by Anthony Harrison
Syracuse University forward Briana Day’s layup beat the buzzer, but it only softened the loss.
As cannons spewed a rainbow of confetti and balloons of every color wafted from the rafters of the Greensboro Coliseum, the Notre Dame University band blasted the greatest fight song in sports — the Fighting Irish’s “Victory March.”
Notre Dame secured their third-straight conference title by handing the Lady Orange a decisive defeat, 68-57, in the 2016 ACC Women’s Basketball Tournament championship game on Sunday.
The ACC named senior guard Madison Cable tourney MVP. She’d sunk six threes but bashfully shook her head as verdant fans thundered with cheers and applause.
Techies rushed the podium and awards table to midcourt as soon as celebrating players left the floor. The young women on the Notre Dame squad received hunter-green championship shirts, black-brimmed caps emblazoned with the championship logo and statuettes — miniature replicas of the elegant ACC championship trophy.
The opulence and prestige of today’s tournament was just a dream 30 years ago. It evolved dramatically in that time, thanks to visionaries like former ACC Assistant Commissioner Dee Todd and behind-the-scenes champions of the game like officials observer Doreen Bryant.
Todd and Bryant sat across from each other at Elizabeth’s Pizza on Lawndale Drive in Greensboro. After catching up a bit with some small talk, as old friends are wont to do, one of them glanced up at the TV showing ESPN’s “SportsCenter.”
They started talking shop.
“I just saw something where Louisville got sanctioned in that sex scandal?” Todd asked.
“Mmhmm,” Bryant replied with a somber nod. “They can’t play in the postseason this year. Not the ACC, not the NCAA.”
Todd could only shake her head.
“We don’t help these young people make good decisions because we keep bailin’ ’em out,” Todd said. “Dealing with young people now — they just know everything.”
“They think,” Bryant quipped.
“I’ve always said that high school boys should watch college women’s basketball,” Todd continued, “because it’s so fundamentally sound. You find very few high school boys who are playing above the rim, you know? So the great fundamentals that you’re getting from the women’s game…”
She trailed off, again shaking her head.
“But they would never see it that way,” Todd concluded.
DeLores “Dee” Todd broke barriers from the beginning.
Todd studied pre-med at Winston-Salem State University in the late ’60s, then moved to Chicago. There, she earned a master’s in human relations at Governors State University, worked towards a doctorate in behavioral psychology at Northwestern University and coached high school track.
She was beautiful, too. Several people suggested she become a model.
“I couldn’t have cared less about that,” Todd remembered. “I’d tell you, ‘If it isn’t a run, jump, throw or hurdle, I don’t do it.’”
Eventually, she relented and modeled for occasional print work by the agency handling Kellogg’s account.
In 1980, the agency asked if she’d do a photo shoot for Corn Flakes.
“I was fussin’,” Todd said. “I was saying, ‘I don’t look like that.’”
In the photo, Todd’s enormous bouffant hairdo makes her look as though she was about to step onstage with the Supremes.
“They might’ve drawn that in, because I don’t remember wearing my hair like that,” Todd laughed, looking at the shot on her phone at the pizzeria. “People didn’t know how to photograph dark hair back then.”
The campaign proved to be a cultural landmark: She was the first African American to appear on the box for one of the world’s most popular cereals.
“I had no idea how big that was,” she admitted. “I was just in the right place at the right time.”
After the buzz from the Corn Flakes campaign died down, she began coaching track at Northwestern in 1983. There, her fated trajectory began, but, again, not without protest.
Todd approached her supervisor to ask for time off to focus on an internship for her PhD. Her supervisor discouraged her from continuing, saying a doctorate might hold her back; employers would assume she’d request higher pay.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Todd recalled. “I just thought, I earned it, so why not?”
Again, Todd relented.
“In a way, I’m glad I did,” Todd admits. “As I reflect back on my career, I don’t see one place where it would’ve helped me.”
From Northwestern, Todd then became a track and field coach at Georgia Tech.
Soon enough, she again found herself at the right place at the right time.
In 1988, after receiving a substantial grant, the ACC began improving different programs including drug education, compliance and — importantly — women’s basketball. The conference was looking for a new assistant commissioner who would prioritize the women’s game.
Then-ACC Assistant Commissioner John McCrone wanted to hire a woman who’d been a Division-I coach.
“He believed coaches understand the needs of coaches, because you’d been in their seat,” Todd said.
