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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Wendy Larry, Debbie White to Enter Virginia Sports Hall of Fame

By Harry Minium

Long before it was trendy, or before Title IX became the law of the land, Old Dominion University was a national leader in offering female athletes an equal chance to compete.

More than half a century ago, ODU became the first Virginia school to offer females athletic scholarships under then-Athletic Director Jim Jarrett. As a result, ODU's women's basketball and field hockey programs quickly became nationally prominent and won national titles.

That history of excellence will be honored April 6 in Virginia Beach when ODU becomes the first school in the state to have two females inducted into the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame at the same time.

Former women's basketball coach Wendy Larry was one of the first female athletes to receive a scholarship at ODU. She won 559 games and 17 consecutive CAA tournaments. She took ODU to the NCAA tournament 20 times, to the Sweet 16 four times and to the 1997 national championship game.

Larry was also an assistant on two national championship teams.

She will be joined at the podium by longtime friend and co-worker Debbie White, who didn't have the same opportunities Larry did. The daughter of football coach Dick Harmison, she was raised in West Virginia and Lexington, Va., and attended high schools that had no athletic teams for girls.

Nonetheless, she became enthralled with sports at an early age in part because she was at her father's side while he coached. She became the first full-time female sports writer in Virginia in 1974 when she was hired by the Daily Press in Newport News.

She then embarked on a long career in sports information, marketing and administration that led her to serve on national committees and help ODU host major events, including the first two NCAA women's basketball Final Fours.

ODU's prowess in women's sports is reflected in its membership in the state Hall. Overall, nine of the 17 coaches, athletes and media members from ODU in the Hall of Fame are female, including the last five.

ODU President John R. Broderick said he's proud both are being honored.

"I am delighted to see that two women who represent so much that is good about intercollegiate athletics are being honored for their contributions," he said.

"Wendy is a legendary coach. All of her accomplishments, all of her victories and the many outstanding student-athletes she recruited to ODU will always be a cherished part of our athletic history.

"Debbie helped break the glass ceiling in sports journalism. And when she came to ODU, she became a national leader in promoting women's sports."

The festivities, to be held at the Virginia Beach Town Center, includes a VIP celebrity event April 5 in addition to the induction ceremony the following night.

Larry resigned from ODU in 2011 with a year left on her contract. Although her program's success on the court had begun to suffer, she felt like she deserved a contract extension.

It led to an acrimonious departure.

When Nikki McCray-Penson was named coach nearly two years ago, she reached out to Larry, and they have become friends. Gradually, Larry became more comfortable with the thought of returning to ODU for game.

On Feb. 9, Larry made a surprise return at the Monarchs' annual Hoops for the Cure game to benefit breast cancer. She was introduced during the first timeout and drew a thunderous ovation.

It was her first time back in the Constant Center to watch a game in almost eight years. Players and coaches from both teams shook her hand, as did the referees.

When she walked off the court, she approached Broderick and Athletic Director Wood Selig and shook their hands.

She said she was moved by the experience.

"I had the great fortune, thanks to Jim Jarrett, to coach at my alma mater," she said. "That makes a difference in how you feel about a school. I love Old Dominion."

She said she wants "to get back to that place" where she feels comfortable to returning to the Constant Center on a regular basis. "I pray every day that it will happen," she said.

Larry worked briefly for the Atlantic 10 and turned down coaching opportunities because she knew she would be taking on what she calls the most important job she's ever had - taking care of her mother, Virginia.

In 2014, she moved her mother from her native New Jersey and into her Virginia Beach home.

Virginia is 94, and though her mind remains sharp, her body is suffering the ravages of time.

"I'm her legs," Larry said. "I have to transition her everywhere, whether it's to bed, to the john or to the shower. I don't go very far away from her."

She has friends and a caregiver who give her a break every now and then. But it's full-time work.

Nonetheless, Larry says, "We're catching up on lost time, on all those years I was away coaching. It's truly been a joy.

"So many elderly people don't receive proper care. I just wanted to make sure Virginia was one of those who did."

Larry recalls the phone call she received from Eddie Webb, then the executive director of the Hall of Fame and the son of former ODU basketball coach Paul Webb, a few months ago to let her know she was being inducted.

"When Eddie called, my throat got really thick," she said. "We go to the same church and I was worried something had happened with his dad. It was really awesome when I learned why he called. I was humbled."

