From the moment her father put a basketball in her hands at age 2, Joann Rutherford loved the game, and her passion for the sport only grew from there.
How could it not? Her father, who had played at Pittsburg State University and with the U.S. Air Force team, had installed a full-length court in the barn of the family ranch.
However, when she got into college coaching, there was no one else to assist on the varsity or JV, or wash the uniforms, or drive the van. Scholarship dollars didn’t exist and, upon her arrival in Columbia, she placed ads in the local newspaper in hopes of recruiting players.
And yet Rutherford never walked away and, in doing so, lifted the University of Missouri Women’s Basketball Program from obscurity into national prominence. It also is why the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame is proud to induct Rutherford with the Class of 2017.
Her induction is part of the Women’s Sports Luncheon presented by the Bee Payne-Stewart Foundation, set for 11 a.m. March 30 at the University Plaza Convention Center in Springfield. (For ticket information & details, see below.)
“You’ve got to love the game,” Rutherford said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
Rutherford is the winningest coach in the history of the Mizzou women’s basketball, with a 422-262 record (.617) in 23 seasons from 1975 to 1998. The mark includes 19 winning seasons, and her 422 wins ranked among the NCAA’s Top 35 all-time at the time of her retirement.
Overall, Rutherford’s teams reached six NCAA Tournaments (1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1994), with the 1982 team advancing to the Elite Eight. The Tigers also captured four Big Eight Conference regular-season titles and five conference tournament championships.
Not that Rutherford or Mizzou was an overnight sensation. She arrived in Columbia as head coach for the 1975-1976 season, three years after the passage of the federal Title IX legislation that would ultimately boost women’s athletics across the country.
“At Hearnes Center, the only time we got to practice was at 10 at night,” Rutherford said of her early years. “We’ve come a long way, and it’s great. But it wasn’t that you were any different than anybody else. It was the same way at Stanford, Tennessee or wherever you were.”
By then, she had enjoyed some journey. Rutherford earned All-State honors and was the leading scorer at Pittsburg (Kan.) High School, and then earned all-conference honors and a teaching degree at Pittsburg State University.
Rutherford’s first coaching travels took her to Eastern New Mexico University and Oklahoma State University, where her teams played in Sports Days, usually five games on Saturdays. In 1972, she played in the Pan-American Games.
“I was lucky to be brought up in an area that had women’s sports,” Rutherford said. “There were a lot of women who didn’t have the opportunity.”
In Columbia, she placed newspaper ads to pique the interest of players. Eventually, talent from across the country arrived.
“You couldn’t recruit. There were not many scholarships,” Rutherford said. “But there was something about that first group of players. They played for the love of the game.”
A series of events enabled Rutherford to build Mizzou’s program.
Mainly, in March 1976, the Tigers won the AIAW (Association for Intercollegiate Athletics) Region VI Tournament and reached the nationals, finishing 28-12. Title IX’s passage led to more athletics scholarships for women’s sports. Rutherford also was given additional funding to hire assistants and soon, in 1982, teams playing for major universities achieved NCAA Division I status.
Just as notable, Rutherford created a team mindset that every little detail mattered – right down to study habits. Some 95 percent of her players graduated.
Rutherford was voted by her peers as the Big Eight Coach of the Decade in the 1980s, when her teams were 213-98 (.685).
One game perhaps defined those Tigers – they won in overtime despite trailing by eight points with 30 seconds left in regulation.
“I’m not sure we were the most talented. But (the players) were very close,” Rutherford said. “We won due to hard work and their desire to win.”
Rutherford in 1986 led the U.S. South team to a gold medal in Houston, Texas and, in 1987, coached the U.S. in the Jones Cup in Taiwan. She also served on the U.S. Olympic committee for 12 years and was Mizzou’s Senior Women’s Administrator in the latter part of her career. In 2015, she was inducted into the MU Athletics Hall of Fame.
“I am grateful to my players, staff, boosters and athletic directors for their consistent support of me while at the University of Missouri,” Rutherford said. “Those were the best years of my life. Once a Tiger, always a Tiger.”
Women’s Sports Luncheon presented by the Bee Payne-Stewart Foundation
When: 11 a.m. March 30
Where: University Plaza Hotel & Convention Center, Springfield
President’s Award: Former Director of Springfield-Greene County Park Board, Jodie Adams
Inductees: All American Red Heads Basketball Program, former Missouri Southern State University Athletic Director Sallie Beard, two basketball coaches – Evangel University’s Leon Neal and the University of Missouri’s Joann Rutherford – along with former Lockwood High School volleyball coach Cheryl Shores.
Wynn Awards: Tara Bailes (Springfield Catholic High School/Missouri State soccer), Teresa Baird Beshore (Springfield Catholic High School/University of Tulsa tennis & basketball), Chelsea Taylor Corp (Sarcoxie High School/Missouri State-West Plains volleyball), Aleah Hayes (Ozark High School/Texas Tech University/Columbia College volleyball), Tonya Choate McCall (Mount Vernon High School/Drury University/Cactus Tour golf), Amanda Newton Plotner (Republic High School/Drury University basketball), Melissa Hoffmeister Sanders (Joplin High School/University of Arkansas tennis) and Sophie Cox Stagner (Rolla High School/University of Tennessee-Martin soccer).
For Tickets: Call 417-889-3100. A sponsorship table of eight is $400 and includes recognition in the printed program and an autographed print. An individual ticket is $40, while a head table ticket is $100. Numerous other sponsorships, including congratulatory ads, also are available.