McCrone personally endorsed Todd. She interviewed for the position in Greensboro and was hired, again making history — she became the first female assistant commissioner of the ACC.
Todd compromised in the past, but now she held authority to impose change. She took her charge seriously.
The ACC distinguishes itself as the first conference to hold a women’s basketball tournament in 1978, four years before the NCAA conducted one. While the conference prides itself for a progressive attitude, its brainchild survived a rocky infancy.
Initially, the tournament venue changed annually, passing between schools’ host cities: Charlottesville, Va. Raleigh. College Park, Md. Clemson, SC. Raleigh again.
For the 1983 tournament, the ACC landed in Fayetteville at the Cumberland County Arena. There, it not only settled, but stagnated.
Todd found the arrangement unsatisfactory.
“I went for a site visit,” Todd recalled, “and I said, ‘Are you kidding me? This place is a dump.’ Women, they felt like, had been coming here long enough. And it was really third class.”
The sub-par amenities didn’t stop with the venue.
“I went to a men’s tournament, and the difference was night and day,” Todd said. “Men got elaborate gifts; women got a T-shirt.”
Additionally, the ACC didn’t provide the women’s tournament with services taken for granted in the men’s game.
“We didn’t have a tournament doctor or a team doctor,” Todd said. “They volunteered, just so that the women would have extra things. I say ‘extra,’ because that’s how they looked at it.”
After two years, Todd decided the bare minimum wouldn’t do. Instead of acquiescing and compromising, she took action.
First step: establishing the tourney in a different town.
Todd took bids from several East Coast towns and eventually granted the privilege to Rock Hill, SC, home of Winthrop University.
“One of the things [the conference] stipulated was they didn’t want to go to the campus of another [ACC] school,” Todd said. “Winthrop University’s coliseum sort of sits off campus. You didn’t necessarily need to say, ‘We’re at Winthrop;’ you could just say, ‘We’re in Rock Hill.’”
With a finer venue in place, Todd took another bold step toward legitimacy: She pushed to broadcast the games on live television.
“At the time, I’d sat in meetings where I actually heard people say, ‘Nobody wants to watch a bunch of women throwing up the ball — running ’round the court looking like men,’” Todd said. “The only thing they wanted to do was a tape delay, because they didn’t want to put the money into live TV. So we went with that for a couple of years, fighting to get on.”
The tournament needed the right game at the right time.
The 2016 tournament witnessed early-round stunners that would’ve convinced any early-’90s network executive to broadcast women’s basketball.
On Wednesday, in the first game, UNC-Chapel Hill forced overtime with the University of Pittsburgh after Tar Heel guard Jamie Cherry sank a Steph Curry-esque three-pointer as time expired; Carolina lost to the resurgent Panthers. The next day, Wake Forest University Demon Deacons waged war against the fresh, well-rounded Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, nearly beating the odds until a last-minute layup took a bad roll off the rim.
No Cinderella teams survived after the second round, but chances for upsets remained.
No. 5-seed University of Miami easily trounced Pitt on Thursday. But their cross-state rivals waited for them the next day.
Though the Hurricanes possessed strong weapons, the Florida State University Seminoles’ roster was loaded for bear.
The fourth-seeded Lady ’Noles ranked highly on national polls entering the tournament — 14th in the AP Top 25 and 10th in the USA Today/Coaches Poll.
They’d also twice beaten the ’Canes.
Bad blood and a chipped shoulder meant Miami had something to prove. That attitude led to the most exciting game of the tourney.
The first half played out like an episode of cops and robbers — sharpshooting and enough steals to convince you these women could make fortunes picking pockets.
Both teams shot exactly 38.9 percent from the floor in the first quarter, but Seminoles guard Emiah Bingley snuck in an extra point with a three just before the five-minute mark. Florida State led 17-16 at the start of the second quarter.
Miami would’ve led at the half if it hadn’t been for another Bingley buzzer-beating three tying the game.
Out of the locker room, stifling defense from both teams initially halted the shootout. The question lingered: Who would land the first offensive blow?
Point guard Jessica Thomas answered with a three from another ZIP code at the 8-minute mark.
Thomas found her voice in the fourth quarter and got loud. She blew the lid off the game in the final 10 minutes, scoring 11 points off a trio of threes and a slashing layup.
Her season-high, 21-point performance stunned the vicious Seminoles.
Miami humiliated their biggest, baddest rival with the final score 74-56.
