Illini basketball

The Steve Douglas Reunion

You probably didn’t hear about the November 16 reunion of the inaugural Illini Women’s Basketball team and their head coach, Professor Emeritus Stephen Douglas. I wouldn’t have either, were it not for my prom date.

To me, Steve Douglas was the disembodied voice at the top of the stairwell. Many nights in the late 1980s, he stepped quietly out of his bedroom, and gently uttered a single word, in a soft, sing-song voice: “Lauren …”

That meant it was time for me to stop spooning his youngest daughter on the living room couch (a thoroughly PG-13 activity), and go home.

From her, I knew that he was friends with Tarheels coaches Dean Smith and Bill Guthridge. I was impressed by that.

In fact, Steve Douglas was a basketball star in his own right. He was the Doug Altenberger of the #1 ranked KSU Wildcats. Guthridge was his teammate.

He helped them to a Final Four. And then, like a lot of basketball greats, he wrote a dissertation on Political Sociaization in Indonesia.

Steve Douglas was a professor of political science at UIUC in 1974, during the height of the women’s liberation movement. Those uppity feminists decided it would be equitable if the women’s club team were developed into a legitimate, funded college basketball program. And by “funded,” I mean UIUC paid a faculty member an entire thousand dollars to coach its first WBB team.

How, I wondered, did Professor Douglas balance his teaching load with coaching. And with research. And parenting, for that matter. In 1974, he had three young daughters; eight year-old Kate, six year-old Liz and baby Lauren.

Kate, Sara, Liz, Lauren and Steve Douglas

Their mother, Sara, was not a stay-at-home mom. She was a professor, too; an expert in the international textiles trade. How did they manage? It seems like a lot.

So I asked.

STEVE DOUGLAS: “I was restless in my role(s) and welcomed alternative if unusual projects.  As I look back on my ‘career,’ however, the more interesting question is not how did I balance the various activities but why, especially with regard to basketball, did I persevere?  It should have been — and actually was — sufficient that I had memorable careers on high school and then college basketball courts, got a decent job, did my best as husband to a high achieving faculty member (like your dad in this regard), and raised three highly competent ‘girls.’   

Kate, Lauren & Liz – Christmas 1975

“But there is more to my story.  

“The first unusual circumstance has to do with my mother.  As one of seven siblings she made her way through her teens and beyond by excelling in sports:  tennis champion, in both doubles and singles, in an odd set of tournaments in Nebraska (in the mid-’20s, I   suppose): baserunner in a big moment in a softball game in Hastings, Nebraska, sliding safely into the reaches of third base in a classic-for-the-times short skirt (I was 7 or 8 at the time and . . . I’ll never forget it!); clarinet player in the Hastings College marching band who broke her clarinet over some poor guy’s head when her boyfriend, who became my dad, captain of the football team and pretty good tackle, picked up a fumble and ran for the only TD of his career;  and, after Dad got a job in Oxford, Ohio and she began commuting to Hamilton for a 6th grade teaching job, she became their basketball coach and collaborated with me to set up a game with my Oxford team (at McGuffy elementary, 6th grade team also but I was in fifth), the game won by Hamilton 43 to 9.  

“Finally, as I progressed through an interesting (to me) high school and college basketball career my mom faithfully maintained a scrapbook of all that nonsense.  My dad was a mildly interested fan, she was an intelligent fanatic. 

“So perhaps you can see that coaching women seemed perfectly appropriate to me.  Of course I never expected to have an opportunity to do it, and I wouldn’t if not for a bizarre set of circumstances that found me coaching the Malaysian national women’s team  — the experience that qualified me subsequently to coach the newly-created women’s team at Illinois.”

Prof. Sara Douglas reached the pinnacle of her career when, in 2002, she became president of the International Textile and Apparel Association. But a persistent thymic carcinoma arrived around that same time. She died in 2003.

I joined my friend Elizabeth Hess, who grew up next door to the Douglas family, in attending the memorial service at the Unitarian Universalist chapel on Green Street, in Urbana. We were not surprised, but concerned by how broken Lauren was. All three sisters stood in front of the overflowing congregation, and recited memories of their mother. But Lauren was too grief stricken to finish hers.

And then something sort of remarkable happened: Steve Douglas kept on living.

In fact, Steve Douglas met a woman named Vianne, moved to southern California, and married her in 2008.

The second Mrs. Douglas joined her husband for the 2019 reunion ceremony, a memorable affair according to those in attendance. Here’s Liz Douglas’s email account, published here with her permission.

“Hello Family! Last weekend Jim and I had the pleasure of witnessing the formal recognition of my Dad as the first ever University of Illinois women’s basketball team coach, and it was spectacular. 

“Dad and Vianne returned from California to Urbana, Illinois for a weekend of fun, casual gatherings of the former teammates with their coach, along with very special VIP tours and events with the current U of I women’s basketball team and their current coach.

“When Dad started this team in 1974, I was six, and attending their practices was ‘after school care’ for Kate and me.  We got to know the players and had so much fun watching them.  Mom cooked them all dinner at our house, and they would play with my train set with me.  Kate and I handed out water to the players and programs to the spectators at their games.  Lauren was a baby, and the players remembered all of us.

“It was emotional for me, happy and sad, to see how far the program has come.  The women’s team now has practice and game-day facilities equal to the men’s team – very different from their circumstances in the ’70’s! 

Photo by Mark Jones, who is a nice person

When Dad addressed the current team before their game last Saturday, he told them that his first responsibility on game day was to sweep the floor.  That was unfathomable to the players who are treated like rock stars today!  In the new practice facility, the coach’s large, plush office was a shock to me, knowing my dad didn’t have an office, and was paid $1,000 to coach an entire season.

“His players idolized him then, and even more so now.  I brought pictures of my dad as a player for Kansas State and learned his players did not even know he had played college ball, much less that he played in the Final Four for Kansas State.  They loved seeing the pictures and asked Dad to tell some stories of when he played.

“The U of I basketball facility now includes a ‘Hall of Fame,’ and Dad is named there as the first ever women’s coach.  They do not have a photograph of that amazing first ever team, and that felt like quite an oversight to me.  Hopefully they will be able to add the photo below.  I believe every player except one made it to the reunion.  

Steve Douglas and the Illini WBB team

“I was honored to be there with Dad last weekend, and I am grateful every day that he is my father.  How lucky for me that the light he shone on those players’ lives for just two impactful years has shined on me every year of my life. -Liz