Breaking down the barriers to women’s equality in sports
By Tom Markowski
NPASHF Board Member
Juliene Brazinski Simpson never gave a second thought to who she was or where she came from.
The third of three children of parents who both faithfully maintained a strong connection to their Polish heritage, Simpson is proud of her ancestry and is forever grateful to a loving, strong-willed family who allowed her to be the person she is today.
She also takes great pride in all that she has accomplished. After graduating from Benedictine Academy in Elizabeth, N.J., her birthplace, Simpson attended J.F. Kennedy College in Wahoo, Neb., located between Omaha and Lincoln, where she not only started at point guard her freshman year but also started at third base on the softball team and helped lead the Patriettes to the College World Series championship. That was Simpson’s first season playing competitive softball and it would be her last.
Basketball was Simpson’s sport and it’s a sport that would take here to places like Amarillo, Tex., China and back to her home state. Despite having just 250 students in the school, Kennedy College was a powerhouse in women’s basketball. Remember, this was before Title IX. Simpson was a four-time Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) All-American at Kennedy College (1971-75) and led the school to a pair of AAU Championships and was named Tournament MVP during the ‘73 national title run.
She competed on 11 international teams as part of USA Women’s Basketball. She earned a silver medal at the World University Games, won a gold medal at the ’75 Pan Am Games and the highlight of her career as a player came when she was a part of the U.S. Olympic team that won a silver medal. The ’76 Olympics mark the first time women’s basketball was an Olympic sport. Simpson was a co-captain on that team along with Pat Summit, who would later become a legendary coach at Tennessee.
“I am who I am because of my parents,” she said. “It was their strong work ethic that I remember most. They got involved with church and family, and where they lived there were two blocks of all Poles. Two blocks away were the Irish and two blocks away was another (ethnic) group. People respected each other’s ethnicity.”
Joseph and Ruth Brazinski raised their three children in Roselle Park, N.J. The eldest is a nun and Simpson nearly followed that path. And if it wasn’t for her brother, Joe, Simpson’s love for sports and her passion to compete likely would not have had its beginnings.
“He taught me the game,” Simpson said. “He taught me to spit like the guys.”
Simpson was a trend setter even then. She wanted to play basketball and the only way she could was to play against the boys, at the nearest park or in the streets. Simpson not only was two years younger than most of the other players, she was also the only female. To help ease her fears in these pick-up games, Joe, as one of the captains, would select her either with his first or second pick to make certain she would not be left out.
“There were times when there were enough guys where I didn’t play,” Simpson said. “And Joe would tell me to go off to the side and practice.
“The memory I have from that time was to never give up. Joe kept telling me that. He told me to keep working and never stop playing.”
Joe was tough on his sister. If she didn’t give 100 percent effort he’d let her know. One instance, in particular, stands out. A Simpson pass was intercepted and when the other player went down on the other end for a layup, Simpson merely made a token gesture to get back on defense. Her brother took her aside and explained to her, rather vociferously, that that was not acceptable.
Sure enough a similar play took place later in this same game but this time Simpson raced back on defense, established position near the basket, and took a charge.
Simpson fought the gender gap to compete in other sports as well. To hide the fact that she was a girl she would wear a stocking cap to hide her pigtails in order for her to play football.
Today female athletes don’t face such tall barriers. The term Tom Boy is outdated and unacceptable.
“I have two daughters,” Simpson said. “That was my goal. That my girls wouldn’t have to go through what I did.”
Upon graduation from college in 1974, Simpson and her husband, Mike, became the first teachers in New Mexico to teach coed physical education. Simpson also coached the boys basketball team at the school, Cathedral High in Gallup, and her husband was the athletic director.
Again, Simpson received backlash for going against the norm. Then women were viewed as inferior when coaching a boys team.
“Sometimes when we’d win we’d have a police escort out of town,” she said. “Sometimes the other team wouldn’t shake our hands after we’d won. There was the thought that, ‘you can’t beat us. You have a woman coach’.”
Simpson was determined to make her mark and she did so frequently. She started the women’s basketball program at Amarillo (TX) Junior College before becoming the first woman to be hired as the women’s basketball coach at Cincinnati. She lasted just one season at each school.
“I wanted to build, to help build programs,” she said.
At age 25 she became the youngest head coach at Arizona State. She coached the Sun Devils for 11 seasons and twice reached the Sweet 16 before going to Bucknell then to Marshall and her final coaching stop was at East Stroudsburg (PA) University.
Since 2009 Simpson has been the athletic director at the College of St. Elizabeth (NJ). It’s a small school (approximately 500 undergraduate students) not unlike the college she attended.
“That’s why I’m at St. Elizabeth,” Simpson said. “It’s small but very personal. I believe in what I can do here. If you go to a smaller school, become engaged, I believe you have so much more to offer.”
Being inducted into the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame is the latest in a list of honors Simpson has received. In 2000 she was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame and in 2014 Simpson was recognized, as were her teammates on the ’76 Olympic team, as “Trailblazers of the Game” by the WBHOF.
Her induction into the NPASHF is a reminder to Simpson of her beginnings on the New Jersey streets.
“My brother is involved with the Polish University Club (of New Jersey),” she said. “They help raise money for Polish kids to go to college. I listen to him more now when he talks about that group. Ever since I was nominated for (NPASHF) award I’m asking him more questions.”