Dr. Margaret Downing is a pioneer.
She’s not a pioneer in the traditional sense of clearing land and homesteading an area. But she’s certainly a pioneer when it comes to advancing women’s sports in Arkansas.
Downing became the head women’s basketball coach at what’s now Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia in the fall of 1965, a time when that sport wasn’t on the radar screen of most Arkansans. During her 19 seasons as the head coach of the Riderettes, she became a well-known sports figure in Arkansas.
Downing arrived in the pine woods of far south Arkansas at a school that had been founded in 1909 when the Arkansas Legislature passed Act 100, which authorized the establishment of four district agricultural boarding schools, one in each quadrant of the state. These schools were designed to give rural children access to a better education. Columbia County residents raised the funds needed to attract one of the four schools to Magnolia.
Buildings were constructed during 1910. In 1911, what was known originally as the Third District Agricultural School opened its doors a mile north of the city.
In those early days, the school’s men’s sports teams made a name for themselves. In 1912, the football team chose the Mulerider name. The football Muleriders had their first unbeaten season in 1919. Dolph Camp, who later would become the school’s president, played center on that team.
A 1925 legislative act changed the name of the two-year junior college to the State Agricultural and Mechanical College. It most commonly was referred to by Arkansans as Magnolia A&M.
College student enrollment exceeded that of high school students for the first time in 1931 at Magnolia A&M, and by 1937 the high school classes had been abolished. In 1951, the Legislature renamed what was by then a four-year liberal arts college Southern State College.
The success of the men’s teams continued at Southern State as Coach Elmer Smith’s Mulerider football squads won back-to-back Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference championships in 1951-52 and Coach W.T. Watson’s men’s basketball teams won back-to-back AIC championships in 1966-67.
Margaret Downing soon made women’s sports matter in Magnolia.
Her women’s basketball teams would win eight championships during the next two decades, competing at the state level in what was at first the Arkansas Women’s Extramural Sports Association (AWESA) and was later the Arkansas Women’s Intercollegiate Sports Association (AWISA). Nationally, her teams competed in AAU tournaments.
By the time Downing retired from coaching, the AIC had added women’s basketball to its roster of sports.
Downing didn’t just coach basketball. She served as the head swimming and diving coach from 1966-68 and again from 1969-73, claiming an AWESA championship in 1967 and an AWISA title in 1969. Her swimming and diving squads finished second in the conference on two other occasions.
Downing also won an AWISA championship in softball in 1980. She coached volleyball for three years from 1973-75, winning an AWISA championship in 1974 and placing second the other two seasons.
In recognition of her accomplishments, Margaret Downing will be inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame on Friday, Feb. 3. Tickets for the annual induction banquet at Verizon Arena in North Little Rock are $100 each and may be obtained by calling Jennifer Smith at (501) 663-4328 or Catherine Johnson at (501) 821-1021.
Downing is among 11 individual inductees — six from the regular category, three from the senior category and two from the posthumous category — in the Class of 2012. The Hall of Fame also will induct the 1994 University of Arkansas national championship men’s basketball team.
Downing attended Arkansas State Teachers College (now the University of Central Arkansas) and graduated from there in 1953. One of the people who influenced her the most at the school was Dr. Betty Mae Swift, who was hired in 1949 as a physical education instructor and remained there until she retired in 1983. It was Swift, a no-nonsense instructor who demanded that her students and players live up to strict standards in the classroom and in athletics, who coined the name Sugar Bears for the women’s sports teams at the school.
Swift, who died in 2000 at age 78, joined forces in later years with Downing to convince the AIC to add women’s sports in 1983, signifying their acceptance as a full partner with the men’s programs.
Downing says Swift was a mentor who “taught all of us to just roll up our sleeves and do the job ourselves. She definitely was a good adviser, teacher and friend. I will always carry in my heart the numerous things she taught us, both in and outside the classroom, along with the intangibles of loyalty, honor and dedication to duty.”
Swift would spend many hours outside of class preparing students to take tests that would qualify them to officiate various sports even though there was little demand for women’s officials in those days.
Downing, taught by Swift and others to achieve her full potential academically as well as athletically, went on to receive her master’s degree from the University of Tennessee in 1960 and her doctorate from Texas Woman’s University in 1973.
Downing made a number of coaching stops before settling in Magnolia. She coached at the high school level in Monticello, Texarkana, North Little Rock and at the Tennessee School for the Deaf. She coached collegiately at Connecticut College for Women, Central Connecticut State College and Ouachita Baptist University at Arkadelphia.
Her Ouachita teams were nationally ranked, laying the foundation for the success experienced by Carolyn Moffatt at Ouachita from 1965-84 as Moffatt’s teams went 213-162. Moffatt was a posthumous inductee last year into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.
At what’s now Southern Arkansas, Downing’s first basketball team captured an AWESA championship. AWISA was founded in 1969 and her teams won seven of the first eight titles — 1969-70, 1970-71, 1971-72, 1973-74, 1974-75, 1975-76 and 1976-77. Her 1972-73 squad placed second, and the 1976-77 team shared the championship with the University of Arkansas at Monticello. Downing retired from coaching basketball with a record of 223-163 at the school.
The first time AWISA awarded a coach of the year award — following the 1977-78 season — it went to Downing.
Downing was not only known statewide as a leader in the field of women’s athletics but was recognized nationally and internationally. She was the manager of the U.S. women’s basketball teams twice in the Pan-American Games. She also served as the president and treasurer of the U.S. Olympic Committee for Women’s Basketball, as the president of AWISA and as the president of the Southwest Region of the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women.
Downing served at one time or another on the AAU’s national basketball rules committee, the U.S. National Basketball Committee and the International Basketball Committee.
She was just as successful in the classroom as she was as a coach. Downing was named the Southern Arkansas University honor professor for the 1987-88 school year and is remembered fondly by thousands of former students as one of the best instructors to serve the university.
When SAU established its Hall of Fame for athletics, Downing was in the inaugural class of 2003. Downing already had been inducted into the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics Hall of Fame in 1987.
Through the years, the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame has honored many of the pioneers of women’s athletics in the state. Hazel Walker, an 11-time All-American AAU basketball player who later managed and played with her own professional team, was in the first induction class in 1959. A member of the Class of 1966 was Quinnie Hamm Toler, who once scored 114 points in a game at Sparkman and 1,245 points for the season. Joan Crawford of Van Burean, a 13-time AAU All-American basketball star, was a member of the Class of 1978.
Now, Margaret Downing has earned her rightful place with such luminaries of the past.