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Murray coach recalled as a women's sports pioneer

By JOSHUA ROBERTS jroberts@paducahsun.com

Friends and colleagues mourned and celebrated Saturday the late Nita Graham Head, a Murray State teacher, coach and trailblazing pioneer of women's college sports well before Title IX.

In the late-1960s, Head took $300 and created the women's tennis program, leading it to three undefeated seasons and a 204-67 record in 15 years, one of the best runs in Racer history. She won while emphasizing academics and inclusion for all players.

She died March 11 after years of medical complications. She was 85, a Murray State Hall of Fame inductee, longtime physical education teacher and the school's athletic coordinator for women.

Robert Head, her husband of 43 years and caregiver late in life, said his wife was quiet, dedicated and accomplished, yet modest from her days growing up in the mountains of northeast Alabama. She shunned attention.

"I feel like her legacy needs to be known," said Bob Head, who taught in the Murray art department and married Nita in 1974.

"She brought joy to what she did. â ¦ She felt women's athletics was something that should be fully enjoyed, that it taught self-reliance and commitment, but was also fun.

"There are coaches whose only focus is winning. She wanted to win -- she was very tenacious and her squads did very well -- but she never cut a player. If they wanted to come out and practice and they didn't make the top group, that was all right. It was for their enjoyment. She viewed road trips as a way of exposing them to a wider world. Her students, her players loved her."

But her decision to start the tennis program, though praised years later for being ahead of its time, wasn't always popular, Bob said. Nita pushed forward anyway.

"There were people who would not even speak to her because they felt this was going to interfere with men's intercollegiate sports," he said.

In the early days, she and the players would "drive to Memphis and sleep on floors for a couple of nights so they could play tennis," Bob said. "There was no money in the program at all. They just did this on their own, out of their own pockets. That's how things got started."

However, persistence was in her DNA.

One of Bob's favorite stories is about Nita's grandfather, a farmer. He once built a raft and floated his crops to New Orleans. He sold the crops and the raft and simply walked all the way back to the farm in northeast Alabama. That's just what had to be done, he said.

Nita, Bob wrote in her obituary, was athletic in high school but her school didn't have sports for girls. She practiced basketball with the boys, even though "to her chagrin" she wasn't allowed to play in games.

Later in life, Nita took up weaving and worked on a single piece for 35 hours.

"But she found a mistake, so she took it all apart and started again from scratch," Bob said. "That's the kind of person she was, the persistence she had."

A memorial released by Murray State this week includes remembrances from former players.

"Coach was a very serious, unassuming, and hardworking lady with a dry, witty sense of humor and a subtle competitive spirit," said Lanette Hunt, a member of Nita's first Racer team in 1967. "Coach Head was a trailblazer and a champion of all women's sports."

"Coach Head was a tremendous coach and teacher in life, on and off the court," said Kathy McNutt, who played on Nita's final Murray team in 1982. "She always offered wise advice and spoke softly, but we always knew when she meant business. Coach fought hard for women's tennis and women's sports and all of Murray State athletics in general. â ¦ She will be greatly missed."

Although athletics were a pivotal part of her life, Bob said Nita was "a whole person" with a wide "breadth of interests, and she was accomplished in them."

Those interests included environmental education and preservation. She donated her family's farm -- spanning almost 500 mountain acres with good timber -- to the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. It will be used as a model farm and center for education and outdoor recreation.

The decision, Bob said, was, in a way, righting a wrong from long ago.

"We didn't feel it would be appropriate to sell it and make money off it," he said. "We felt it should serve a useful purpose. And, in a broader sense, it was Cherokee country.

"That land was purchased by her family somewhere in the 1830s. They were good, honest people. They were very frugal, they were not greedy, and they respected the land. But that really belonged to the Cherokees, and Nita had sorrow about that."

Blalock-Coleman & York Funeral Home in Murray was full for Saturday's memorial service.

Bob spoke to visitors about his wife and read several poems, a fitting touch given her love for literature.

One poem was "Heritage" by the late James Still, an Alabama native who lived most of his life in Kentucky. Still, like Nita, "understood the power of words and didn't waste them."

Another selection was Ted Kooser's "How to Make Rhubarb Wine." Bob chose "Wine" because it speaks to Nita's joy in life.

"Sit back and watch the liquid clear to honey yellow, bottled and ready for the years, and smile," the poem concludes. "You've done it awfully well."

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