The Hurricanes had made tidal waves. It was the very essence of March Madness.
You should’ve seen it.
Back in the early ’90s, Dee Todd needed a game like this year’s Miami-FSU matchup to convince broadcasters that women’s basketball was a marketable venture for live TV.
On March 8, 1993, she lucked out.
“Home Team Sports out of Maryland — I think they’re part of Comcast now — they said, ‘Okay, we’ll do one live game for the women; it’ll be the final game,’” Todd recalled.
In that championship, the University of Virginia Cavaliers faced the University of Maryland Terrapins — the latter, winners of 10 ACC titles, now part of the Big East. Virginia and Maryland had been ranked 1 and 2 in the nation respectively that entire season, and the two teams fostered back-and-forth animosity.
“During that time, we had a big game in [Maryland’s] Cole Field House — which ended up being a televised game — and it was packed,” Todd said. “People were literally hanging off the ceiling.”
The results of the 1993 championship game exceeded her wildest expectations.
“That thing went into three overtimes,” Todd said. “Every time I’m looking up at the clock, I’ve got the awards table ready to go, the buzzer goes off and I’m ready to take the table, but ‘Bing!’ And a shot goes in, and I’ve gotta bring the table back.”
UVA eventually prevailed as ACC champs, 106 to 103, but both teams changed the course of the women’s tournament for the better.
Following the projected end time of the women’s championship, Home Team Sports was scheduled to go live with the final game of the Colonial Athletic Association’s men’s tournament. However, due to the multiple overtimes, Home Team had to delay showing the CAA game, so most viewers saw the thrilling conclusion to this epic match.
That championship game changed how broadcasters viewed women’s basketball: It had potential.
Todd didn’t rest on her laurels. She accommodated the growing popularity by relocating the games to Charlotte’s Independence Arena in 1997. Though Todd played no part in the next move, the tourney then settled in the Greensboro Coliseum three years later.
“By that time, they were able to get the same dollar-amount gift as the men,” Todd said. “Whatever the local organizing committee decided to give to the men, the conference would kick that amount to the women. At the time I left, you could spend up to $300; I think it’s more than that now. So we would get [the winning team] TVs and all kinds of things.
“[Former ACC Assistant Commissioner] Fred Barakat and I used to sit and figure out what we wanted, and that’s what we suggested,” Todd chuckled.
Before all that — mere months after the ’93 championship — UNC-Chapel Hill recruited a dynamic new basketball player who unintentionally transformed the women’s game: future Olympian Marion Jones.
“I’m down in Chapel Hill, and I’m sitting right almost on the floor, and Marion’s so fast that she inbounds the ball, and she just about beats the ball to the person she’s passing to,” Todd said. “Two officials — they could not keep up. It was like a track meet.”
At that time, women’s basketball operated with two-person officiating crews: one lead referee at the baseline under the basket and another official, the trail, in the backcourt or the wings of the three-point line. The configuration proved taxing both physically and mentally.
Something had to give.
“Pat Wall, who was my counterpart in the SEC, we got together and said, ‘We need to go to three-person officiating,’” Todd said.
Thus, Todd initiated the officiating program already commonplace in men’s basketball.
The proposition seemed essential enough. But hurdles materialized.
For one, the conference balked at paying an “extra” official.
“One thing we tried to do was not bring the officials in from far away, so we wouldn’t have to pay for too much,” Todd said. “If an official lived in Virginia, we would bring them down to Carolina, where it wasn’t that far.”
Secondly, Todd’s peers resisted change.
“The lady who was my counterpart in the old Western Athletic Conference, she was not havin’ it,” Todd recalled. “We would meet at the Final Four, and she’d get up and say, ‘We are not going to a three-person officiating crew. We’re goin’ over my dead body.’
“So we kept pushin’ and pushin’ for a year, and the next year, we went to [a three-person crew],” Todd continued. “We came back to meet, and [the WAC assistant commissioner] gets up and says, ‘You are now listening to a dead person.’”
With the introduction of a third crewmember, officiating improved drastically.
There were some fumbles.
“I had a lady that was stationed at Fort Bragg in the military,” Todd said. “I assigned her to a Wake Forest game. We didn’t have any cell phones, so somehow she contacts me, and she said, ‘Miss Todd, I’m here at Wake Forest, and I can’t find the university.’ I said, ‘Wake Forest what?’ She said, ‘Wake Forest, NC.’ I didn’t even know there was a Wake Forest, NC. And I said, ‘That might be because it’s in Winston-Salem.’”
