Jane Stratton Netted Utah’s First Women’s Scholarship
First in a series
At the time, Jane Stratton didn't realize she was making history. There was no fanfare and no press conference when the tennis star became the first female to ever receive an athletics scholarship from the University of Utah.
It was the mid-1970s and Title IX enactment was still in its infancy. Collegiate sports programs for women were slowly materializing. Things moved at a measured pace.
At Utah, the historic scholarship to Stratton came about after a conversation between friends. Irv Stratton, Jane's father, and Utah athletics director Bud Jack would regularly meet for lunch or drinks back in the day. The topic of a scholarship for Jane was broached by Mr. Stratton one day. His daughter, after all, certainly had the credentials. The Highland High graduate was ranked No. 1 in the nation in 18-and-under doubles and fifth in singles.
"You know, I don't know why Jane doesn't get a scholarship because she has accomplished way more than any of the men," Irv said to Jack.
Jane noted that her dad was the kind of guy who saw things like "this is right and this is wrong."
Jack agreed with the reasoning and the tennis star was given a scholarship.
"So that's how it happened," said Jane, who acknowledged that being the first "was a cool thing."
Stratton made it clear she had the utmost respect for the Utah men's tennis program. She used to practice with them, walking over from Highland. There was no high school tennis for girls back then. However, Utah men's tennis coach Harry James took Stratton under his wing when she was 13 or 14 and facilitated her advanced skill set. As such, the practice invitations were extended into college.
Matches, though, were a different story. Stratton, who became a three-time All-American at Utah, saw first-hand the difference between the men's and women's tennis teams. The latter became an official program in 1974.
"We would get in the back of (coach) Pam Honn's camper and we like drove down to Arizona," Stratton said. "All of us in the back of the camper, we got out and went straight to the court and played our matches."
The guys, meanwhile, were flying to their competitions.
"I didn't ever think about that then," Stratton said. "I loved playing tennis and I was just doing it."
Following collegiate success, Stratton turned pro and went on to reach the Wimbledon quarterfinals twice. She later promoted tournaments.
"When I was playing I didn't have a coach that traveled with me," said Stratton, who recalled a challenge associated with the lack of such support. She suffered a bad ankle sprain at a pro tournament in Indianapolis and that's when things took an unexpected twist.
"The next day, my partner Janice Metcalf and I had to play Margaret Court and Evonne Goolagong Cawley," Stratton said. "I went into the locker room—and this is how it was back then—there was some water but there was nothing to eat. There was no trainer or anybody to do my ankle or anything."
Stratton was sitting in the room when Court approached her before the match. She asked Jane if she had anyone to take care of the sprained ankle.
"I said no and she said, 'Well, I'll do it for you,'" Stratton said of the unusual offer from an opponent. "And she did such a good job."
Metcalf and Stratton lost the match. It was a close setback to a duo that made their mark in women's tennis. Court went on to win a record 64 Grand Slam titles while Goolagong Cawley claimed 14 Grand Slams between singles and doubles, including the Wimbledon singles title twice.
Such interactions as the one in Indianapolis are likely a thing of the past. Stratton, who now resides in San Diego, helped run the WTA's Southern California Open, a high-profile tournament that precedes the U.S. Open.
The professional sport has grown in many ways over the years.
"I'm happy for all the players that are doing so well and they're making so much money," Stratton said. "They're doing pretty good. That's great."
Title IX's roots have greatly expanded early opportunities for female athletes. Stratton acknowledged it's better. She takes pride in being the first female to receive an athletic scholarship at Utah.
"It's a cool thing," Stratton said. "I'm proud of it and I thought Bud Jack made a good decision."
Although 50 years have passed since Title IX was signed into law, it's still a work in progress. Developing equal opportunities for women in college athletics has obviously taken time. At Utah, sports were added as resources became available.
In addition to tennis, other women's sports teams incrementally became part of Utah's athletic department. Besides tennis, basketball was established in 1974. Volleyball came the following year, while gymnastics, skiing and softball squads came aboard in 1976. Then came cross country/track (1981), swimming and diving (1982), soccer (1995) and beach volleyball (2017).
In 2020-21, the university had 229 female athletes. That includes 192 on full or partial scholarships.
"It is incredible to see the growth of women's sports in the 50 years since the implementation of Title IX. We are very fortunate here at the University of Utah to see not only the opportunities created, but tremendous achievement at the highest levels by our female student-athletes in some of the most successful women's sports programs in NCAA history," said Utah athletics director Mark Harlan. "Significant gains have been made, but it's important as we reflect on the past 50 years, that we remain mindful of the work that remains ahead of us to enhance and improve opportunities for women in sports.
"We are appreciative of the work done by those who established the foundation for what we see today, and as we hear their stories of the challenges they overcame, it is incumbent on us today as leaders in intercollegiate athletics to embrace the opportunity we have to chart the path for the next 50 years and beyond," he added.