Don Flanagan remembers his reaction when Title IX first made girls high school basketball part of the American landscape.
It was the mid-1970s, Flanagan was coaching boys basketball at Arizona’s Window Rock High, and he decided to watch the school’s newly formed girls team practice.
“I thought, ‘This is never gonna work,'” Flanagan recalled. “Those kids had never been coached and the skill level was so lacking. They had no idea how to be strong with the ball. There were jump balls on almost every possession. It wasn’t pretty.”
A few years later, Flanagan got personally involved. He signed on to coach girls basketball at Eldorado High School and tipped off one of the most successful eras in New Mexico sports history.
His Eldorado teams amassed a ridiculous 401-13 record and won 11 state championships from 1979-95.
Flanagan didn’t initially see it coming.
“That first group I had at Eldorado was not very skilled,” he said, “but they learned quickly and were very competitive. When I first went to Eldorado, I wanted to coach boys. But after two years they came back and offered me a job coaching boys and I turned it down. I was in the right place.
“Besides, we had a winning streak going.”
Flanagan became a proponent for elevating girls basketball around the state and objected to what he perceived as unequal treatment. Girls state tournaments were then held at school sites or at Tingley Coliseum, and Flanagan was among those pushing for inclusion at the Pit.
“I’m sure the (New Mexico Activities Association) got sick of hearing from me,” he said. “We never got to the Pit until 1990, but that first year, Shiprock and Kirtland Central played in front of 10,000 people. It was clearly the right thing to do.”
Flanagan went on to build the University of New Mexico’s unheralded women’s basketball program into a consistent winner with a large, loyal fan base. From 1995-2011, Flanagan’s Lobos went 340-168 and captured eight combined conference regular-seaason and tournament titles.
Now 78, Flanagan acknowledges that Title IX dramatically impacted his life and career path. Current UNM women’s basketball coach Mike Bradbury feels the same way.
The federal legislation passed in 1972 prohibiting sex-based discrimination at any school receiving federal funding effectively jump-started a nationwide sports boom for girls and women. It also created a lot more viable options for coaches – of either gender.
“I got a reputation coaching high school girls,” Flanagan said, “and that’s how I got the job at UNM. Without Title IX, I probably would’ve coached boys my whole career and who knows if I ever would’ve moved up.”
Bradbury offered similar perspective.
“Title IX has helped so many women student-athletes and it’s created good jobs for coaches, trainers, officials, you name it,” Bradbury said. “For me, I was going to school to be a teacher and a coach, men or women would’ve been fine. But the career I’ve had would not have been possible without Title IX.”
When Flanagan made the jump from Eldorado in 1995, UNM women’s basketball was in a different stratosphere than the school’s popular men’s program. Women’s basketball had been dropped from 1987-91 and the Lobos went a combined 14-96 in the first four seasons after the program was reinstated.
Flanagan knew he was taking on a construction project, along with a public relations assignment.
“Nobody was at the games back then,” he recalled. “We did everything we could think of to get people to come. All the players stayed after games to sign autographs and talk with fans. In that respect, we really were starting from scratch.”
Flanagan’s gaudy high school credentials were not richly compensated.
“I made $45,000 my first year,” Flanagan said, “on a one-year contract. After the season I went and saw (then-athletic director) Rudy Davalos and said, ‘Rudy, I’m gonna need a raise.’ I got $60,000 and another one-year contract.”
Flanagan said he was willing to accept the meager pay for a chance to get his foot in the door as a college coach. He did, however, make a case for upgrading women’s facilities.
“The locker room they had when I started was worse than the one at Eldorado,” Flanagan said, “and the men’s locker room at that time was new. After six years of me complaining, they finally built us a better one.”
Dilapidated locker room and relatively small paychecks aside, Flanagan said he was given all the necessary tools to build a successful program at UNM. Title IX expectations of equal treatment were known and met.
“The administration told all the coaches, ‘We have a book here and it’s the Bible,'” Flanagan said. “Women got the same things the guys got in terms of gym time, equipment, uniforms. We never had a problem.”
Flanagan also discovered a valuable commodity when he arrived at UNM – talent. The Lobos went 14-15 in his first campaign, then turned the corner and posted 14 consecutive winning seasons, including 11 with 20 wins or more.
“The team I inherited was quite good,” he said. “That helped us get things turned around quickly and gave us a chance to build.”
Flanagan’s Lobos captured the imagination of local fans, and the program quickly earned a spot among the national attendance leaders. Still, Flanagan frequently picked up static from naysayers in New Mexico and elsewhere.
“We had to fight the perception that women’s basketball was somehow inferior,” he said, “even though we attracted a lot of fans. I think once we went to the NCAAs and once we hosted it, that made more people pay attention. They saw how good women’s basketball really was.”
Making it pay
Under Flanagan, UNM women’s basketball became a steady draw and a money maker for the school. As a result, salaries steadily increased to offer coaches a more-than-comfortable living.
After making $45,000 in his first season, Flanagan had a base salary of $210,000 plus $100,000 for media and promotional obligations when he stepped down in 2011.
Bradbury, whose base salary is $270,000 this year, admits he didn’t harbor lofty career expectations when he was asked to help out with women’s basketball as a college student at Chattanooga.
“Not at all,” he said. “Thirty years ago we were driving vans four to five hours to women’s games. Players had one set of uniforms that we washed after every game, and one pair of basketball shoes if they were lucky. It wasn’t like that for men’s teams. Fortunately, times have changed.”
Bradbury began to consider a career coaching women’s basketball only after a fellow member of Chattanooga’s staff left for a head coaching job. Four assistant jobs and two head-coaching jobs later, he arrived in Albuquerque in 2016, succeeding Yvonne Sanchez.
Looking back, Bradbury said he’s glad to have ended up coaching women’s basketball.
“Men’s coaches make more money,” he said, “but there are upsides. Most women’s players don’t come in thinking about playing pro basketball; they want to make the most of their college careers. Plus, I feel like there’s a more personal side, which you appreciate after a while.”
“When I started coaching, getting a scholarship wasn’t even a motivation for girls,” he said, “it happened so rarely. Now, so many women have gotten the opportunity to play college basketball and get full scholarships, and that goes back to Title IX.
“It gave me a chance to have a career doing something I loved, but so many girls and women have really benefited from it. That’s it’s greatest success.”