A Brief History of Auburn Volleyball
Auburn University wasn't founded until 1856, making it the fifth-youngest of the 12 Southeastern Conference schools, and didn't receive its land-grant status from the Morrill Act until 1872, but the former East Alabama Male College has produced its share of pioneers in its 139-year history.
Holland "Howlin' Mad" Smith left the Plains and later pioneered the amphibious assault landings that helped the United States win World War II, and five AU alums have traveled in space since Neil Armstrong took his "one small step" in 1969.
Auburn has had its share of athletic pioneers, too --- not the least of which is Sandra Newkirk, the first coach in Auburn volleyball history.
Newkirk, then Sandy Bridges, was Auburn's intramural coordinator and a physical education teacher in 1967, a year removed from her native Indiana where she had just finished her master's degree.
In the fall of 1967, Newkirk's boss, Dr. Mary Fitzpatrick, head of the women's service program in physical education, received a letter asking if Auburn would like to send a team to Memphis for a volleyball tournament. Fitzpatrick asked Newkirk if she would like to get a team together and be its coach, and Newkirk jumped at the chance.
Newkirk would go on to coach the team for 13 seasons, gradually elevating the status of the program from little more than a celebrated intramural team to a fully-sanctioned sport. Later, Newkirk would help found the Alabama Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AAIAW), an organization that helped raise the level of women's athletics to a higher status than it had ever achieved before the NCAA delved into women's athletics in the early 1980s. Auburn played host to the AAIAW's first state tournament in 1971, the same year Auburn offered its first volleyball scholarship to a sophomore, three-sport athlete from Ft. Walton Beach, Fla., named Sheila Smith, who later became the school's first female All-American in track.
"Pure and simple, I had played ball in college and I knew what the kids could get out of it," remembered Newkirk, now an assistant professor of health and human performance at AU. "I thought, ‘what the heck.' If we had known that was the start of something, we would have kept forms and written everything down, but we just thought we were playing ball."
From such simple beginnings Newkirk started the Auburn volleyball team.
That first team, composed entirely of players Newkirk handpicked from the intramural fields, was as innocent and unpretentious as its uniforms, which consisted of each player's own white shorts and blue "Auburn" t-shirts which team members bought from a local bookstore. When the team took the court for its first match in Memphis, Newkirk was politely told that her team's jerseys were illegal because they lacked numbers. So out came the adhesive tape and the players got numbers. Such was the case with Auburn's women's teams in those early years.
"The kids paid their own way," Newkirk said. "The only thing the University covered the first several years were the tournament entry fees.
"The most scholarships we ever had, I think, was six. We went to nationals in 1970 and 1971 and they bought the uniforms from 1970 on. We were also selling stationary and cookies for extra money. Eventually, the University paid our travel, but food was the last thing they started covering. They didn't cover housing, food or anything at first, so whenever we went anywhere we tried to stay as cheaply as we could."
Although one can hardly imagine one of AU's current athletic teams going anywhere without first-class accommodations, the financial situation created some lasting memories.
"We slept on gym floors a lot. We slept on trampolines. That was hilarious because every time one person moved the others would bounce around, and it was so cold. That was the first year where we slept on the trampoline. I guess we slept on gym floors for a few years after that."
Susan Hinds, a member of that first team and now a supervisor of circulations at Auburn's Draughon Library, remembered the first road trip as fun and enlightening.
"We practiced outside on the spot where Haley Center is now," she said. "The thing I remember about that trip was that every other team was playing what we called ‘power volleyball.' We played ‘sweet volleyball' --- no spiking or anything. It was a completely different style of game. They were all spiking the ball and diving around and we were slowly and deliberately setting the ball and serving underhanded.
Newkirk said about the only things her early teams got out of being on the team was a chance to play ball and some good friends.
