Basketball’s Beginnings on Campus
From its founding in 1891 as the State Normal and Industrial School, the school now known as UNCG emphasized physical activity and personal health. Curriculum in the first year of the school’s existence (1892-1893) included the Department of Physiology and Heath, which had two objectives: instruction in hygiene and an individualized program of exercise. A course in Physical Culture was actually required of all students. The work included gymnastics, calisthenics, and other exercises that were meant to promote the student’s general health and strength.
Around the same time, basketball for women was beginning to gain popularity across the nation. Basketball rules for women were first introduced in 1892 at Smith College. These rules were modified specifically for the women’s game, as it was feared that the women could not physically or mentally handle the strain of the men’s rules. The court was divided into three areas with three players from each time in each area (nine total players per team). The ball moved from section to section by passing or dribbling. Players were limited to three dribbles and could hold the ball for three seconds. No snatching or batting the ball away from a player was allowed.
Students at State Normal gravitated towards the game and actively sought opportunities for athletic competition. In 1900, the campus Athletic Association was formally established (15 years before the student government was founded). In a space that is now the site of the Petty Science Building, the women of the Athletic Association cleared and prepared playing grounds, marked the fields, and installed nets on four tennis courts and basketball goals. A primary goal of the Athletic Association was to support competitions between the classes (freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors). They held their first basketball tournament in 1900, and in 1902, they adopted their official motto: “Athletics and active college work go hand in hand.”
Competition continued to be solely among State Normal students until 1928, when the school (at the time, known as the North Carolina College for Women) hosted the first annual intercollegiate Play Day in North Carolina. Students from seven schools from around the state came to play a variety of sports (including basketball), but they were not competing for their particular schools. Instead, teams mixed students from the different institutions in order to discourage over-competitiveness.
Permanent facilities were also constructed to allow space for basketball and other competitions. In 1922, a 50 x 90 foot outdoor gymnasium was constructed, and it hosted many of the Athletic Association competitions. The structure consisted of little more than a floor and a roof supported by posts. Rosenthal Gymnasium was completed in 1925. Boasting a swimming pool, basketball court, and other amenities, it was praised as one of the best facilities of its kind in the country.
For one academic year during the Great Depression (1932-1933), male students were allowed to enroll in the school (known at the time as Woman’s College). WC enrollments were declining, and many Greensboro men found it impossible to leave home that fall to attend other schools. Eighty men enrolled at WC. In addition to taking classes, they also organized a men’s basketball team. They called themselves the “Tom Cats,” and competed against other nearby colleges.
In the 1940s, Woman’s College began experimenting with a few low-key intercollegiate matches at Play Day. In March 1944, the Carolinian was happy to report victories by the WC basketball teams over Guilford and Greensboro Colleges at the recent Winter Sports Play Day in Rosenthal Gym. This experiment, however, only lasted a few years. Intercollegiate competition didn’t resume with any frequency until 1963.
In 1963, the final year before WC became UNCG and admitted male students, the school began its first full schedule of intercollegiate women’s basketball competition. The 1963 team was coached by Ellen Griffin, a 1940 graduate of Woman’s College, an instructor in the physical education department, and a nationally renowned golfer. The team won three of its four games against nearby colleges.
Basketball in the Co-Education Age
One year after the era of co-education was ushered in with the enrollment of male undergraduates in 1964, Frank Pleasants was hired to coordinate competitive athletics for male students at UNCG. The first team to see competition was the men’s basketball team, which formed in October 1967. The team officially adopted the “Spartans” as their mascot. Pleasants noted they “were looking for a name which had a masculine ring, and one also which had associated with it a tradition of courage.” The first Spartan men’s basketball squad, coached by Jim Swiggett, faced College of Charleston in its opening game on November 20, 1967. While the match with Charleston was a close one, ultimately a lack of height coupled with a lack of experience resulted in a one-point loss for UNCG (80-79).
Women’s basketball on campus continued to grow as intercollegiate competition increased. Rita Wiggs led UNCG to an Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) regional appearance in 1972. She led UNCG in scoring in all four of her seasons (1971-1975). Under new head coach Lynne Agee, the 1981-1982 UNCG women’s basketball team compiled a 25-3 record, finishing second in the NCAA Division III championship tournament. This team began a run of seven consecutive 20-win seasons for the women’s basketball program. The squad was led by Carol Peschel, UNCG’s first basketball All-American.
Lynne Agee served as the UNCG women’s basketball coach from 1981 through her retirement in 2011, amassing 602 career wins (556 as a Spartan). She led UNCG to nine NCAA berths and a WNIT bid in 2003. UNCG won 13 regular-season conference titles and seven league titles under her leadership. With a win over Western Carolina on February 7, 2011, Agee became only the 21st NCAA Division I coach ever to amass 600 career wins. She also was the first women’s basketball coach to lead a team to the NCAA tournament in all three divisions.
The 1979-1980 men’s basketball team advanced to the NCAA Division III tournament behind David Whiteside, who led the nation in free throw percentage. The Spartans transitioned from Division III to Division II in 1988, and from Division II to Division I in 1991. Since moving to Division I competition in the 1991-1992 season, the men’s basketball team has made two NCAA Tournament appearances.
The first men’s basketball tournament appearance, in 1996, came in only the fifth year of DI status. The 1995-1996 NCAA Tournament team was led by Scott Hartzell, the first UNCG male athlete to have his jersey retired. He led UNCG in three point field goals, three point shooting percentage, and free throw percentage in all four seasons played.
The men’s team made a second NCAA tournament appearance in 2001. Junior guard Courtney Eldridge helped lead the 2001 Spartans to a Southern Conference tournament title and the NCAA Tournament. The following season, he finished ninth in the nation in steals and 23rd in the nation in assists.
Currently, the Spartans are led by Wendy Palmer and Wes Miller. Palmer, an 11-year WNBA veteran and former All-American at Virginia, was named head coach of the women’s basketball team in April 2011. She replaced longtime coach Lynne Agee, who retired in March 2011 after 30 years at the helm for the Spartans. In her first season, she compiled a 4-25 record.
Wes Miller was named interim head coach of the men’s basketball team during the 2011-2012 season. He was the youngest head coach in Division I men’s basketball at the time. After taking over the reins in December 2011, Miller guided the Spartans to an 11-11 record the rest of the season to finish with a 13-19 overall record, including a 10-8 mark in SoCon play. After winning the Southern Conference Media Coach of the Year in 2012, he was named the full-time head coach.
Visit the UNCG Athletics website for more information on the current Spartan squads.