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UCI Podcast: A walk down memory lane with Linda Dempsay

UCI’s first female athletic director remembers the early days of Anteater athletics and her journey into a world where women were scarce

December 12, 2022
UCI Podcast: A walk down memory lane with Linda Dempsay
“I had always found myself in a leadership position – my skillset and emotional and physical stamina all fit into that. So, it just sort of evolved,” reflects Linda Dempsay, who became the first woman in the nation to head an NCAA Division I athletic program when she was named UCI’s athletic director in 1978. Steve Zylius / UCI
Linda Dempsay, former UCI Athletic Director

Linda Dempsay was on the inaugural athletics staff when UCI opened in 1965. She was named the women’s athletic coordinator and was the only female on the staff. UCI Athletics

On Nov. 8, 1976, Linda Dempsay was appointed assistant athletics director at UCI – a promotion from her previously held title of women’s athletic coordinator. When Ray Thornton, chairman of the physical education department and director of athletics, elected to take a sabbatical year in Spain from 1977-78, Dempsay served as the acting chair and director of athletics. Thornton resigned in February of 1978 and UCI named Dempsay its director of athletics – the first woman ever to lead an NCAA Division I athletic program. At the time, she was only 39 years old.

Now Dempsay is 84 years old. Host Cara Capuano met Dempsay during a session of Rams Training Camp on campus in August and talked her into sharing her experiences with the UCI Podcast. In this episode, Dempsay reflects on her time leading Anteaters athletics in those early days of UCI’s existence and the incredible changes she has seen in collegiate athletics – and the world – over the course of her life.

Music for this episode of the UCI Podcast, titled “First Time Experience,” provided by Nate Blaze via the Audio Library in YouTube Studio.

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In honor of the 50th Anniversary of Title IX, the Eater Nation Fund created the Linda Dempsay Initiative to promote women’s athletics at UCI. A gift in support of the Linda Dempsay Initiative will help strengthen women’s sports programs by providing resources to better the student-athlete experience.

 

TRANSCRIPT

UCI Podcast/Cara Capuano:

From the University of California, Irvine, I’m Cara Capuano. You’re listening to the UCI Podcast. Linda Dempsay joined the staff at the University of California, Irvine, in 1965 – the year the school was founded.

In 1972, Title IX was passed – a law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs receiving federal financial assistance. Title IX’s reach includes participation in athletics, greatly increasing access for women.

Meantime, Linda Dempsay was busy demonstrating how women can succeed when given the opportunity to serve in sports leadership roles. She transitioned from coach to administration, working her way up from women’s athletic coordinator to assistant director-athletics, to athletics director for UCI. In this year in which we’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of Title IX, it’s a terrific time to reconnect with people who made history in collegiate athletics in those early days of important change and increased inclusion. Linda Dempsay is certainly on that list.

Linda, thank you for joining us today for the UCI Podcast.

Linda Dempsay:

Thank you. I’m really happy to be here.

Capuano:

I’d love to start with learning about Linda Dempsay, the athlete. What were your sports?

Dempsay:

Well, I think there’s a big difference between where people are today and where we were. We had no sports. In high school, there were no teams to speak of. And I played with either the boys or the teachers because that was it. When I got to college, you could sign up to play on a sport. In fact, I could vividly remember we wanted to add powder puff football to intramurals. That was absolutely a “no” – girls could not do that.

Capuano:

Finding out that powder puff football was a “no” … how did you take that?

Dempsay:

They would say “no” to just about anything – it didn’t make sense to me – but football happened to be one of my loves because I got my interest in sports through my family and my father who was very active – played in high school, in just about every sport, went to Berkeley, was a football standout and then recruited in the Tustin/Santa Ana area where I was born and raised. So that was sort of “the first sport,” but I really enjoyed all of them.

Capuano:

When did you realize you might want to try to make a career out of working in sports?

Dempsay:

This may sound different. I think I don’t fit in the mold. I never did think about it. I think I was raised with sports. I was raised going to Cal with teams, with coaches, meeting afterwards, recruiting in the area, having Waldorf at our house. You know, it just was a part of my life, and I loved it. And the UC system was part of my life.  So, when I heard sort of about this, that was the only time it wasn’t sports. It was, “gosh, wouldn’t that be fun, you know, to start off with a UC campus” and it just sort of evolved.

Capuano:

And to your point, you did start at UCI – the year it all began in 1965. What roles did you have in the athletic department? What were you doing?

Dempsay:

Anything they needed done. To be honest, I think I probably was considered a token woman. I mean, you know, they, that was a good thing. I was “Orange County.” I was born and raised here. My family was here, everyone I knew was here. I had other interests. It wasn’t like, you know, that’s what I’m going to be doing. I was mainly recreation – working with Ray Thornton – and teaching classes. We all taught classes. All the coaches had classes when we went Division I – they were teaching.

Capuano:

What kind of classes were you teaching?

Dempsay:

I taught… I don’t even remember a lot of them but basically probably badminton. I don’t know. I just sort of filled in wherever they needed: exercise, relaxation, fitness. I was asked to start an equitation class – a riding class. I’d never done that. And I learned a lot. It was fun.

