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The little girl had a lollipop in her pocket when the baseball came sailing her way. She lit after the ball, not realizing she had run out into the street. So she didn't see the car that would plow its grille into her and drive the lollipop stick deep into her thigh.
The girl should have been on the field at Scalzi Park on this summer afternoon, in fair territory, fielding balls and, in her turn, hitting and throwing them. Why, there wasn't anyone her age, boy or girl—not in this park or anywhere else in all of the west side of Stamford, Conn.—who could catch, hit or throw better than 11-year-old Donna Lopiano. She had grown up in a neighborhood with a dozen boys, and shared their wish to become a major leaguer like Mickey Mantle or Whitey Ford. But she was watching this game, not playing in it, because of the most searing kind of childhood slight.
It wasn't that she had been cut from her Little League team. No, she had made the team, made it as a pitcher, and had stood in line one day to receive her uniform. Then it happened: An adult invoked the Little League rule book. Girls are not allowed. "It might have been the first time I thought of myself as a girl," she would say later. "I had always been one of the guys."
As she lay in the street, someone fetched her parents. But Thomas and Josephine Lopiano's girl would be all right. The hurt, however, would linger. Kids who wear dungarees and carry lollipops in their pockets only want to be told, "Yeah, c'mon, sure." To hear "No," and to carry around the scar on your thigh to remind you of how it hurt, will nurture a willingness to take a hit for a larger cause.
So Donna Lopiano never got a chance to play Little League baseball. Instead, she has spent her adult life working to ensure that young women have opportunities she never had. Her bully pulpit is the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women at the University of Texas at Austin. Today, at 44, Lopiano is the department's director and a woman respected among athletic administrators of both genders for her willingness to cajole, jawbone, beg, do anything short of throw herself in front of cars, to get to a yes.
Perhaps you have come across Lopiano's name over the years, for she has played in 25 national championships—in field hockey, volleyball, basketball and softball. Her softball exploits, with the elite Raybestos Brakettes of the '60s and early 70s, earned her enshrinement in the game's Hall of Fame in 1983. Pick up the November 1988 issue of Ladies Home Journal and you'll see her listed as one of America's 100 Most Important Women; scan the op-ed pages of the nation's newspapers and you'll probably come upon one of her lucid polemics about the unfulfilled promise of Title IX, the regulations requiring universities that receive federal funds to provide comparable programs for men and women. Most recently, you may have seen her quoted on the sports pages in connection with some NCAA caucus about the future of college athletics. Funny, that: The very outfit she took on in an antitrust suit—brought against the NCAA in 1981 for moving in on the old Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women—evidently now can't do without her intellect.
Texas has one of those rare women's athletics departments that isn't a ladies' auxiliary of the men's department. Lopiano has turned it into what may be the gemstone of all collegiate programs, male or female, a place where 91% of the women athletes who have exhausted their eligibility wind up graduating, and where one of every three has at least a 3.0 grade-point average. As a group, the Lady Long-horns have a better GPA and retention rate than the Texas student body at large. "Every year we knew which team in the department had the best grades," says Betsy Mitchell, an Olympic gold medalist and former Longhorn swimmer. "Our swim team won three national championships, but we also had a team GPA over 3.0, and I honestly can't tell you which was more important."
In Lopiano's 15 years at Texas, the school has won national women's championships in basketball, cross-country, indoor track, outdoor track, swimming and volleyball—in every sport it fields, that is, except golf and tennis. The Texas women have produced 314 All-Americas (that's about 21 a year) and. 14 Olympians (including five gold medalists). Since 1986, when The Knoxville Journal began its annual all-sports rankings of women's athletic programs, the Lady Longhorns have done a do-si-do into and out of first place with UCLA. They might promenade off with the trophy for good if Texas would only start a women's softball program. It's a conspicuous omission, in light of the director's background. Lopiano explains it by saying, only partly in jest, "I'm probably the best coach in the country and I can't hire myself."
That's the rare instance when Lopiano has said no. Otherwise, she has a pathological aversion to the word, and the comprehensiveness of her department reflects it. The Texas women have their own nutrition and exercise-physiology specialist and two strength coaches. They have access to the same training table and high-tech study-skills center that the men do. They even have their own booster group. As part of the director's belief in cross-pollination of athletics and academics, a committee of faculty members helps decide whether a coach will receive a merit raise, a courtesy car or the security of a multiyear contract. Local businesses sponsoring Lady Longhorn sports are encouraged to include benefits for community organizations such as the Special Olympics and shelters for battered women. Meanwhile, Lopiano has hustled up funding for so many athletic scholarships that Robert Heard, publisher of Inside Texas, a newsletter on Longhorn sports, says, "She's gonna wind up with every scholarship in the program endowed."
At the center of the department sits the basketball team, a perennial national power that actually outdrew its male counterpart for two seasons during the late '80s. "Guest coaches," who join basketball coach Jody Conradt in the locker room for pregame and halftime talks, have included Texas governor-elect Ann Richards and novelist James Michener. Lady Longhorn basketball has developed a sort of L.A. Forum chic in Austin—not so much among the stereotypical Bubba crowd but within a circle of Texans who are comfortable with women in their statehouse and as mayors of their three largest cities.