"I was half physical education teacher and half intramural director, so I knew all the kids who wanted to, and could, play. I asked about 15 and about 10 or 12 wanted to play. We started practicing the only way I knew how --- that was when the bump (dig) was just becoming part of the game and I had never seen it before --- so we got to Memphis and ended up about in the middle."
"Well, after the Memphis tournament I thought, ‘holy smokes, we've got to get better and quick'. At that time, MUW (Mississippi University for Women) and West Georgia were the top two teams in the South and probably the entire nation, so I called Dot McNabb at West Georgia and asked her to come over and teach us how to play volleyball, the skills, drills and all. After that we started watching the other teams best players and eventually you could see an improvement."
Despite the early struggles, by 1970 Newkirk was fielding competitive teams. One of her athletes, all-state player Reita Clanton from Opelika, went on to become captain of the United States Olympic Handball team.
After that first year, the team members would put up posters around campus telling when and where volleyball tryouts were to be held, Newkirk said.
Several players who saw those signs were on the 1970 team that made the national tournament held in Lawrence, Kan. Once again disaster struck, and once again the team survived.
"In 1970 we drove the team to nationals at the University of Kansas in two cars," Newkirk said. "Talk about hilarious. This is the national tournament, the biggest match of the year, and we're staying about an hour away from Lawrence in Olathe at the house of one of our player's aunt.
"We had 15 people in one lady's house. Well, we drove over to the tournament the first day and everything was fine. Then we drove over on the second day and got snowed in. We absolutely could not get back to the house and the kids only had their uniforms and warm-ups. So they announce over the p.a. system, ‘Anybody that has a sleeping bag, please bring it to the gym.' We ended up staying at one of the professors' house. He was building a new family room and was glad to share it with us. You don't find people doing stuff like that at the national tournament too often."
In 1971 the team once again qualified for nationals, but the method of transportation had markedly improved.
"We thought we were something in 1971 when we went to Miami for the national tournament," Newkirk admitted. "We were about the only team from the South that got to fly. We thought that was bigtime."
Auburn played host to the first AAIAW state volleyball tournament that same season. The matches were played in the old Student Activities Building.
"We practiced and played in the gym that's now the Foy Union cafeteria during the first season," Newkirk said. "The Sports Arena was only for men's basketball and the Student Act was split for men's and women's intramurals."
Although the team enjoyed success on a regular basis in those early years, winning state titles in 1973 and 1974, Newkirk said, "The only thing I worried about was that we were going against teams that had full scholarships and there we were with partial or no scholarships in all our sports. Even the last year when Sandra Leigh won the championship, Auburn only had six partial-scholarships and she had to beat an Alabama team that had 12 full-scholarships for the championship.
"We were going with a half deck against teams with a full deck every time out, and we were still holding our own. I think that says a lot about the Auburn students and the kids we get here. We were happy with anything we got. We never asked to be on even terms with the men, we just wanted to compete on even terms with the teams we were playing."
Things started to change after that 1971 season as the school began to increase its support for women's athletics, Newkirk said.
"After we started having scholarships, it definitely changed because we started getting another caliber of athlete," she said. "Even then I could see why some teams had recruiters because it could be a full-time job. The thing that was always good for us was that we could sell Auburn pretty easily. People wanted to come here and parents have always liked to send their kids to Auburn because of the small-town atmosphere."
Auburn did all of its recruiting by mail and telephone. No recruiting budget, per se, existed. "You have to remember, at that time nobody had video tapes or computers or a recruiting service to help them," she explained.
By 1979 Newkirk realized she had to make a career decision: either coach full-time and give up teaching, or get out of coaching. She decided to turn the program over to someone else.
The following year the University decided to drop men's wrestling, women's golf and volleyball, which it deemed too expensive.
Sandra Leigh coached the team in its final season, 1980, and in a twist of fate, the Auburn team managed to win the state championship in its last season of existence until the program was reinstated by then-Athletic Director Pat Dye in 1986.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Written by former graduate assistant Adam Kelley