Capuano:

I bet. And you coached as well.

Dempsay:

I coached. Even coached some teams that I never competed in myself and would take the team to a swim meet and say, “Well, how do we fill out this form? And who’s going to do what?” Because I didn’t know.

See, we didn’t have teams. So, when we started the whole women’s program really started from intramurals. We didn’t have teams per se.

Capuano:

We always hear the phrase “organized sports”, and it sounds like women’s sports, in the early days of UCI, weren’t very organized. Is that accurate?

Dempsay:

I would say very much so. Yeah, you have to remember the men were the coaches – now this goes way back – and women were teachers. And when we did start organizing into some of these groups, women were completely separate. I sort of didn’t fit in when we started organizing and had men and women together because you either were with the women or the men, but you couldn’t do both. So now you leave, and the women are upset. And of course, the men probably weren’t very happy either.

Capuano:

When you were named UCI’s athletic director in 1978, you were the first woman in the nation to head a Division I athletic program. At that time, were you aware of your place in history?

Dempsay:

Not really. I was, seemed to always be in the right place at the right time for certain opportunities. And I think my skillset… I had always found myself in a leadership position – my skillset and my emotional and physical stamina all fit into that. So, it just sort of evolved. The opportunity came and each year, in fact, I would have people ask me – and some of the reporters – what are you going to do? I said, “I really haven’t thought about it.” You know, this came up and it sounded like a wonderful opportunity and I’m doing it, but I don’t know, you know what I’m going to do in the next year or two.

I learned a lot and probably the greatest people I had were really the men coaches because there were no women. And I’m sure some of them had a very, very difficult time. I know a few did, but I imagine a lot more did, but they were really wonderful.

Capuano:

You mentioned you learned a lot. What kind of things? What examples can you share?

Dempsay:

Well, I really learned, I guess a lot about myself. I mean, I look back and I think of my age when I was doing that and the stupid things that I did with that or other things. I think it’s, as you get older, you look back at things you did and thought, “Why didn’t I do this?” Or “I could have done this,” but you didn’t know at the time. Even now I’m learning quite a bit from my grandchildren and people and things you see. And you know, I just feel fortunate that I’ve had the opportunity to stay alive as long as I have and be able to do things and you know, learn those things.

Capuano:

What was it like knowing that you were a pioneer in a space where women hadn’t really ventured before?

Dempsay:

I didn’t really think about it. I know that that probably sounds odd. And you know, to me, “pioneering” and “trail blazing” is…  I guess you just don’t think of that thing. It’s just an opportunity and if it would be the same thing, if a man had done it.

And I always looked at problems to me, it’s a challenge. It’s not a problem. Every year, you know, you go up and down these cycles and you think, “Oh, look at what they’re having to go through. I’m glad I’m not there.” Well, you know what? If you would’ve been there, it wouldn’t have been a problem. It would’ve been just one more thing that you had to deal with and handled.

Now, I mean, it’s exciting for me to see women out competing, have teams, traveling, doing some of the things they’ve done, but we didn’t have that. So, there wasn’t anyone to look at: “Gosh, if you can do it, I can do it.” I mean, when you go to a meeting, talked about the first woman in the NCAA – it’s all men, you’re the only woman there. Who are you influencing? So, I just never thought about being a pioneer or trailblazer – you’re just doing what you need to get done. Two things, they say: “athletics and business aren’t for women.” And I ended up in both of them. (laughs)

Capuano:

You are unique in that a lot of people that enter into sports administration, they’re lifers. And you just alluded to the fact that that was not your path. So, what did you do after UCI?

Dempsay:

We had a family business and actually since I was 14, I’d worked with my father and brother and different people in the family business. And then I left, and I was working, you know, nights, weekends part-time there or doing things on the side. And then I was working down here part-time and then I finally said, you know, “part-time isn’t part-time” I mean, it’s turning into a completely overwhelming thing. So, I went full time. And uh, the family business was growing and needed more attention. I knew I had that and that that’s where I was going.

Capuano:

While you were navigating your ascension in the athletics department, UCI was moving upward as a program, transitioning from Division II in competition to Division I in that 1977-78 year in which you were serving as an interim athletics director before you were officially named athletics director. Can you take us back and share some of the experiences of that process of the transition?

Dempsay:

I can remember telling one coach, “You can’t coach division one – now, I’m not sure how I knew this but – without an assistant.” He doesn’t need an assistant.  Well, you know, you’re teaching classes and you’re coaching a team and now we’re going Division I.

We were very successful. We did a lot of developing. Most of the athletes we got, the coaches were wonderful at developing the players.

I don’t know, Division II – what the conference setup was – but when we went that that was a big transition. So here we come in from Division II to Division I with a woman athletic director?  I mean, I didn’t think about it at the time, but those are the kinds of things I look back on, I think, “Oh gosh, that must have been pretty hard.”  Or meeting with a booster group as they hit their hand on the table and say, “Well, what are you going to do when they won’t schedule you?” I didn’t think about that – if I want to schedule them and that’s what we’re going to do, or we at least try. And I’m sure that some men would have, could have the same problems I would have. So, I just didn’t think about those things.

