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IX At 50: Cheryl Burnett excels from KU playing career to Final Four coach

Published: Jan. 13, 2022 at 11:04 PM CST
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June 23, 1972, President Nixon signed Title IX into law, prohibiting sex discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funding. Title IX has largely been considered the springboard for high school and collegiate women’s sports to get where they are today — but the fight for equality is far from over. Every Thursday night at 10:00 p.m. leading up to the 50th anniversary of the law’s passing, 13 Sports will honor the women who changed the game for girls’ and women’s sports in Kansas.

“IX at 50: The Trailblazers of Women’s Sports in Kansas”

LAWRENCE, Kan. (WIBW) - Small-town Missouri’s Cheryl Burnett was first spotted at a summer camp by a Kansas assistant coach.

“I used to go sit up in the rafters and think of all the amazing people that have played at the University of Kansas,” Burnett said. “It was very motivating.”

In 1976, she became the first woman to ever be offered a full-ride athletic scholarship to KU — opening the door to thousands of women who followed.

“I was from a modest income home, middle-American - probably wouldn’t have been able to afford to go to college since I already had a sister in college,” she said. “We would’ve probably figured it out, but what a blessing to get a full ride.”

The Jayhawks made three-straight postseason appearances, going from an 11-15 record Burnett’s freshman campaign to a 30-win season her junior year.

“It was a wonderful blessing to have been able to play at the University of Kansas,” Burnett said.

Inspired by her high school coach, Burnett pursued coaching after graduating.

She first served as an assistant at Illinois. In 1984, she moved to Southwest Missouri State, where she became head coach three years later.

Burnett led the mid-major Bears to a Final Four run in 1992.

Sitting in the stands: a young woman named Jackie Stiles.

“I think that experience allowed her and all those other players that we were recruiting to believe,” she said. “Jackie believed, and we believed, we could do it again.”

Burnett, Stiles and company did just that — topping Toledo, Rutgers, Duke and Washington to reach the NCAA semis again in 2001.

“It was really a challenging schedule, but magical. Just magical... The whole country was a bit of a buzz about this team and of course Jackie at the time was getting a lot of attention.”

Enthusiasm for women’s basketball in Springfield skyrocketted under Burnett’s leadership.

Her team ranked number-one in the nation in attendance for a season, then in the top ten for a decade more.

“At the time there weren’t paid positions within the athletic department to do marketing and promoting. So we were getting CEOs of marketing firms in Springfield to come volunteer. I have never figured out how these people would work an entire workday and then come to a five o’clock meeting for two hours, leave their families waiting for them to help market women’s basketball. It was women helping women.”

Burnett pioneered opportunities for women as a player and coach. She hopes that trend continues.

“Those of us that have grown up with this history know we have a lot of progress to still make,” she said.

Burnett became the head coach at Michigan in 2003. She retired in 2007.

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