wouldn’t allow its women’s teams to participate in the NCAA tournament. Now, Bowdoin College is a regular, and Bates and Colby colleges are always under consideration.
The success of these programs has helped shape the public perception of “what the university or college is like,’’ said Fifield.
His players today have had more opportunities to play because of Title IX, filtering all the way down to youth sports. Travel or AAU teams dominate the sport’s landscape and are now part of its culture.
“You’ve seen an explosion down through youth sports,’’ said Fifield, noting that he is now attending AAU tournaments almost every weekend, his recruiting season now extended to nearly year-round.
Support for women’s sports has always been strong at USM. Fifield followed Doc Costello – who was also the school’s athletic director – as USM women’s coach and watched Paula Hodgdon advocate for women’s sports through the years.
“I’ve been very fortunate here,’’ he said. “I’ve never really had to do anything in terms of battling for equal opportunities. I think USM has a very good reputation. We’ve been on the leading front of adding women’s programs. Women’s ice hockey. Women’s lacrosse. Those two jump out.’’
Costello and Hodgdon, said Fifield, not only understood the concepts of Title IX, “they understood what was right, the right thing to do, the right thing to offer.’’