Phyllis Bailey was one of the true pioneers of women’s intercollegiate athletes: the first varsity basketball coach at The Ohio State University, an administrator for women’s sports at Ohio State for more than three decades, one of the founders of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW), and a Title IX champion.
Bailey, 96, passed away on October 1, after a career she described as “a wonderful adventure” during her induction ceremony into the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009. Her legacy is the generations and multitudes of women she empowered to participate sports at Ohio State and beyond, enriching their lives and teaching them many of the lessons they would utilize in their personal and professional lives.
“Ms. Phyllis, as she was affectionally known, was the first Athletic Director that I encountered over 45 years ago,” said Stephanie Hightower, a record-setting Buckeye hurdler and the current president of the Columbus Urban League. “She was tough and she expected excellence from all the athletes and coaches who were under her tutelage. She was a champion for equity in women’s sports.”
Hightower recalls a trip to the Millrose Games in New York, a premier indoor track meet, where she would set a world record in the 60-yard hurdles. In a post-race interview, she said she wished her coaches could have been there with her. The athletic department had declined to pay their expenses to the meet.
“When I returned to campus, I was summed to [Bailey’s] office, and she assured me that there would be resources available for Coach Rollins to attend future invitational meets with me,” Hightower said. “I know she advocated on my behalf and the women’s sports for those additional resources.”
Michelle Perry played basketball and softball at Monmouth College and is the president and CEO of Gamechangers Consulting, which advises sports-related organizations. “Some of my best memories of the 2018 NCAA Women’s Final Four in Columbus was seeing the smile on Phyllis’ face as the weekend was unfolding,” Perry said. “It was pure joy. I know how proud she was the see an event of this magnitude come to Columbus, and even more proud that it was an event that celebrated the best women athletes in the nation.”
Bailey continues to inspire Perry. “I will work tirelessly every day and will never forget what she did to make all this possible,” she said. “Thank you, Phyllis.”
Born in Fairport Harbor, Ohio, Bailey graduated with a degree in physical education from Miami University, and then earned an M.S. degree from the University of Indiana. After teaching at Earlham College and Wayne State, Bailey came to Ohio State in 1956 to earn a PhD and work with women’s sports as associate director of Recreation, Intramurals and Intercollegiate Sports for Women.
All women’s sports were part of intramural or club programs back then. After helping to transition the women’s basketball team from a club sport to a varsity team that played other universities, Bailey was named varsity basketball coach, and she led the team to a 28-10 record from 1965 - 1970 seasons, including a 7-0 record in her final season.
Bailey helped create the AIAW in 1971. It governed women’s collegiate sports, organized the first national championships, and grew rapidly throughout the 1970s in parallel with Title IX, which was passed in 1972. The AIAW paved the way for the eventual inclusion of women’ teams into the National Collegiate Athletic Association in the early 1980s. The size, scope and success of women’s collegiate and professional athletics has its roots in the groundbreaking work of Bailey and the other pioneers in the 1970s.
Buckeye basketball legend Katie Smith called Bailey “a true pioneer advocating for women and women in sports. I was lucky to be at Ohio State with Phyllis to see what a wonderful, strong, funny and passionate person she was. Her legacy will live on through all of us that she impacted. I have been blessed to have wonderful leaders along my journey and Phyllis Bailey was one of a kind.”
In total, Bailey spent 39 years at Ohio State, retiring in 1994. She served as the assistant athletics director (starting in 1975) and was a member of the first class of women inducted into the Ohio State Athletics hall of Fame in 1993. Bailey continued to attend women’s sporting events at Ohio State after she retired, well into her 90s.
Linda Logan, CEO & president of the Greater Columbus Sports commission offered a few final words, "I first met Phyllis when she was on the NCAA Women's Basketball Committee. I was just getting started in this role and hosting a Women's Final Four was just a dream at that point. She instantly brought us into her circle, got us up to speed and helped lay the ground work fo our efforts in Columbus. I am so happy she was able to enjoy the 2018 event in a city she loved so much. She never stopped giving back, years beyond her retirement, she offered advice and counsel. Having her in our community to be able to talk about where things were for women's sports and where they're headed was huge. She inspired us and her work benefitted future generations. Now it's our job to make sure they don't forget her.
A celebration of Bailey’s life will be held 11 a.m. on Thursday, October 13, at Schoedinger Northwest, 1740 Zollinger Rd., Columbus, Ohio 43221, with a reception to follow immediately. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Phyllis J. Bailey Endowment Fund, Fund Number: 600265, online, or by mail to The Ohio State University, 14 E. 15th Avenue, Columbus, Ohio 43201. The fund is used to support women’s athletics at The Ohio State University.