by Doug Ireland
Do you remember 1972?
Some of us do.
Gas was 36 cents per gallon. It was probably pumped for you. A new car would run you almost $4,000.
Robert Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and Don McLean’s “American Pie” topped the music charts. We bought records, 45s and 33s. We listed to AM radio to get our music fix, and were impressed by the crisp sounds of FM. There was one phone at home, and bikes parked in every carport.
Many of you weren’t around yet. But trust your elders, Sanford and Son and All in the Family were great TV shows. Another one, M-A-S-H, made its debut in 1972.
Fifty years ago, women didn’t have much standing in the sports world until July, and the advent of Title IX, passed through the U.S. Congress without great fanfare, but ultimately, with massive impact.
And 50 years ago, the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame was getting a home for the first time in its 14-year existence.
A guilt trip – a phrase that emerged in 1972 – had something to do with both developments.
It was a major bummer that girls and young women, and older women for that matter, had very few of the opportunities that their male counterparts did in sports, or anywhere else.
Truly made no sense. Humanity had reached the moon three years earlier, in no small part due to the brilliance of women mathematicians at NASA (led by Katherine Johnson; if you haven’t seen the 2016 movie “Hidden Figures,” you should). But women in sports had, with few exceptions, second-class opportunities, at best.
The legislation known as Title IX was far-reaching, but its impact is most widely experienced today as we have seen women’s sports explode in popularity, both in participation and attention. Fifty years later, the playing field is coming closer to level than ever. As my friend Bill Campbell of the New Orleans Times-Picayune wrote about 25 years ago, “why should my daughter have less opportunities than your son?”
The evolution continues, and has unfolded at a plodding rate, like societal change generally does. The obvious ain’t necessarily easy. It was three years later than Title IX began to be implemented in state college athletics, with the creation of 10 athletic scholarships for women at Northwestern State, driven by a woman vice president, Loneta Graves, with recipients including Lisa Brewer from DeRidder and Pat Nolen (Pierson) of Pitkin.
As for the Hall of Fame, its roots were planted in Natchitoches a year earlier, in 1971, when NSU administrator Jerry Pierce changed his tune from a few years of lighthearted jokes to a serious invitation to the Louisiana Sports Writers Association. Northwestern State College would build display cases and provide a home for the Hall, and conduct annual induction activities.
LSWA members didn’t look a gift horse in the mouth. The Hall had conducted inductions at halftime of LSU basketball games and at community sports award dinners in Shreveport, Baton Rouge and New Orleans. There had been a couple dozen portraits of inductees painted, but nobody knew for sure where they were.
The hunt finished in a broom closet at the Shreveport Civic Center. Pierce, and the LSWA, knew the greatest names in state sports history deserved better. Pierce did something about it.
He staged the first Natchitoches induction at halftime of a 1972 Demons’ basketball game at Prather Coliseum, after hosting the only inductee at a nice dinner at the home of Northwestern president Dr. Arnold Kilpatrick.
Turns out the first Natchitoches inductee was a pretty big deal. LSU quarterback Yelberton Abraham Tittle went into the NFL and became one of its greatest stars in the 1950s and 60s. He was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971, and a year later, he found another home in Natchitoches, one that he always treasured.
Tittle, who grew up in Marshall, Texas, was classmates at LSU with Alexandria’s Bobby Lowther, a sensational two-sport athlete who ultimately earned his own place in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in 1995. He remains LSU’s only two-sport All-American, in basketball and track and field, and played in the forerunner of the NBA.
Tittle would come from Marshall to visit Lowther and his charming wife Martha in Alexandria, and he often would stop in Natchitoches to visit the Hall of Fame display, chatting with Pierce at times.
Now, 50 years later, the Hall of Fame is about to mark its ninth anniversary in a stunning $23 million, 27,500-square foot museum on the bricks at the traffic circle in historic downtown Natchitoches. We just enjoyed a spectacular 2022 Induction Celebration, another in a long line. That would never have happened without Jerry Pierce leading the way to provide a home for the Hall in 1972.
Two women were among the 2022 inductees, long after Alexandria pro golfer Clifford Ann Creed became the first woman in the LSHOF, in 1985. There are dozens of women enshrined now, including Sheila Thompson Johson, Janice Joseph Richard and Marie Gagnard, all residents or natives of Alexandria-Pineville.
So, sports fans, wouldn’t you agree? 1972 was a pretty good year. One that mattered, a lot.