During the summer months, as the Nashville sports scene slows down just a bit, it gives us here at S&E Nashville an opportunity to look back at some of our favorite stories over the previous year. When doing so, one of our favorites that stands out is the amazing story of Belmont University’s beloved Betty Wiseman. She is an amazing leader and coach for sure, but on a much more important level, she is also an inspiration to all those she has come in contact with over the years. Enjoy a look back at the inspiring story of Belmont’s Betty Wiseman.
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Betty Wiseman is a pioneer of women’s basketball at Belmont University without question. The numerous awards and Hall of Fame inductions alone confirm that, but what those accolades can’t show is her enormous heart and desire to share opportunities.
For anyone familiar with the history of collegiate women’s basketball, particularly in the city of Nashville, Wiseman’s name is one at the very beginning of that conversation. While the basketball court has been a large part of her career, it is far from what defines it though. In over 50 years on the Belmont campus, Wiseman has had tremendous influence in the classroom sharing her knowledge with students, in athletic administration sharing her wisdom and guidance, and on the mission field sharing her faith.
“This is not all about me, but how God has orchestrated my life. He has just blessed me so much for the opportunities that I’ve had. Belmont has been so good to me, Belmont has allowed me to pursue my dreams and try some different things, like this sports evangelism. What I’ve done is by God’s grace and Belmont’s goodness to me. I can’t say enough about the university and what it’s meant to me.“
Wiseman’s basketball career began well before ever stepping foot on campus at Belmont College, as a standout at Portland High School in nearby Portland, Tenn. A natural athlete, she led her team in scoring five consecutive years. She then enrolled at Belmont and after upon her degree in 1965, was quickly named Associate Professor of Health and Physical Education the following year.
In her days as a student and early on as a faculty member, Wiseman was still playing basketball, but only intramurals, all the while thinking, ‘If we just had a team.’
Later in 1968, still early on in what would eventually become a 40 year teaching career, Wiseman approached Belmont president, Herbert C. Gabhart, about starting a women’s basketball program. This was still four years prior to the passing of Title IX legislation and hardly any other schools in Tennessee or even the southeast were allowing women to play basketball in college.
It was certainly not as simple as just asking for a team to be allowed, but Wiseman describes it more of being really all about opportunity, and Belmont agreed. “The little girl inside of me that hadn’t gotten to play enough still wanted to, so at the time it just seemed like the right thing to do.”
Also seeing it as an opportunity for Belmont, President Gabhart said at the time, “We feel that the great interest in girls’ basketball in the high schools of Tennessee should have a continuance in some of the colleges of the area and that girls basketball should attract to Belmont many fine students who are reluctant to give up their participation in the sport and will bring to the campus many spectators who love girls’ basketball.”
It wasn’t easy in the early days though; while the new women’s basketball team was allowed to play it was far from on equal footing. Wiseman and those first players could not practice until the men’s team had finished up and intramural games were done each day.
“If the gym wasn’t available until nine or 10 a night, then that was when we practiced.”
Wiseman also had to get together uniforms and food for the team, which often consisted of sandwiches from the cafeteria, and equipment before long road trips to games.
In that first year, with a limited number of players and after a few injuries, Wiseman even suited up as a player-coach for part of the season. “There was no NCAA for women then, so I just went to the president and said why don’t I just be a player-coach. He agreed and it was just something we had to do in order to have numbers back then.”
She added that, “those first few years, while I was the one that went in and asked to start a team, the credit really goes to all those girls who just wanted a place to play.”
It was not just those early teams of girls that were influenced by Wiseman either. After starting the team, she also began hosting basketball camps for local middle and high school girls. This not only helped girls from around the community learn more about the game, but it also was a recruiting tool for both Belmont and Wiseman, sharing with girls that there was somewhere they could go to keep playing after high school.
One player that passed through Wiseman’s basketball camp was a young Pat Head Summitt from nearby Cheatham County High School. While Summitt eventually enrolled and was part of the first women’s team at The University of Tennessee at Martin, Wiseman certainly recruited her to Belmont and could tell early on she was going to be a good player.
“Who Pat was as a coach, was who she was as a player,” Wiseman said. “She told me she wanted to come to Belmont, but her brother had gone to UT Martin and it was decided in the family that she’d go to UT Martin. We’ve talked on occasion about that and we’ve wondered what it would have been like if she could have played for me.”
“We have had a sweet relationship through the years. I admire and respect her and she has really been the top of the class and the pioneer over the years.”
In her 16 years of coaching, Wiseman led her teams to a record of 248-152 and played in four consecutive National Women’s Invitational Tournaments from 1973-1977. Wiseman led teams defeated the likes of Summitt’s Tennessee Lady Vols, Vanderbilt and North Carolina just to name a few.
Wiseman’s coaching earned her induction into the Belmont Hall of Fame, when she was just 37-years-old and later in 2004 she became the first Belmont coach or student inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame.
It is not the wins or accolades that Wiseman looks back at most fondly though when thinking about her 16 years walking the sidelines. “It is the players,” she enthusiastically recalled. “They are my girls, they are my family and since I’ve been retired I’ve been able to reconnect with a lot of those girls. I’m just so proud of whom they are and that I had the opportunity to be their coach.”
She added, “I like to win, but it really is about the journey and the people who come in contact with.”
When she walks into the Bruins current home, the state of the art, 5,000 seat Curb Event Center, to see a game now; she takes humble but great pride in where the program has come over the years.
“I was privileged to be a small part of that and it is pretty humbling to see where it is today. I don’t take it lightly and it is very special to me.”
When Wiseman’s coaching days drew to a close she made a seamless transition into an administrative role. While still continuing to teach, Wiseman became an assistant athletics director and the senior women’s administrator with the mission of helping Belmont’s transition from NAIA to NCAA, growing the women’s programs and making sure the department was compliant with Title IX.
It was as an administrator that two of Wiseman’s greatest passions came together. As a result of her faith and passion for sharing that faith on mission trips, Wiseman began wondering how she could get the young people she was around more involved early in life and saw sports as a platform to share the teachings of Christ.
“I took my love for college students and my passion for sports then partnered with the Tennessee Baptist Convention. They had established partnerships overseas already and knew of my passion.”
That partnership led to the formation of the Sports Evangelism Team in 1992. The team later took their first trip in 1995 and has been traveling the globe to places like Poland, Costa Rica, Portugal, Venezuela, Brazil and Malta ever since.
In the 19 years of the program, she has seen hundreds of people make professions of faith. She and her team would visit schools and community centers in the places they were visiting and have entire schools of students and faculty members watching them do basketball clinics. They would also play some with them and ‘earn’ the right and privilege of sitting down with them after the clinic to share our faith.
“That was a goal we had, to do whatever we could to earn the right to share our faith with them. It was never about religion or denominations.” She added, “It was about relationships with Jesus Christ and how to have that relationship and then encouraging them to find a local church to be involved in.”
You could say Wiseman wrote the book on this form of evangelism, because well, she did. She penned Bounce the Balls & They Will Come: A Coach’s Passion for the Great Commission in 2011.
“You go to reach out to the youth and minister to them, but what it does to the athletes you take with you – it completely changes their perspective on life. It enhances their relationship with Christ and gets them out of their comfort zone. It has been a life changing experience.”
With all the things Wiseman has accomplished in her career, she could rightfully so pick any of them to consider her top achievement. The ever humble Wiseman doesn’t, and wouldn’t even consider doing so though.
“The most gratifying thing of my career is watching the transformation of students in general, from the time they come to Belmont to the time they graduate. The prize is in the process and watching students mature and discover what I call the ‘Ah Ha’ moment.
It’s all about people for me, my whole career has been about students and having the privilege of being part of their lives and to see them go out in life and be citizens and representatives of Christ. I feel very blessed and humbled that I’ve had that.”
I was on campus 52 years, so that place is my home. When I go to campus I feel like I’m going home for a visit. I’m still involved in going back to the see the teams play and Monday nights I have a bible study in my home for athletes who are here for the summer. I like to drive by and see all the building that is going on and be at the place. I miss the place and the interaction with students and collegues. Belmont will always be an important part of my life. I’m proud to say I’m a Belmont person.
Its never been about me, its only been about the opportunities.
While many know of her as a pioneer on the basketball court and for women’s athletics, anyone who has spent any time speaking with Wiseman knows there is much more. She is an example. An example of doing things the right way; the honest way, the Wiseman way.