She said it's appropriate that she, White and former CAA commissioner Tom Yeager are being inducted at the same time.

"I can't tell you how many championship trophies I accepted from Tom," she said. "I think that at first he, and a lot of other people, were skeptical about women's basketball. We made him a believer and eventually, our conference set a great standard for the game."

White was a cheerleader in high school because it was her only choice.

"I had no opportunity to play, nothing at all," she said. "So I was a cheerleader and I wrote for the high school newspapers. That was it. It was frustrating.

"Not that I would have been a great athlete, but I would have at least liked to have tried."

She did the next-best thing - she sat next to her father as a high school coach and assistant at VMI, and watched him break down film. From time to time, she went to practice.

"I wouldn't have gone into this business had I not been an appendage to his leg," she said. "I was like a little sponge. I was fascinated by it all."

Two weeks after graduating from West Virginia University, White was hired by Daily Press sports editor Charlie Karmosky to cover high school football.

"Charlie thought women's sports was going to grow and thought it was a good idea to hire a female," she said. "I'm really grateful that he did."

After getting a master's degree at William & Mary and working at Siena University, Jarrett hired her as an assistant sports information director in 1979. It was the same year Larry as hired away from Virginia Wesleyan as an assistant coach.

A year later, Jarrett promoted White to director of sports information.

ODU's women's basketball team was on a magical run, with coach Marianne Stanley and players such as Nancy Lieberman, Anne Donovan and Tracy Claxton. The Lady Monarchs won three national championships and a WNIT title from 1978 through 1985.

"It took a lot of work to make sure the media was paying attention," Stanley said. "Debbie broke down a lot of barriers in how women's basketball was perceived."

After leaving for a year to teach at VCU, White returned to ODU as an assistant athletic director.

"Sometimes you have to leave for a while before you're really appreciated," White said. "Wendy also left and coached at Arizona before Jim hired her" to replace Stanley.

By the time she departed from ODU in 2016, White had led all of the University's marketing and sports information operations for years.

Life wasn't all grand in her time at ODU. It was difficult when Larry left.

"I've seen my father go through difficult times in his career as a coach," she said, "It's hard to deal with something like that when you get close with people."

And then there were two bouts with breast cancer, including one in 2002 that required surgery.

"Wendy was there when I woke up from surgery," White said. "And when I finished my last day of radiation, she had a party for me with the team.

"She was certainly my champion."

So, say both White and Larry, was Jarrett.

"I owe so much of my career to him," White said. "He wasn't afraid to take leaps of faith with people who had limited experience.

"I mean, he hired Marianne Stanley when she was just 23. He was just a big believer that women ought to be given a chance and a fair chance and an equal chance."

White said she's also grateful to Broderick and Selig, who replaced Jarrett in 2010.

"When you change athletic directors, you worry about your security," White said. "But Wood could not have been more gracious and accommodating. I'm very grateful that he took me on as a confidant, that he trusted me.

"John Broderick was in public relations for a long time at ODU. He became a great sounding board for me. He gave me so much great advice, and his support for us as President was tremendous."

The Hall of Fame ceremony is set the same weekend as the men's and women's Final Fours, meaning coaching friends and some former players can't make the induction. Larry says that's OK, as long as Jarrett, who was inducted in 2011, is there.

"He made women's sports a priority," she said. "He put press guides out. He had a marketing plan. He recruited coaches who were amazing coaches.

"He held up the banner and made women's sports important."

ODU's Virginia Sports Hall of Fame Members

Wendy Larry (women's basketball coach), 2019

Debbie White (media), 2019

Beth Anders (field hockey coach), 2017

Marianne Stanley (women's basketball coach), 2016

Ticha Penicheiro (women's basketball), 2014

Jim Jarrett (athletic director), 2011

Kelly James Precourt (field hockey), 2008

Mark West (men's basketball), 2006

Yogi Hightower-Boothe (field hockey), 2001

Anne Donovan (women's basketball), 1996

Dave Twardzik (men's basketball), 1995

Paul Webb (men's basketball coach), 1993

Gray Simons (wrestling coach), 1992

Nancy Lieberman (women's basketball), 1992

Thomas L. Scott (coach, athletic director), 1989

Bud Metheny (athletic director, baseball, basketball coach), 1979

Joseph "Scrap" Chandler (athletic director, coach), 1979

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