The History of the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union

The origins of the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union can be traced to a heated argument at a Des Moines Presbyterian Church. From that argument, a one-of-a-kind organization was founded and continues to serve high school girls like no other activity organization in the United States.

Iowa was one of the few states in the 1920’s where girls high school basketball was being played. An Iowa  girls state basketball tournament had been established in 1920 and the popularity of the sport began to thrive in Iowa’s rural schools.

Despite the popularity of basketball in small-town Iowa, the enthusiasm over girls basketball was not shared by the state’s larger schools. In addition to the larger schools in the state objecting  to sponsoring girls high school basketball, there were also concerns over the merits of girls participating in physical activities. Many at the time believed it was harmful for girls to engage in a “strenuous” activities such as basketball.

These arguments reached a boiling point at the 1925 Iowa State Teachers’ Convention held at the Central Presbyterian Church in Des Moines. The annual meeting of superintendents and principals decided that competitive sports before paying crowds was good only for boys activities in Iowa, but not for girls. Girls basketball would no longer be a state-sponsored interscholastic activity.

The debate that immediately followed was passionate and heated.

One attendee at the meeting that had coached girls basketball lamented that his conscience was forever bothered “for the harm I might have done the girls” in coaching girls basketball. However, Mystic Superintendent John W. Agans responded with the memorable rebuttal, “Gentlemen, if you attempt to do away with girls basketball in Iowa, you’ll be standing at the center of the track when the train runs over you!”

Agans’ powerful message led to an impromptu meeting at the Presbyterian church of 25 men from primarily small rural Iowa school districts. They had decided that if the Iowa High School Athletic Association, who oversaw all high school athletic activities at the time, was not willing to sponsor girls basketball, then they would form their own organization dedicated to sponsoring Iowa girls high school basketball.

The Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union was born.

A four-man committee representing the northeast, northwest, southwest and southeast sections of the state oversaw the IGHSAU in its early stages. The four-man committee rotated as the IGHSAU’s part time secretary until 1947 when Rod Chisholm of Exira was employed as the organization’s first full-time executive secretary. Now having a full-time executive secretary, girls basketball began to flourish.  The Girls State Basketball Tournament, held at the Drake University Fieldhouse, featured sold-out crowds throughout the eight session tournament.

To help expand its growth, the state basketball tournament became one of the Iowa’s marquee events. The IGHSAU published its own rule book and a girls basketball yearbook. In addition to the publications, the IGHSAU hosted coaching schools for both coaches and officials. The Iowa Girls State Basketball Tournament was also one of the first sports to be televised, beginning in 1951. The telecast reached nine different states.

When Rod Chisholm resigned as the IGHSAU Executive Secretary in 1954, he was replaced by E. Wayne Cooley. Cooley immediately had big plans for the IGHSAU. His first order of business was to expand the IGHSAU programs. While basketball was still wildly successful, Cooley believed that for the organization to truly thrive, new sport programs needed to be developed for the girls. Softball was added in 1955 while golf and tennis were sanctioned in 1956. Track and Field became the fifth sport to be sanctioned by the IGHSAU in 1962.

While new programs were developed for the Iowa Girl, girls basketball remained the IGHSAU’s crown jewel. Taking advantage of its new home, the spacious Veterans’ Memorial Auditorium, Cooley turned the nation’s oldest high school girls state tournament into a showcase for Iowa talent. In addition to the great basketball being played, the halftime shows were elaborate productions comprised of Iowa high school students and bands; young men in tuxedos swept the auditorium floor to Duke Ellington music and the highlight of the evening;  the moving Hall of Fame presentations narrated by the great Jim Duncan. In short, there was something for everyone whether you liked basketball or not.

When Title IX legislation was passed in 1972 requiring gender equity for boys and girls in every educational program that receives federal funding, high schools across the country were scrambling. The majority of schools and universities did not offer athletic programs for girls and struggled to find ways to implement the new programs. Sports Illustrated compiled a three-part story in 1973 on women sports and Title IX. One issue of the article featured girls sports in Iowa. The article highlighted to a national audience that equity in girls sports was not only possible, girls programs could shine just as bright as their male counterparts.

The IGHSAU continued to add programs. Cross Country was added in 1966, followed by swimming and diving in 1967 and volleyball in 1970. Soccer was added in 1998 while bowling began in 2006. Currently, there are 10 sports being sponsored by the IGHSAU.

Today, there are nearly 70,000 girls competing in Iowa high school athletics. Iowa continues to rank in the top half of the  United States in terms of girls high school athletic participation, despite ranking 30th in U.S. population. In addition to administrating sports, the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union conducts coaching certification courses, official education clinics and offers several scholarships that celebrate the Iowa Girl.

Iowa continues to be unique in that there are four separate activity organizations; the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union, the Iowa High School Athletic Association, the Iowa High School Speech Association and the Iowa High School Music Association. The four organizations focus their efforts on making Iowa a national leader among its peers in administrating high school activities.  Dr. Cooley, who retired as the IGHSAU Executive Secretary in 2002,  once stated that “I take a lot of pride that every girl walks down every main street in every town in Iowa just as tall as the boy.” The Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union has made it its mission to uphold Cooley’s legacy.