From humble beginnings to the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame

By Emily Diekelmann | February 15, 2010

She has been here since the beginning. If you ask her, she would tell you, "the beginning of time," with a grin and her patented thick southern drawl.

From pacing the sidelines nearly 40 years ago for Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tenn., to now guiding the WNBA's Indiana Fever, Lin Dunn has seen the game of women's basketball emerge almost from its origin. She has seen it, and helped it, evolve into what it is today.

All of Dunn's triumphs and efforts are being recognized later this week, Feb. 19, when her home state of Tennessee will induct her into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame, in Nashville.

Born in Tennessee and relocated to Alabama shortly after, Dunn saw first hand what it was like to be restricted from playing the game. Fortunately for her, the family moved back to Tennessee and Dunn was able to perform in the sport she loved.

"I grew up in elementary, junior high and early years of high school where it was literally against the law for girls to play sports," Dunn said. "That is what I was brought up in so you can imagine the frustration with someone like me who loved sports and competition. I was very fortunate, when I was a sophomore in high school, my family moved back to Tennessee so I had the opportunity to play girls high school basketball when we arrived in Dresden."

During her high school days, Dunn played a modified style of basketball which had three guards on one end and three forwards on the other. In that technique, neither group could cross midcourt. Three players defended on one end of the floor, with three forwards trying to score on the opposite end.

Playing as a forward for her team, Dunn recalls her role as high scorer for her high school squad.

"I was a forward," Dunn said. "I shot the basketball and, I guess I need to be honest, I don't know if I ever had an assist! My role was not to pass the basketball to other people. It was to figure out a way to score. I did a pretty good job doing that."

Heading to college at the University of Tennessee at Martin, Dunn knew she wouldn't be able to play basketball because they didn't have a team. She participated in the three women's sports they did offer: tennis, volleyball and badminton.

During her time in college, Dunn was an advocate for helping the school establish a women's team. Although she doesn't take complete credit for helping the school form a team, she knows she had a hand in it.

"I find it interesting now that I am perceived as someone that forced them into having a team," Dunn said. "Some of the other universities in the state were starting to have teams so I badgered them and badgered them. But it never happened while I was there. The year after I graduated (1969) they had their first team and that was the year Pat Summit was a freshman. Hopefully my relentless begging did finally get to somebody."

Landing a job as a physical education instructor at nearby Austin Peay in 1970, Dunn saw first hand what obstacles women's sport had lying in their path. Unknown to her at the time, it was then and there that one of the countries' longest and most storied women's basketball coaching careers was launched.

Prior to Title IX legislation which passed on June 23, 1972, Dunn went out of her way to make sure Austin Peay had a women's basketball team. The Title IX law guaranteed that every educational program or activity in the United States that received federal funding must provide equal treatment to men and women. The law was not directed toward athletics, specifically, but women's sports have become a prime beneficiary. Dunn's career was allowed to flourish, as a result.

In Clarksville, basketball was just a blip on the radar for Dunn, who also coached volleyball and tennis, taught eight physical education classes and was the cheerleading sponsor. Despite all that, basketball was still where her heart truly stayed.

"I knew when I started at Austin Peay, that if I didn't want to coach the team, we didn't have a team," Dunn said. "It was strictly my feeling that women deserved an opportunity that I didn't have in college. I had a lot going on but I really appreciated the young women because even though they didn't have resources or scholarships, they played because they loved to play the game."

She tells stories of road trips in a station wagon; traveling with sleeping bags; no budgets for travel or uniforms; and lack of gym time for practices.

Although the passing of Title IX didn't immediately cure all the ills of women's college basketball in the 70s or even the 80s, it did help move things closer to equality. For Dunn, the impact is still being felt today.

"I wouldn't be doing what I am doing today or wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for Title IX," Dunn said. "Unfortunately, it took a piece of legislation to force high schools and universities to provide equal access for girls and women in the sports arena."

After five years with Austin Peay, Dunn spent a year at the University of Mississippi. While there, she amassed a 25-15 record including one of her most memorable moments in coaching.

On Feb. 25, 1978, Ole Miss (19-13) played in the championship game of the Mississippi AIAW Tournament against three-time defending national champion Delta State (25-3). For the third time in that season, Dunn was matched against one of her early coaching idols Margaret Wade, a future hall of famer for whom the Wade National Player of the Year Award is named. Dunn and the underdog Lady Rebels upset the Wade-coached Lady Statesmen, 73-72, and helped end the streak of national championships.

Her landmark victory helped the Lady Rebels advance to the AIAW National Tournament, and helped Dunn advance to the University of Miami where she helped build another program. Coaching the Hurricanes from 1979-87 until she landed at Purdue, she was the first coach to award a scholarship to a Miami women's basketball player.

As a college coach, Dunn owns a 447-257 (.635) record in 25 seasons that included a 1994 trip to the NCAA Final Four with Purdue. She left Austin Peay, Miami and Purdue as the winningest women's basketball coach in school history. She has earned induction in the athletic halls of fame at Austin Peay and Miami, and the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame has called her for induction later this spring.

Most widely known for her time at Purdue and now with the Fever, she has twice been the runner-up in balloting for the WNBA's coach of the year. Dunn couldn't have predicted that she would be in the position she is now, but is thankful for all the chances she has been given, including stints with four different USA Basketball teams.

"I don't think it ever entered my mind that 40 years later, I would still be coaching, much less coaching in the pros," Dunn said. "I have been blessed by the things that I have gotten to do like traveling all over the world and having so many wonderful experiences through basketball."

Coming full circle, Dunn will be recognized by the state where it all began. Feeling a tremendous sense of pride, Dunn ranks the new honor as one of her best of all time.

"When I look at that list of people who have been inducted like Wilma Rudolph and Pat Summit, they are not only outstanding women in the state, but nationally and internationally," Dunn said. "They are pioneers in our women's game. When it stems from where you were born and where you feel is your home, it really is a wonderful day for me."

Having been there nearly since the beginning of her sport's rise, Dunn has seen the game morph into the internationally known sport in its current form. Looking into the future, she sees women's basketball only getting better.

"I think now we are really seeing the benefits of Title IX, and what the game can do," Dunn said. "These girls are now playing when they are four, five, and six-years old and are getting the same resources and support that the little boys have always gotten. I just think that the sky is the limit. Players nowadays are bigger, stronger, faster, better and I am just amazed by some of the players that are in college now. I think that our game is in good hands."

From her humble beginnings at Austin Peay to the Olympics and World Championships and coaching a team to the WNBA Finals, Lin Dunn has cemented her status as one of women's basketball's premiere coaches and pioneers.