There were also great successes.
“Dee Kantner — who’s still considered one of the top women’s officials in the country — she started working in the ACC,” Todd said. “When Dee was just getting started, I had her do the ACC Tournament, and everybody thought I was crazy, sayin’, ‘Why would you do that?’
“Well, for one thing, she fast,” Todd laughed. “She used to run track.”
In 1997, Kantner and fellow official Violet Palmer became the first two women hired by the NBA as officials.
“She’s been around so long now that, if she’s on a game, you know that’s a high-cotton game,” Todd said.
Sure enough, Kantner called games in the 2016 Women’s ACC Tournament, including the championship.
“I remember every year, just fightin’,” Todd said, “just saying, ‘Pay a little bit more, a little bit more, a little bit more.’ Now, they can make their living off of this. Before, it was like, ‘Okay, who can get where?’”
Todd left her post with the ACC in 2005 to become NC A&T University’s athletic director; she’d retire in 2011.
“There are now 13 people in the ACC that cover what I did in my job,” Todd said, nodding slowly.
Before she moved on from the conference, though, she contributed another innovation that would change women’s basketball for the best.
Following the streamlining of officiating, Todd accepted another challenge in 1997: The ACC desired an officials-observation program.
Also known as neutral observers, they were not officials, but would track referees’ performance. Extensive knowledge of the sport’s rules and regulations was required. Observers would receive a small stipend for their troubles, but it would be an unglamorous job.
Todd knew just the woman.
Doreen Bryant would be the first to tell you: She’s always liked fast things.
She has long admired sports cars. Her first was a Pontiac Grand Prix back in the ’80s; she fondly remembers the Corvette she bought in 1996 and kept for 14 years. Now, she drives a sleek, black BMW 650i convertible.
Bryant played tennis in high school — a sport requiring lightning-quick reflexes— but when she enrolled at A&T in the early ’70s to study sports and physical education, the school didn’t have a tennis program.
Bryant needed an outlet for her competitive streak, so she tried out for basketball.
She first played ball as a pre-teen in Raleigh.
“The boys in the neighborhood had their little game they played,” Bryant remembered. “One day, one of the boys knocked on my door and says, ‘Hey, can you come outside and play?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I can come out!’ He said, ‘We need one more for our basketball game. All you gotta do is jump up there and get the ball, and pass it back to the people on your team. Don’t shoot — just pass it back.’
“Well, you can imagine how long that lasted,” she added.
After a few games, Bryant wasn’t just rebounding. She handled the ball and shot — and made baskets.
“Before long, hey! First-round draft pick,” Bryant joked.
She still had the touch — Bryant played basketball for A&T from 1971 to ’74.
“I love the whole game,” she said. “You can’t be one-dimensional to play. For a person my size [5-foot-6], you gotta be able to kinda do a little bit of this, a little bit of that.”
During her junior year, Bryant took a job as a gym supervisor with the Greensboro Parks and Recreation Department. This led to becoming the assistant director of the Trotter Recreation Center and, after three years, full-time director. Her duties included managing the facility as well as establishing sports leagues and recreational opportunities for everyone from preschoolers to seniors.
“Running a recreation center’s a full gamut,” Bryant said.
In 1994, Bryant became the administrative research and program director for Greensboro Parks and Rec.
“I organized all the citywide sports for women,” Bryant said, “and I did aquatics, youth football, co-ed softball, cheerleading and basketball.”
She also supervised six recreation centers and 60-odd playgrounds throughout town, which she also had to staff.
Around this time, Bryant met Dee Todd.
Todd, who had become the chair of parks and recreation, was invited by Bryant to speak at an orientation for playground employees.
“She walks in, and she had an elephant on her lapel,” Bryant recalled. “We introduced ourselves, and I said, ‘Does that elephant mean anything?’ She said, ‘It sure does.’
The elephant was a symbol for Delta Sigma Theta, a black sorority to which both women belonged.
“Man, we’ve been runnin’ ever since,” Bryant said, smiling.
She and Todd became fast friends. Bryant often volunteered on projects when Todd needed assistance.
When Todd began the officials-observation program, she once again asked Bryant for help.
“I knew Doreen had played basketball,” Todd said. “She’s also a very meticulous person — organized beyond belief. You might go into her house and find all her cans faced alphabetically the same way.”
