In the beginning, the Indiana women’s basketball team was, on its best days, a barebones operation.
The university offered little support to the fledging program, providing uniforms that were essentially T-shirts with ironed on numbers, while asking players to purchase their own shoes and do their own laundry. The team had no dedicated locker room in its inaugural season in 1971, nor did it have regular access to Assembly Hall for practices and games. And yet, for all that the women’s team could not claim, it did have its very own bus driver.
It was Bea Gorton.
The first coach in program history, Gorton would drive the team to road games across the Midwest in an old, university-owned van. Then, she’d put a team of Hoosiers on the basketball court, guiding them to wins far more often than not.
Gorton, who died Tuesday in Carol Stream, Ill. at the age of 73, is remembered as a trailblazing figure in Indiana athletics history. During the first five years of the women’s team, Gorton won 79 games and posted the best winning percentage (.738) in program history. She led IU to the Final Four of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women in 1973, and the AIAW Elite Eight in 1972 and 1974. A year later, she took Indiana to the National Women’s Invitation Tournament.
Gorton had played the game herself, leading the Wheaton College women’s team to an undefeated season in 1968. She came to IU after earning her Masters Degree in sports medicine from George Williams College. In Bloomington, she juggled her duties as a program builder for the women’s team with her PhD studies in Bio-mechanics.
“My time at Indiana University back in the ‘70s was a time of great joy and learning,” Gorton said at her hall of fame induction in 2014.
And while support for the women’s program wasn’t what it would eventually become, it wasn’t completely absent then, either. One of Gorton’s greatest allies was her counterpart on the men’s side, Bob Knight. Long after leaving IU, Gorton spoke fondly of Knight, who encouraged her to attend his practices and pick his brain
That Gorton accomplished as much as she did in that era speaks to her vision. There was no recruiting in those days. Like, literally zero recruiting. Gorton acquired players through open tryouts, which were announced via posters plastered across campus. Player experience varied, as only a few high schools at the time had any sort of sanctioned girls basketball program.
But Gorton made it work.
After leaving IU following the 1975-76 season, she advised the AIAW organization until 1980. Gorton went on to serve on the faculty at Wheaton College, and later taught Bio-mechanics at Taylor University and Bowling Green.
“We are saddened to hear about the loss of Bea Gorton, who was a leader and pioneer in women’s basketball at Indiana and nationally,” IU coach Teri Moren said in a statement Friday. “Her dedication to our program in its early stages as a varsity program will never be forgotten.”