'We Just Wanted to Play': How Title IX Helped Nebraska Volleyball Thrive

Dec. 28, 2021, 6 a.m. ·

TitleIX Best of the Best
A portrait of the 1976 Nebraska Volleyball team. (Athletic Photos, University Communications Records (RG 42-12-01), Archives & Special Collections, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries)

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Nearly fifty years ago, Congress passed legislation that opened opportunity for women in the classroom and in sports: Title IX.

It prohibits discrimination based on sex in any institution that receives federal funding.

Nebraska Public Media is examining the impacts the legislation had on Nebraska in our reporting project: ‘Title IX: More than a Game.’

“I was very average for the time I played. I’m – I’m 5' 9" and a half.”

Before she was number 13 on the 1976 Nebraska volleyball roster, Nancy Grant Colson was a Lincoln East High School Spartan.

“Um, and I got a letter in the mail, that told me – I remember, I was at home with friends during lunch from East High…” Colson said.

In the mailbox sat a scholarship offer from Nebraska volleyball’s first head coach Pat Sullivan. It was an opportunity Colson wouldn’t have had five years earlier before Title IX.

“I really had no understanding of the depth of the changes that were happening and about to happen,” Colson said.

One person who did, Colson said, was incoming head coach, turned Husker Hall of Famer, Terry Pettit.

Pettit recalled the first few years of Title IX, the landmark law that mandated equal access to education for both genders.

“When women’s athletics first began, you had administrators who had never been an administrator. You had sports information people that couldn’t type. You had coaches with no coaching experience,” the former NU coach said.

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A photo from the 1976 Nebraska Volleyball team. (Athletic Photos, University Communications Records (RG 42-12-01), Archives & Special Collections, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries)

Fresh from North Carolina in 1977, Pettit was navigating the new waters in a new role – now at Nebraska.

“There was chaos there. But it was a happy chaos in a sense that people were getting the opportunity to play,” Pettit said.

The team ran with that opportunity – and won.

“The key was winning. I could be an advocate if we won, because in some ways, if you win, you can take more risk,” Pettit said.

Colson said the drive to succeed was partially motivated by the adversity they faced.

“It was sort of an ‘us against them.’ Like we had to bond and sort of just, like, be tighter to – sort of, ‘fend off the foes,’ whether that be access to facilities, access to time of practice or time of matches, uniform budget, our locker room and weight room,” Colson said.

The fight for ‘fair’ wasn’t just at home. As the team kept winning, they kept traveling. And that’s when things got even trickier.

Pettit secured outside funding to make tournaments happen.

“Our off-season training wasn’t subsidized by the university, so I went to a local service organization and they provided a minimal amount of financial support and then went to some car dealers who would loan us station wagons,” Pettit said.

When that didn’t work out, they car-pooled in their own vehicles.

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A photo from the 1976 Nebraska Volleyball team. (Athletic Photos, University Communications Records (RG 42-12-01), Archives & Special Collections, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries)

“That is how I learned how to drive a stick-shift. Because I drove. Terry couldn’t; he was beat. He couldn’t drive anymore. And that is literally how I learned how to drive a stick-shift. I drove Terry Pettit’s car,” Colson said.

And they weren’t pulling up to extravagant accommodations. With little outside financial help, sometimes the team would sleep in small hotels. Sometimes they camped out in church basements.

“So there were those challenges. But I don’t remember women ever talking about those things," Pettit said. "They were just so happy they were getting to play. Everything else appeared to be insignificant to them.”

Colson said they fought for each opportunity that was available and paved their own way when doors wouldn't open.

“We were grateful. It shows, we just wanted to play. We wanted to be taken seriously. We wanted to be trained well. We wanted to compete hard. We wanted to be in a position where we can represent our institution well and win,” Colson said.

While they both celebrated the success of the legislation, they both said women’s athletics and academics isn’t where it should be fifty years later.

For the former NU volleyball player, another part of honoring Title IX is honoring the women who weren’t able to put on the uniforms and compete in tournaments for titles.

“I remember thinking, ‘My god, what a missed opportunity,'" Colson said. "They were wonderful athletes. Gifted athletes. And I think, man, what a missed opportunity for the university, for sports in general.”

Colson went onto teach history at Lincoln Public Schools and coach her own teams.

Pettit passed the torch to current head coach John Cook after the 1999 season. He retired with honors ranging from conference coach of the year in the Big 12 and the Big Eight to being inducted to the AVCA Hall of Fame and the Nebraska Athletic Hall of Fame.

The NU volleyball program, itself, is now one of the most successful volleyball teams in the country.

Five national championships. Dozens of NCAA tournament appearances. Several Olympic players. Hundreds of honors and trophies.

All born on what Title IX not only provided, but mandated: the chance to compete.

“The opportunity to play is so much more important than any other aspect. And that would translate over into other areas: the opportunity to vote. The opportunity to buy a home. Opportunity is the key to everything,” Pettit said.