But I’d been raised to be independent, not just me, but our whole family were very, very close, but we were also independent. Whatever your abilities or your interests are, that’s what you should do. You don’t have to all be alike. That made a big difference.

Capuano:

So you weren’t thinking about it a lot at the time. When you think back on it now, what would you have done differently?

Dempsay:

I should have probably done a better job with the PR part. I think that there are several things. I didn’t really think of it at the time, I just did my job and what I felt needed to be done. But my children really are the ones that made me think about it – we were talking year or two ago. And they said, “Well, look what you did”- because they got stuck a lot of times. And I said, “I never really thought about it. Well, somebody had to do that. I mean, would we have been where we are today? I don’t know. Maybe we would’ve been better. I don’t know that either. So, I think what you do – as you probably do with your job – I did what I felt had to be done and the best I could do.

I mean, I really miss the students. I miss the university. I do not miss the politics or the budget.

I’m a very firm believer that intercollegiate athletics give a university their visibility. I always felt that’s why UCLA became so prominent. Because I went to UCLA as a graduate and they were not a big institution at that time. They were the “baby Bruins.” Well look at where they are today – but what came first? Academics or intercollegiates?

Capuano:

You tell me.

Dempsay:

I think intercollegiates did. That’s what was the visible part. Now, I think academics are important – don’t get me wrong. But I think it’s a two-way street and I think it has to be. You have to appreciate them, but they have to appreciate you as well.

Capuano:

What did you consider your biggest obstacles along the way?

Dempsay:

Probably funding (laughs) That’s always an obstacle – but you always overcame them. You know, it was, “Oh, we’re going to cut all the budgets of the UC system” and everyone thought, “Oh, that’s the end.” Well, it wasn’t, we found ways – and there were things you should cut anyway.

I think probably the biggest obstacle was not having mentors or other people that had been through that to explain, as you say, to give you some guidance, to tell you what they’d experienced or to have people that you could even hear what they had to say about it – that probably was the most difficult thing.

Capuano:

What about your triumphs? What were your biggest wins during that time?

Dempsay:

Probably helping and assisting – moving the opportunities for really – at Irvine – all athletes, but particularly the women. I mean, to see them… in fact, I had a granddaughter who played here… but to see them able to even do that. The biggest triumph really was seeing what, where we are today, compared to where we were, “we” – where the university is.

Capuano:

I knew what you meant. Is there anything that you feel like maybe something you left on the table, something that you wish you would’ve been able to achieve during your time as UCI’s athletics director?

Dempsay:

Probably just about everything because I don’t happen to be a very patient person. And all the things you see that could be done – or you wish you could do – and you didn’t, you know, whether that was because of me, was it because of a situation, money? I don’t know… But there’s always things you think, “Gosh, I wish I could have.”

You know, coaches are a good example. Why are you going to hire a coach – and put together a team when you can’t fund them? How can you recruit a good coach for a women’s team, but you can’t pay her? You can’t give her scholarship money. You can’t do those things that she needs to succeed – or he – it could be a guy that’s coaching the team. If we hadn’t gone Division I, if we didn’t have – that was really a big thing to go Division II to Division I – because we had so much to do with the men’s program to get to Division I. And if your emphasis – for me – went to the women, then you’d detract it a little bit. And I just wasn’t real comfortable doing that.

Capuano:

Sounds like it was an awful lot to manage.

Dempsay:

It was, but we had a strong program. And look at some of the other schools in the last five years that have gone from Division II to Division I and their schools – I didn’t think at the time, 50 years ago, they’d ever be out of intramurals. So, who knows?

Capuano:

What are some of the changes that you’ve seen specifically for women in collegiate athletics that stand out?

Dempsay:

I think it’s mostly the opportunities that they have. Now, yes, women can set an example – or as women often say – not just sports but anything, “Well, if they see me doing it, maybe they think they can do it or there is that opportunity.” I don’t think that was there before. You know, women would be teachers, homemakers or nurses. Those were your options. We couldn’t even take things like drafting or wood shop. Men couldn’t take Home Ec. So, they had you so pigeonholed. You know, I look back and see people that went to college – women – back in the twenties and thirties. It’s just hard to imagine that they did that, but they did.

To me, it’s just a very exciting time to see what UC Irvine has done and where they are. Their growth after I left is when you really, I mean – I came back and I didn’t even know where anything was. And I think that their status in the community and the opportunities for the men and women are just exciting.

Capuano:

Linda, it has been such an honor and privilege to have this conversation with you today. Thank you for joining us on the UCI Podcast.

Dempsay:

Well, thank you. I, I enjoyed it and it’s fun to look back, but it’s so different. It’s just exciting to see what they’re doing.

Capuano:

The UCI Podcast is a production of Strategic Communications and Public Affairs at the University of California, Irvine. Please subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts.