A Leader of Vision and Determination: Phyllis Ocker

September 13, 2013

A guiding force in the development of women’s athletics at the University of Michigan, former field hockey coach and director of women’s athletics Phyllis Ocker passed away on Aug. 23, 2013, at the age of 87.

The following article is from the Nov/Dec ’90 issue of Michigan Alumnus magazine upon Ocker’s retirement from the University of Michigan.

By Ami Walsh | Courtesy MGoBlue.com

If there is a single person who has shaped the University of Michigan’s women’s athletic program, it is Phyllis Ocker. Her career as a teacher, coach and administrator spans nearly three decades, comparable to the legendary reigns of both Bo Schembechler and Don Canham. For twenty-nine years, she has remained one of the department’s staunchest supporters, a quiet diplomat who gently but firmly guided the U-M women’s varsity athletic program through its infancy and, perhaps, its most tumultuous times.

On December 31, Ocker, 64, will step down as the associate director of athletics for women. A year and a half ago, she wrote Interim Athletic Director Jack Weidenbach, telling him she might retire in 1990. Writing the letter to Weidenbach, admits Ocker, was painless; her formal announcement on August 23 was not.

“It’s hard to let go,” she says, her eyes moistening. “It’s twelve months. It’s nights. It’s weekends. I’m tired of fighting the same kinds of battles.”

Resistance to change has perhaps been Ocker’s greatest battle. “Phyllis has built a program from nothing,” notes Virginia Nordby, formerly U-M’s affirmative action director and now associate vice president for government relations. “And she’s been able to do that within an atmosphere where not everybody wanted to have a women’s program at all, let alone a strong and good one.”

Since Ocker (pronounced: OAK-er) took over the department’s helm, its total spending has swelled from $100,000 in 1974 to $2.4 million in 1990. Its staff has increased from six part-time coaches and $20,000 worth of scholarships to some 30 coaches, assistants, trainers and administrators and a scholarship fund that exceeds $1 million. New and vastly improved facilities for women have sprung up in recent years, including the 2,000-seat Varsity Arena for the volleyball and gymnastics teams, and the multimillion dollar Donald B. Canham Natatorium for swimmers.

Moreover, even those who once opposed the growth of U-M varsity women’s sports, now commend Ocker for the strides the department has made under her leadership. “Phyllis was a very competent administrator. She was quietly aggressive,” notes Bo Schembechler. “She was [at Michigan] at a time when women’s athletics made its greatest gains and has progressively been getting better year after year. She’s certainly had a lot to do with that.”

Ocker’s interest in sports began during her childhood in Spokane, Washington. Born in 1926, she was the younger of two daughters raised by Grace and Hugh Ocker. Her father, a printer who turned to carpentry, often took Phyllis with him while he worked. She would help him lay carpets and paints. On weekends, the two would often go hunting for pheasants.

Like her father, Phyllis was a natural athlete. By age 12, she had gained a reputation as a fine ball player, and the boys in her junior high wanted her on their team. But, without exception, girls were not allowed to play competitive baseball. So, in her typical, quiet manner, Ocker waited it out a few yeas then joined one of the best female fastpitch softball teams in the area as a catcher.

In college, Ocker pursued her interest in sports. On a five-year plan at the University of Washington, she earned a bachelor’s in physical education, and received her teacher’s certificate. (She also found time to join a sorority.) Following her graduation, she taught at a school in Snohomish, a small town twenty-five miles northeast of Seattle.

Two years later, she made her first trip east of the Mississippi and entered Smith College in Massachusetts. There she earned a master’s in physical education, coached softball and played field hockey. After earning her degree, she was hired as a full-time teacher.

From Smith, Ocker moved south to accept a teaching position at the University of Texas in Austin. “I had itchy feet,” she recalls. “And I had a chance to work under Anna Hiss (Alger Hiss’ sister). She was a real pioneer in physical education.”

Ocker stayed in Texas several years, then returned to her Northwest roots. For four years, she taught at Oregon State University, pursued graduate studies in American history and became increasingly involved in administrative duties. In 1961, when the U-M was looking for a physical education teacher, her name came up.

The position appealed to Ocker because it offered her a chance to enroll in a Ph.D. program in physical education. She also harbored a personal attraction for the Midwest. “My father had grown up in Indiana,” she explains. “And my father’s cousin and his wife had a place in Honor, Michigan. So I had heard a lot about Michigan. I was interested in seeing my father’s old stomping grounds.”

Ocker drove to Ann Arbor on a sunny September afternoon in 1961, relieved that her aging, green Chrysler had survived the 2,000-mile trip from Oregon. Somewhere in the car, maybe under the clothes, books, tennis rackets, field hockey stick, and golf clubs piled in the back seat, there was a letter from the U-M confirming that the 36-year-old Ocker would teach physical education for an annual salary of $6,900. It was a one-year appointment. If she liked her job and the administration liked her, Ocker figured she might stay at Michigan three or four years.

There were few paid women’s coaching positions at the University in the sixties. Female students interested in athletics participated in student-run club sports with tiny, if any, budgets and poor facilities.

