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IOWA CITY — A young Lisa Cellucci walked into Christine Grant’s third-floor Carver-Hawkeye Arena office in 1993 knowing of the Iowa women’s athletics director. After all, the 17-year-old had been “obsessed” with Iowa field hockey for the last three years.
But when Cellucci went into the office that had a framed photo of her field hockey idol Andrea Wieland and several Iowa “Follow the leaders!” bumper stickers, she mentioned her political science paper in what turned into a 45-minute conversation. Then she “really had an understanding” of who Grant was.
Cellucci was writing about Title IX. Little did Cellucci know she was talking to a nationally-recognized leader in Title IX’s implementation in collegiate sports.
“She sprung out of her chair, popped up to her file cabinet, pulled out all of these documents, had her secretary photocopy them and sent me home with all of this unbelievable stuff,” said Cellucci, a former Hawkeye athlete and the current Iowa field hockey head coach.
All that “insider information” helped her get an A and impress the nun at Archbishop Carroll High School in Radnor, Penn.
As Cellucci realized on that October day, Grant, Iowa’s first and only women’s athletics director, had a fundamental impact on women’s equality in collegiate sports at Iowa and across the NCAA.
After Grant died on Dec. 31, 2021, former tennis player and women’s sports advocate Billie Jean King said in a tweet she was “honored to know her.”
Especially in the first decade of Title IX — the civil rights law passed in 1972 barring any education program receiving federal aid from discrimination on the basis of sex — Grant fought fiercely to uphold its preservation in collegiate sports.
When athletic departments realized Title IX applied to athletics, “all hell broke loose,” Grant memorably said. As the NCAA fought Title IX in the 1970s, she worked to protect it.
The federal Office for Civil Rights, then with a different name, hired Grant as a consultant to help them write the Title IX regulations around athletics.
“She was definitely on the front lines in shaping the regulations for athletics that came out later in the 70s,” said Amy Wilson, the managing director of inclusion at the NCAA.
Her work continued despite strong opposition from the NCAA, which she described in a 2008 university-produced video as the “strongest opponent of Title IX” in the 1970s.
Grant was heavily involved in the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, serving as its president in 1980. The AIAW had more members than the NCAA in 1980 and put an emphasis on athlete welfare.
“If the AIAW hadn’t existed, I don’t think Title IX’s application to athletics survives in the 1970s,” Wilson said. “They testified in front of Congress. … They were the leading voices and figures for college sports for women, and that was super important.”
The AIAW closed its doors in 1982 — a year after NCAA members narrowly approved Division I women’s championships, a move that would surely shutter the AIAW. Its TV rights contract with NBC never came to fruition.
But Grant and others — Peg Burke and Bonnie Slatton from Iowa also had pivotal roles in the AIAW history as a past president and the executive director, respectively — then worked to influence the NCAA.
“Instead of walking away, we’re going to come to the table, and we’re going to make you include us,” Wilson said of their thought process as she stood down the hall from the NCAA’s Christine Grant Ballroom. “They were on a lot of really key NCAA committees that did make a difference.”
As Grant spoke at various functions, “people flocked,” Wilson said.
“The rooms were standing-room-only because she was the voice of where progress really was,” Wilson said.
Grant armed herself with data to support key points as she continued to advocate for gender equality in sports and had a way of letting those numbers sink in.
“She would always end with, ‘Can you believe it?’” said Lisa Bluder, Iowa’s women’s basketball head coach.
Iowa’s success under Grant
Women’s sports at Iowa blossomed under Grant’s leadership.
Her 12 teams won 27 Big Ten titles in her 27 years. In comparison, women’s teams have won 10 Big Ten titles in 16 years under current athletics director Gary Barta.
She recruited top coaches to come to Iowa, including C. Vivian Stringer and later Lisa Bluder for women’s basketball and Gayle Blevins for softball. Having a national reputation as a tireless Title IX advocate undoubtedly helped.
“All of us that knew anything about sport knew about Dr. Christine Grant,” Blevins told The Gazette in May. “To have someone of her stature as your immediate boss, that was very appealing to me. … It’s the reason I came to Iowa — I wanted to know what it was like to work for Christine Grant.”
When Sandy Stewart took a flight to interview for Iowa’s volleyball coaching vacancy in the early 1980s, she knew she was going somewhere special.
“I knew that, because of Dr. Grant, I was going to one of the best places to go if you’re in women’s athletics,” Iowa volleyball’s all-time wins leader said. “My colleagues across the country were very envious.”
That was especially visible to the 1983 Big Ten Coach of the Year when the Hawkeyes traveled.
“When we would go to events, we were very well-funded,” Stewart said. “We got to travel better than a lot of programs. … Looking back, it was a very unique situation at the University of Iowa.”
Former athletes raved about how much she cared about athletes on an individual level.
