It was 1977. The Titans were thriving. Men’s basketball was coming off a historic year, winning a school-record 25 games, 21 in a row, beating eventual NCAA champion Marquette on the road, and winning a game in the NCAA Tournament.
What do we need to take the next step in building a great athletics program?
The answer: Women’s sports.
“It was just time to add women’s sports,” then athletic director and head men’s basketball coach Dick Vitale said recently. “We wanted to be on par with the great programs across the country and what we were missing was women’s sports. It was great to get some equality in college athletics and it was just the right time for the University.”
The NCAA had not even started sponsoring women’s championships when the Titans began their program. Women’s sports were not governed by the NCAA and the early championships of the 1970s and early ’80s went through the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW). It was not until the early 1980s that the NCAA ultimately took over.
Vitale — a current member of over 20 halls of fame and who just assumed the athletic director title — was the jump starter for Titan women’s sports. The same way he jump-started the men’s basketball program back into greatness, the way he tried to excite the crowd and the city of Detroit with his persona and energy was now looking to open the next chapter in sports.
And to do that, he needed the right person to help him. That person was Sue Kruszewski, an alumna and a local dominant basketball coach and athletic director at Detroit Dominican High School.
“I always say that I never had many great ideas, but one of them was hiring Sue to run our women’s program,” said Vitale. “She was the best and really the brains behind the operation. She was just phenomenal and brought a special passion in that transition period.”
“One day, I got a phone call from Dick Vitale and he said to me, ‘We want to start a women’s program and what do I have to do to convince you to come here and coach for us?,” said Kruszewski. “I said, ‘here’s how I would come, if you treated us equal.’ Give us a locker room like the men’s program, 15 scholarships and money to recruit with. And he did that. There was no other AD in the nation, I believe, that was as supportive at that time.”
In June of 1977, the announcement was made for the addition of the first two female varsity sports in basketball and softball with Kruszewski as the women’s coordinator and the head coach for both. A formal cheerleading squad was also announced that would help ignite the crowd for both the men’s and women’s games.
The Titans had immediate success in women’s basketball. U-D won its first 15 games en route to an 18-3 campaign in 1977-78. The next four years saw the program post four-straight 20-win seasons, three state titles and victories over the likes of DePaul, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Purdue and Indiana.
“Right away, within one year, we were seen around the nation because we were bringing in some of the top teams ranked in the top-20 in the nation,” said Kruszewski. “We also developed the Coca Cola Classic, which was unheard of for women back then. We brought in the top teams in the nation to play against us. They came because we offered incentives and we drew for the weekend, 15,000 spectators. That was unheard of back then.”
After going 27-4 in its second season, the Titans came back to register a 25-8 mark in 1979-80 and earn a berth into the AIAW National Tournament.
“Vitale had a wonderful team and such a motivator,” said Kruszewski. “We played a doubleheader with the men’s team. They would come to see us and stay to see another show with the men’s team. The stands were full. It was really exciting for both programs and we talked all of the time together. Vitale was extremely supportive of our teams.”
The softball program took a year to get going after a winless 0-10 mark in 1978, but then went 14-13-1 and 12-12 in the next two seasons. By the late 1980s, the program would turn into one of the dominant programs in the North Star and Midwestern Collegiate Conference.
Since then, the Titans have expanded their female sports programs with cross country, track and field and fencing in the 1980s, soccer and tennis in the 1990s and golf and lacrosse in the 2000s.
“I attended the University for four years and I liked going to U-D,” said Kruszewski. “I felt there was something missing there and still missing for 13 more years after I graduated. But, finally, through the foresight of Dick Vitale saying that it is time, he brought me into the department and we went from there and developed the program through the years and added more sports. I take great pride in memories of being there at the beginning, and the success that it’s seen makes me feel very proud.”
The women’s soccer team is still the only program in school history to tally a NCAA win as the Titans defeated Michigan, 3-2, in the 2004 NCAA Tournament first round. Meanwhile, women’s golf won nine tournaments, including the Horizon League championship in 2011-12, and that is believed to be tied for a NCAA record.
All of those programs have produced All-Academic honorees, All-Americans, conference titles and NCAA participants.
The dream of women’s sports started with the work of two people, and if it wasn’t for the idea and energy of Vitale and the dedication and work of Kruszewski, women’s sports may not have exploded on the scene the way they did.
“I really owe it all to Sue and everything she did,” said Vitale. “Sue and the supporters and alumni at Detroit helped make everything possible for everything that was accomplished. It is really a special place and to be a part of something special from what we did with the men’s program and seeing the start of the women’s program and the success it had, that was a long time ago, but boy it was really special.”