By 1973, there was a glaring need for more structure in women’s athletics. A year earlier, Congress had passed Title IX of the Education Amendments, requiring universities that received federal funding to provide equal athletic opportunities for men and women. The legislation pressed many universities to organize formal women’s athletic programs. Michigan did not follow suit.

The women continued to compete under the casual, sometime chaotic, management of students. Former student-athlete Sheryl Szady (’74, M.A. ’75, Ph.D. ’87) remembers those times well: “We ironed our own uniforms. We paid for the officials. We provided our own transportation. We were always borrowing friends’ cars and packing incredible amounts of people into them.”

Universities including Eastern, Central and Michigan State, refused to compete against Michigan until it hired coaches, provided chaperoned transportation and required its participants to pass medical examinations.

Following a meeting that Szady and her teammate Linda Laird, ’74, arranged with the regents, a group was formed to examine the possibility of an intercollegiate athletic program for women. Ocker was a member of the committee — often known as the Burns Committee, after its chairman Eunice Burns, M.A. ’70.

Months later, the regents approved a women’s varsity program. Longtime U-M physical education administrator Marie Hartwig was appointed to head the program that included six sports.

Ocker took on the varsity field hockey coaching position in 1974. She would continue to juggle teaching, coaching and, later, administrative responsibilities for the remainder of her career. In the classroom, Ocker had earned a reputation as a teacher who set high standards. (“She was a tough teacher,” notes Schembechler. “She had a lot of my football players in her class.”) On the field, she was regarded as a fair coach who demanded, above all, that her players remain composed. “She came from the old school of field hockey,” recalls former goalie Shellee Almquist, ’76, M.B.A. ’84. “So when we were on the field, we were expected to be quiet.”

Three years later, after Hartwig’s retirement and a one-year term by Virginia Hunt — who left to head the women’s athletic department at Montana State College — Don Canham appointed Ocker interim associate director of women’s athletics in July. “There were lots of candidates,” says Canham. “I thought she was the best one.”

Ocker took over a department that was short on funds and coaches. “We were minus some coaches in basketball,” she says. “So my goal was just to make sure we had coaches and that we had all the uniforms and equipment ready to go in the fall.”

Sudden — and sometimes stormy — developments were not unusual during Ocker’s reign. In the late seventies, for example, there were numerous federal investigations into whether Michigan complied with Title IX. Ocker believes pressure from those investigations directly led to increases in the number of scholarships available to women. When she leaves in December, Ocker will leave her successor a program that (a year ago) reached NCAA compliance, offering 101 scholarships.

But there were also drawbacks to the investigations. “All of a sudden we were supposed to emulate the male model,” explains Ocker, who continued to teach until 1989. “That was the government’s interpretation of the law. Nothing was taken into consideration about the fact that the women were doing something that might be a better idea. Maybe our ideas wouldn’t have worked in the long run, but we didn’t have a heck of a lot of time to try.”

Prior to 1981, when the women’s teams joined the NCAA — the governing body of men’s intercollegiate athletics — Ocker’s department had run its programs under the rules of the Association of the Intercollegiate Athletics for Women. Explains Ocker: “Under the AIAW rules, we could bring youngsters to campus and see them perform — we called it an audience. It gave us a chance to see how they measured up with other college athletes. We can’t do that now. Also, the NCAA says the school must pay for campus visitations. The AIAW said we couldn’t, so our recruiting budgets were much smaller.”

One area in which Ocker didn’t compromise was academics. “There’s just enough pressure,” she says, “that it would have been easy to set our sights on getting the top athletes regardless of their academic ability. I don’t think we’ve done that. I think we’ve maintained a good balance between athletics and education.”

To encourage excellence in the classroom, Ocker set up the Academic Hall of Honor along with M-Women, an organization of some 400 members, which presents awards to four-year varsity letterwinners who have earned top grades.

Her “integrity, spirit and enthusiasm for the advancement of women’s athletics, in general, and scholarships, in particular, were very contagious,” recalls Elizabeth van den Bosch, M.A. ’70, director of the Alumni Association’s alumnae activities from 1968-1986. “She was a tremendous inspiration for the Council.”

During that time, which coincided with the early years following passage of Title IX, the Council created that position of athletic scholarship chairman to work closely with Ocker in establishing women’s athletic scholarships and recognizing women student-athlete achievements at an annual spring luncheon in Ann Arbor. Two of the Council’s annual Birthday Greetings raised a total of $75,000 seed money for athletic scholarships.

Georgia Boerma, ’52, was the Council’s first athletic scholarship chairman (1983 to 1984). When asked about Ocker, she responds, “When speaking of Phyllis, the one comment that always sticks in my mind is something that (the late) Margaret Host (past Alumni Association president and past Alumni Council chairman) had said to me,” recalls Boerma. “Everything Phyllis Ocker does is always right.”

After Dec. 31, Ocker won’t be around to watch Michigan’s programs grow in the nineties. Granted a one-year furlough, she will head back to Spokane, where she plans to buy a house. Once she’s settled, she hopes to write the dissertation she never finished on the life of former U-M physical education director Dr. Margaret Bell. “She was a pioneer in her day,” says Ocker. “It is people like her who have made my career possible. I don’t think we should forget women like that.”


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