Looking back, Cellucci realizes it was “unbelievable” that an athletics director spent 45 minutes with her on an official visit.
Former field hockey athlete Ellen (Egan) Regn was on a flight roughly 20 years after playing at Iowa and noticed Grant on the same flight. Grant still remembered her.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Regn said. “The fact that she remembered me after all those years, I just felt so honored.”
When Iowa tennis coach Sasha Schmid sought an internship for the first lady’s office during the Clinton administration, Grant wrote the letter of recommendation. Schmid sent pictures back to Grant from the internship.
One time as Schmid walked around Carver-Hawkeye Arena at a men’s basketball game, she saw a picture of her with the first lady framed and in a display case on the concourse.
“It meant so much to me,” Schmid said. “I knew she was proud of me. There’s nothing better than that.”
Not done after retirement
Grant’s advocacy and empowerment of women’s athletics didn’t end with her retirement from the women’s AD position in 2000. It took a new form.
Bluder only had a few months of Grant being her boss, but that gave Grant “more quality time” to mentor Bluder and others.
“I was crushed when she said that she was retiring,” Bluder said. “But my time after was actually better because she went from being my boss to, when she retired, to being my mentor and my friend.”
Grant’s wisdom imparted to Bluder has come in “practical things” like the need to wear sensible shoes or the reasons to not feel guilty for asking for a raise.
“Lisa, you’re not doing it for yourself,” Grant told Bluder. “You’re doing it for every woman that comes behind you and for your daughters.”
Bluder also has a heightened awareness of inequities, thanks to Grant, paying attention in a room to “how many women are around the table” or “how many women are empowered in decision-making.”
Grant also gave “such unbelievable wisdom” to Cellucci, whether it was about whether to take the Iowa job in 2014 to managing expectations as the No. 1 team in 2021.
The education-focused Grant continued teaching for a while after retiring as the women’s AD as well. Wilson, now at the NCAA, was her final Ph.D. student.
Wilson described studying with Grant as “probably the best decision I think I ever made in my whole life.”
“It’s why I am here now and doing what I’m doing,” Wilson said in a phone call from the NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis.
Grant had some fun in retirement, too, whether it be on her pontoon boat on Coralville Lake, with her rescue dogs or in the garden.
Bluder vividly remembers a time on the boat with Grant and Blevins.
“(Grant) opened up her cooler, and she had Coronas,” Bluder said with a laugh. “This was the biggest discovery that if you put a lime in the Corona, it was really good. People had known that for years, but she was very enthused about it, and it was this new discovery.”
The boat was a particularly humorous subject for her friends. Former women’s basketball coach Lark Birdsong told others at Grant’s celebration of life service about Grant’s boat sinking.
“I guess she never tied the boat up correctly outside the dock at her house, and it would constantly sink and people would have to help her take the water out and fix it,” Cellucci said with a laugh. “This giant of a woman — there are these details that she just disregarded.”
The upcoming 50th anniversary of Title IX on June 23 and the 50th anniversary of women’s athletics at Iowa in 2022-23 have put an increased spotlight on Grant.
“She would be excited about the 50 years of women’s athletics here at Iowa — she’d be really excited about that,” Bluder said. “She would push off all the attention she's getting right now.”
Bluder imagined Grant would be almost scoffing at the talk about her legacy and saying, “Let’s talk about something else.”
Iowa already has statues of Hayden Fry, Dan Gable, Nile Kinnick and other influential figures in the athletics department. Grant “didn’t need a statue of herself,” she told Schmid in her and Cellucci’s final visit.
“She said, ‘We need education,’” Schmid said.
Since arriving at Iowa as athletes in the 1990s, Schmid and Cellucci had never seen Grant cry until their final visit on Dec. 17 — “the most magical visit that I could have ever imagined.”
“We didn’t know it was the last time we would see her, but I think we felt it possibly could be,” Schmid said.
Schmid told Grant about the walk being planned in May 2022 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Title IX.
“I was so excited to share with her what we were doing for 50 years of Title IX,“ Schmid said.
Grant then became “very emotional” explaining how the doctors “had told her that she wouldn't walk again.”
“It’s our turn to walk for you,” Schmid told Grant.
She didn’t just mean literally walking for her at the May event. It was a figurative message for the Title IX pioneer in her final days as well.
“We were promising there that we would continue to try as best we can to carry on her legacy and share what was so important about her work,” Cellucci said.
After the end of the 90-or-so-minute conversation between Grant and two of her mentees — “I know we wore her out,” Schmid said — Cellucci and Schmid stepped out to the porch of the hospice home just a few miles away from where Grant worked for 27 years as women’s athletics director.
They spent a “good 25, 30 minutes” outside despite the brisk December weather processing the emotional visit with their mentor.
"We both looked at each other, and we were like, ‘We don’t have that conversation with her and not do something,’“ Schmid said. “We go to work.”
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