Todd phoned Bryant.
“I said, ‘Eh, I don’t know,’” Bryant said. “She says, ‘I need you.’
“She was the chairman of our parks and rec committee,” Bryant continued. “How do you tell her, ‘Look, no’ — forget about the fact that we’re sorority sisters. I said, ‘Sure, I’ll help.’”
“The one fundamental piece of officiating is consistency,” Bryant said. “The same bump, touch or grab is a foul on this end and foul on that end. The same dragged pivot foot is a walk on this end and a walk on that end.”
Bryant soon established a routine.
“I’d get to the gym early,” Bryant said. “I’d sit in on the pregame meeting with the officials, just to listen in on what they’re covering and making sure they’re re-emphasizing rules and regulations. From there, it was kinda like, ‘Guys, gals, have a great game.’”
A neutral observer had the option of sitting either at the officials’ table or among spectators. Bryant preferred sitting in the stands because it gave her a better view of the entire game.
“When you’re on the floor, there are just certain things you can’t see,” Bryant said.
Of course, that’s just when her work started.
“Once the game was over, I’d hightail it out and go home to review my notes,” Bryant said. Then she would write reports to game officials and the ACC.
“[Observers] aren’t so much a police, you might say,” Bryant clarified. “Do they help weed out poor performers? Yes, they do. But they’re there to ensure the game is as fair as possible.”
However, she rarely filed negative reports; there was hardly the need.
“Let’s face it — you’re not going to get to the ACC being mediocre,” Bryant said.
Byrant began observing officials at Wake Forest, but that changed as quickly as her role in the neighborhood basketball games.
“The next thing I know: ‘Can you go to Elon?’ Yeah. ‘Do you mind going to UNCG?’ Oh, okay, yeah, I’ll do that. ‘What about High Point University?’ Okay, I’ll do that. ‘Would you mind going to Davidson?’ …Not on the regular,” Bryant laughed.
When her first season ended, Bryant believed her work was finished.
“I asked Dee, ‘Hey, you got anybody for this?’” Bryant recalled. “And she said, ‘I sure do: You.’”
Bryant helped pioneer neutral observation in women’s basketball. With experience in the ACC, Southern Conference and Big South Conference, Bryant became well respected among her peers.
She said her proudest moment was when she served on the Officials Advisory Committee in the first two rounds of the 2004 NCAA Women’s Division I Tournament in Greensboro.
“That was pretty big for me,” Bryant said, smiling.
Her work may sound straightforward enough, but there was a catch: Bryant still worked full time with the Greensboro Parks and Recreation Department.
“Observing was nighttime stuff — moonlighting,” Bryant said.
She maintained her professional double life until retiring from both in 2012, but she claims it was worth it all for love of the game.
“I always think of the women’s game as the best — the best in every aspect,” Bryant stated. “You get to see basketball broken down when you watch the women’s game.”
Attitudes toward women’s athletics have evolved in recent decades.
“Women have more opportunities in sports — not just in women’s sports,” Bryant said. “You see women hired to be coaches and trainers for male teams.”
“Women’s sports in general has really grown in equity to its counterparts,” Todd said. “I even see how the women travel now — they used to have to get on buses and drive. Now, they charter planes.
“That’s been good to see, but it was not always like that,” she added. “It was a fight.”
Both women refuse to look back in anger at a separate-but-equal past. They only anticipate further advances in equality between men’s and women’s athletics.
“We can’t go back and change history,” Bryant said. “We can only look at what has occurred, understand our history and decide if we want to make changes and make it better for everyone. What we need to do is listen and respect the differences of people before we say, ‘No.’”
Todd echoed the sentiment.
“If you don’t know how things got to where they are, then you don’t know how to take it from there,” Todd said. “I’ve always said, ‘It’s hard to lead someone to where you’ve never been.’ It’s hard to have the glory when you don’t know the story.”
Both women should know: With their work, they enacted historic change.
Join the First Amendment Society, a membership that goes directly to funding TCB‘s newsroom.
We believe that reporting can save the world.
The TCB First Amendment Society recognizes the vital role of a free, unfettered press with a bundling of local experiences designed to build community, and unique engagements with our newsroom that will help you understand, and shape, local journalism’s critical role in uplifting the people in our cities.
All revenue goes directly into the newsroom as reporters’ salaries and freelance commissions.