May 28, 2020
Ruth Alexander is a Florida Icon

Photo: Rob Wetzel

Florida Trend's Icon Series

Ruth Alexander is a Florida Icon

Created the women's athletics program at the University of Florida in 1972; member of the Florida Women's Hall of Fame; age 74

Lilly Rockwell | 2/14/2013

» I wanted to improve the opportunity for competitive play for women. Competition teaches you cooperation, competition, all these qualities athletes have. It’s something you can’t really teach in the classroom. And women didn’t have any opportunity for that. They thought women didn’t need that.

» My mother didn’t work, and my father was a barber. He was a one-man shop in Radford, Va. I used to go as a little girl before I started school and just sit in the window seat they had. I was close to my dad. I’d just sit there all day and watch him.

» I ran for 20-some years. By 1970, I was teaching at the University of Florida, and I ran every day at noon through campus. I ran 5 miles. I had four kids, and I needed to get in shape. I didn’t have a lot of time so I chose my lunch hour. I lost a lot of weight, lost all my pregnancy weight. Everybody said I was crazy for doing that because the lunch hour is so hot in Gainesville. I continued to work out, and the heat just didn’t bother me. And now my knees are gone. So now I can’t run at all.

» My mother died when I was 12, but she always encouraged me to do whatever I wanted, and my dad always encouraged me to do sports. When they were growing up, they didn’t have sports either. They just encouraged me to do what I wanted to.

» There was a job open (at UF) in physical education. It was chairman of the department of physical education for women. I didn’t know whether I would get it or not. I had really hoped just teaching would be available and I had a good chance of getting that. But it was chairman. I said ‘I’ll never get that,’ and I got it.

» They used to use me in the physiology labs. They would get me up there and have me run so much and do different exercises and score me in what I’d do. I got my resting heart rate down to 40 something, and it’s not much higher than that now. They were pretty much impressed when I first started, but very soon thereafter a lot of Florida students and people in Gainesville were running. I wasn’t doing such a great thing after all.

» My faculty also wanted sports, probably wanted it a little bit more than I did. And I said, ‘Well, we’ll see what we can do to get it going.’ Stephen O’Connell, who was president then, I had met with him and a few other university officials. He was the greatest. He said, ‘The women want this. We’re going to have this.’

» They would say that women shouldn’t jog the body that much, that it wasn’t good for their body in childbearing or future childbearing. They were old wives’ tales.

» I said from the beginning, if nobody comes to the games that isn’t important. The women just need an opportunity to play. As they develop, if people want to come, fine. They didn’t start charging people to come to anything for years later.

» There was lots of backlash. A lot of the male coaches didn’t want it because they would have to share whatever they had with women. Except Jimmy Carnes, who coached the track team. He wanted it. Because he didn’t care if the women came down and practiced track when they were using the track. The swimming coach, the men’s swimming coach, said he’d do anything in the world to stop it.

» Two and a half years ago, I had a stroke. I was here, on the couch, and I was reading and I fell asleep and it woke me up. Something went from my head and into my arms. I could feel it. Then it just quit. I could get up and walk and move. I don’t know how it has affected me. I’m fortunate I don’t have paralysis. But I get up to walk and I wobble a little. I don’t think I really wobble. It just feels like I do.

» Our budget was $16,000, and we thought we were the richest people in town. We weren’t giving any scholarships because all the women’s programs throughout the U.S. had that same rule so it didn’t hurt us because nobody else had them either.

» We had a young girl back here in the ’80s who said she was going out for football and just caused a stir because there are no other women playing football anywhere. I said, ‘Just let her start with ya’ll. She won’t stay with you because she can’t compete, and she won’t ever get to play.’ The best person plays, and she’ll never learn the skill. It went away. To just say she couldn’t would have prolonged it.

» It got to the point where men wanted to coach women’s sports. At first no man wanted to coach it. Then the men got interested.

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