GORHAM — When Athletic Director Al Bean asked all current and former University of Southern Maine players and coaches to gather for a group picture Saturday, Paula Hodgdon didn’t flinch.
Hodgdon not only coached for USM, but helped establish women’s athletics at the school in 1967. Despite her contributions, it took Bean calling her name over the microphone to get the 88-year-old to join the dozens of women for whom she helped pave the way.
“She’s low-key but she’s so active and sharp,” Bean said. “She’s got that caring, soft-spoken way.”
Thanks to pioneers such as Hodgdon, support for women’s sports has long been strong at USM – starting with interclass basketball in 1918 and culminating with the official creation of women’s intercollegiate athletics in 1967.
On Saturday at the Costello Sports Complex, USM celebrated 50 years of official women’s athletics at the school.
“We’re celebrating it because it’s not something we have always had,” Hodgdon said. “The men have always had these opportunities, the women have not.”
Hodgdon said that growing up as a tomboy, she loved playing sports with boys in her neighborhood. But she didn’t initially realize what she and other females were missing.
“If something wasn’t available, you didn’t really miss it,” Hodgdon said. “Most modern athletes don’t have any idea that it took a long time to get acceptance.”
Hodgdon was hired by the school in 1967 to coach field hockey and basketball, as well as help establish women’s athletics.
She coached field hockey for the Huskies for 31 seasons, compiling a record of 213-173-57. With Hodgson at the helm, USM played in seven ECAC tournaments, four NCAA tournaments and one NCAA final four (1987) before she retired in 1997. In January 2015, Hodgdon was inducted into the National Field Hockey Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
For years, Hodgdon was responsible for lining the field, driving her players to away games and – without access to a trainer – tending to their injuries.
“If you wanted to do it, you had to figure everything out yourself,” Hodgdon said. “Now we have the full services as men.”
When Hodgdon started coaching women’s basketball, the rules were different than for men. Women were thought to be too fragile for a physical game. They would play on just half the court with six players instead of five, and couldn’t dribble more than once. Hodgdon said that slowly changed through the 1970s.
“Gradually people began to change their attitudes. We were way ahead of it before Title IX,” Hodgdon said. “But (Title IX) helped a lot of people who were still having difficulty convincing their administration to add a program.”
Bean began working with Hodgdon at USM in 1978, first as sports information director before succeeding Doc Costello as athletic director in 1993. USM’s athletic complex is named after Costello, who was athletic director for 35 years and died in 2008. Costello hired Hodgdon five years before the 1972 enactment of Title IX.
“Doc Costello set the tone really early,” Bean said. “He was an innovator. He wanted to start women’s sports and he had people here to help him.”
Costello also coached men’s and women’s basketball. He is believed to be the only coach in NCAA history to win at least 200 games with each of the two programs.
In what Bean called a “tough act to follow,” Gary Fifield succeeded Costello as the women’s basketball coach. Fifield notched 660 wins in his 27 seasons with 21 conference titles, 26 NCAA tournament appearances and five Final Four berths.
“People would ask me, ‘Did you coach them any differently (from men)?’ ” Fifield said. “Not at all. They were athletes. They were just thirsty to get better.”
Fifield has been inducted into the New England Basketball, Maine State Sports and Little East Conference halls of fame. The court at Hill Gymnasium is named Fifield Court in his honor.
On that court Saturday, USM players – former and present – expressed gratitude for the opportunities they had as athletes.
“On this day, when we celebrate 50 years of women’s sports at USM, I think about the many outstanding women who have come before me,” said Mary Caron, a current softball player. “I thank them for the commitment they made to women’s athletics and for paving the way for countless athletes like me, who have benefitted greatly from their hard work and perseverance.”
Still humble, Hodgdon said she was just fortunate to be in the “right place at the right time.”
“Looking back over these 50 years, I wouldn’t have missed this career or this experience that I’ve had,” Hodgdon said. “The time was right. These student-athletes were ready to play.”
Taylor Vortherms can be contacted at 791-6417 or