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Remembering Mary Roby: A pioneer of Arizona women’s athletics

Mary Roby was the leading force behind the rise of Arizona women's athletics, which rank among the best in the nation. University of Arizona photo

When Dr. Mary Roby was leading the Arizona Wildcats search for a softball coach in the summer of 1985, it was the athletic department’s intent to hire a woman.

But nearly everybody she talked to told her that she should hire Mike Candrea.

Like with most things she did as she oversaw the rise of women’s athletics at Arizona — from a campus rec sport, to the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, to the NCAA and the Pac-10 — she made the right call.

She interviewed only one person for the job — Candrea — and promptly recommended to athletic director Cedric Dempsey that he be hired. Four years after that, Roby hired swimming coach Frank Busch from Cincinnati.

How’s that for an enduring legacy?

Roby, who retired from the university in 1989, died Monday night in Tucson after a battle with cancer. She was 85.

“She gave me a great opportunity at a time when there were not a lot of male coaches being hired. She had the gumption to give me a chance,” Candrea said Tuesday.

“I look at her, and I look at a pioneer in women’s athletics. She was a very huge part of the growth of college athletics for the female athlete. I think she set the foundation for what we are today. We will dearly miss her.”

Roby, as a professor, coach and administrator, worked at UA from 1959 to 1989.

It might be hard to believe for today’s athletes, but 40 years ago, the NCAA didn’t have any interest in sponsoring women’s sports. Roby helped unite college programs into the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) in the early 1970s, and then the passage of Title IX helped bring some women’s programs into the NCAA for the 1981-82 academic year.

One of Roby’s protégés at Arizona was Rocky LaRose, who serves today as the school’s deputy athletics director.

“Mary was one of the true pioneers in the growth of women’s athletics,” LaRose said in a statement.

“Her leadership and advocacy has led to thousands of sport opportunities for young girls and women, not just at Arizona but across the nation. Her pride and joy, though, was the UA program. The foundation she laid has led this program to the great successes we enjoy today.”

Candrea said he remembers Roby as stern but loveable, fiery and detail-oriented.

“I remember when I first came here, she kind of scared me,” he said.

“I remember sending her a memo — and this was before e-mail and spell-check — and it came back to me covered in red for all kind of grammatical corrections. I was like, ‘Oh, man, I’m never going to send her another memo.’ …

“But I will always admire her for her ability to be very straight forward. And she was always a supporter of mine. Whenever something of significance happened in my life, I always got a note.

“I thank the good lord she gave me an opportunity. And I am grateful that I got to see her Sunday. I gave her a big kiss.”

Would there have been a Jennie Finch at Arizona without Mary Roby? 2001 Tucson Citizen photo

Her name graces the Mary Roby Gymnastics Training Facility just east of McKale Center. She also hired former UA gymnastics coach Jim Gault, whose longtime assistant, Bill Ryden, has directed the program since 1999.

Her hiring skill influences Arizona today with Candrea still leading the softball program after winning eight national titles, and Busch just this spring leaving his national-championship-winning program to head up USA Swimming.

“I can’t believe they hired me,” Busch said in a 2008 interview with the Tucson Citizen, referring to Roby and Dempsey.

“I mean, honestly, I can’t believe it. My credentials weren’t that good. I have no idea why Mary Roby and Ced Dempsey said, ‘He’s the guy.’ But I’m sure glad they said that. It changed my life a little bit.”

All our lives.

Who knows how UA women’s athletics would have developed without her, without the coaches she hired and kept, the foundation she built, the excellence she fostered. Jennie Finch. Annika Sorenstam. Amanda Beard. Lorena Ochoa. Four Arizona athletes who became the NCAA Woman of the Year — Tanya Hughes, Whitney Myers, Lacey Nymeyer and Justine Schluntz.

Candrea said Roby just had a way of seeing and bringing out the best in people.

“The biggest thing about her, she wanted us to not only be great coaches but also great people. And she expected athletes to be the same,” Candrea said.

“She placed a very high emphasis on academics and community service and giving back and not forgetting the people who paved the way before her.”

Arizona will not forget about Roby any time soon.


Arizona Daily Star, June 12, 2011: UA women’s sports soar thanks to Roby

Corky Simpson, Tucson Citizen, June 3, 1995: Mary Roby broke down a few doors for female athletes

Here is the press release from Arizona:

University of Arizona athletics pioneer Mary Pavlich Roby died yesterday in Tucson. She was 85.

Roby was inducted into the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics hall of fame in 1995, six years after her retirement from the UA staff, a tenure that spanned three decades during one of the dramatic periods in the growth of college sports.

She received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Association of Collegiate Women Athletic Administrators and her name graces a UA building – the Mary Roby Gymnastics Training Facility outside McKale Center.

She was involved, first as a UA undergraduate, then as professor in exercise and sports sciences, coach and administrator, in Arizona’s women’s athletics program from its informal club-status years to its high-profile productive NCAA Division I status. Today’s world – sanctioned women’s sports championships across the board, national television, equitable funding – was unheard of at the beginning of her work in athletics.

She helped create the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW), and later she and then athletics director Cedric Dempsey were involved in joining the university’s men’s and women’s sports in the early 1980s, taking a national leadership role in combined programs.

“Dr. Roby’s work has huge historical significance. We look back to a number of visionaries and people behind the success of University of Arizona athletics, and none have had a more dramatic impact than Mary,” said Arizona Athletics Director Greg Byrne.

“Mary was one of the true pioneers in the growth of women’s athletics,” said Rocky LaRose, deputy athletics director at UA and a Roby protégé. “Her leadership and advocacy has led to thousands of sport opportunities for young girls and women, not just at Arizona but across the nation. Her pride and joy, though, was the UA program. The foundation she laid has led this program to the great successes we enjoy today,” LaRose said.

Roby was born in Miami, Ariz., in 1926, the daughter of Croation immigrants, and arrived at the UA as a student in 1944. She earned a bachelor’s degree in 1948, a master’s degree from Smith College in 1949 and a doctorate from Southern California in 1971. She became a UA faculty member in 1959 to begin her long professional association as a Wildcat.

Along the way she earned a full professorship, directed the UA Women’s Recreation Association, served as women’s athletics director, was responsible for creating most UA women’s athletic programs, served on numerous committees of the AIAW, NCAA and the Pac-10 Conference, and was one of the first women named to NACDA’s Executive Committee and to the board of the United States Sports Academy. She was president of the Intermountain Athletic Conference and the Western Collegiate Athletic Association during those affiliations, vice president of the Pac-10, and was a founder and board member of the Council of Collegiate Women Athletic Administrators.

She was inducted into the UA’s Mortar Board Hall of Fame in 1981, the Arizona Sports Hall of Fame in 1989 and the NACDA Hall of Fame in 1995, among other honors. She remained active in UA athletics in recent decades as a member of the Arizona Sports Hall of Fame selection committee.

Her work experience outside Arizona included stints at the Universities of Texas, California, Arizona State and Colorado. At the time of her retirement in 1989 she was associate director of athletics for sports programs, one of Dempsey’s top aides in charge of administering 15 men’s and women’s sports.

She is survived by her husband, Fred Roby, who also is a retired University of Arizona professor emeritus.

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