Josie Harper's Lasting Legacy as an Advocate for Women's Sports

PHOTO COURTESY OF DARTMOUTH ATHLETICS

Josie Harper led Dartmouth women's lacrosse to its first Ivy League championships in 1986 and 1987.


Josie Harper, inducted into the National Lacrosse Hall of Famer in 2006, coached with the U.S. women’s national team from 1979-87. She served as an assistant coach for the 1981 U.S. touring team in Australia, as an assistant in 1982 for the U.S. team that won the world championship in England, and as the head coach of the 1986 U.S. World Cup team. She was also the head coach of the first U.S. Women's Under-21 team that toured Scotland, England and Wales in 1987.

An icon in the advancement of women’s sports in the Ivy League, Harper was recognized for her efforts in this feature by Dartmouth associate athletics director Justin Lafleur.

Sports were Josie Harper’s life growing up in the Philadelphia area.

“I’ve been in athletics my whole life,” said the legendary former Dartmouth coach, administrator and athletic director. “I was playing competitive basketball in seventh grade. I had everything growing up in the Philly area; my high school had every sport you could think of for girls. It’s so interesting to see people write the history of Title IX and act like no one did anything prior to it.

“I never knew I wasn’t ‘supposed’ to play.”

Harper turned her passion for sports into an impactful legacy. Her career was marked by an impact on collegiate athletics, which very much included, but wasn’t limited to, women’s athletics.

“Treating everybody the same and letting people know you care about them” was the key to her leadership style, she said.

To do that, communication was key.

“As a coach, I went up and down the hall a lot interacting, but certainly when I got into administration and particularly as the AD, I would walk around and talk to almost every coach — particularly after a good win or bad loss,” Harper said. “That constant communication and positive reinforcement was important.”

Harper’s post-collegiate career began in 1965 when she graduated from West Chester State. “There were only a few schools you could attend if you wanted to play team sports at that time, and West Chester was one of them,” she said.

Harper came to Dartmouth in 1981 as the head women’s lacrosse coach and assistant field hockey coach, while also teaching Physical Education. It was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.

“Dartmouth kept things in perspective,” she said. “They were students first and athletes second. They knew I’d drive them hard on the field, but knew when they came off the field, I cared about them as people and students.

“I don’t think I could work at a place that didn’t have those values… in that order. In coaching, it’s all about seeing them develop as people.”

Harper went on to do just that, and it has led to lasting relationships.

In her own professional career, Harper certainly did well in leading the Big Green to the program’s first Ivy League championships (1986, 1987).

That preceded her move into administration.

“I coached lacrosse and did administration from 1990-92, and I didn’t do either one very well,” Harper said. “I knew I had to make a choice. I had the opportunity to have Amy Patton come up from the Philly area. She was my assistant coach in 1990-92 and became the head coach in ‘92.”







All the while, senior associate athletics director Louise O’Neill was serving as a strong mentor for Harper, helping set the stage for Harper’s shift into administration.

Harper’s career would take off, as she served in administration from 1992-02 before becoming the first-ever female athletic director in the Ivy League.

“I wasn’t planning on applying to the job in 2002, but then you get to think how your life might change depending on who’s across the hall,” she said. “I couldn’t complain about who they hired, or be unhappy with who they hired, unless I put my name in.”

The transition wasn’t perfect, but she said it was pretty seamless overall.

“By the people around me, I believe they felt I had a lot of credibility having been a coach,” Harper said. “They couldn’t come in my office and say I didn’t understand. As an AD, it just turned into coaching coaches. You coach kids, then you coach coaches.”

Over Harper’s tenure, she was an advocate for all programs and bettering the experience for all student-athletes. Women’s athletics was a significant piece that needed time and attention, and Harper made a difference.

“The men would walk through the lobby for their spring trip for lacrosse, get on a 48-passenger bus and fly wherever they were going to fly,” Harper said. “We would jump in a van and drive down the coast, maybe to Florida. It was Charlottesville, then James Madison, and pick kids up on the way. The budgets were not exactly reflective.

“We started to deal with the equity issue when I got into administration in the late 80s and early 90s when a couple sports were added — women’s volleyball and softball.”

Harper faced any equity issue head-on.

As she said, “Bob Ceplikas — who was deputy AD for a long time here — and I worked together on the equity issues, and at that time, started looking at combining the friends programs (such as Friends of Lacrosse, including both men’s and women’s lacrosse under one umbrella).”

That was a very tangible result of Harper’s efforts.

Another was advocating in softball’s fight to become a varsity sport, which included years of effort by student-athletes Lauren Greenberg (’93) and Erika Beisler (’93). This occurred before Harper became athletic director.

Even after becoming a varsity sport, and even after she retired in 2009, Harper’s influence has remained.

“Softball was the only program that was off campus,” she said. “Little stands, one port-a-potty … it was sad out there in Sachem, and the kids had to find their way out there. Then, they did the big renovation on the baseball field. I talked to President [Jim Yong] Kim, who came in when I left.

“I said, ‘You’re going to have an issue here because you’ve got a really poor field for softball and you’ve just spent millions on this renovation.’”

Change happened, and in 2012, a world-class, $3.1 million Dartmouth Softball Park opened. The Big Green went on to win Ivy League championships in 2014 and 2015.

“I would give credit to Dartmouth for bringing softball back to campus and building the softball complex,” Harper said. “And when they changed the surface at Sculley-Fahey Field, they put in a new field hockey field with a surface that is premier for field hockey today.

“We’ve come a long way [in women’s athletics], but we have a long way to go. I was hoping that as women’s sports and Title IX grew, the men and women would learn some things from each other.”

That has happened, but there is certainly continued room for growth in terms of coaching.

“Title IX was a great achievement for girls and women in the area of playing opportunities, but most things have a downside,” Harper said. “Before Title IX, 90 percent of girls and women were coached by women. Today, this number has dropped below 40 percent. We must find a way to keep women in coaching.”

Harper is in awe of the skill level of women’s athletes today.

“The skill level is outrageous,” she said. “But we’re back to specializing, which makes me sad, because I always had two-sport athletes. Field hockey and lacrosse, or I had some ice hockey and lacrosse, and I had some soccer and lacrosse. I think you’re seeing more injuries because they’re doing the same sport, using the same muscles.”

In November 2020, it was announced that the head women’s lacrosse coach at Dartmouth would be endowed in Harper’s name. The two anonymous donors were former players.

“It was jaw-dropping, actually,” Harper said. “I got a call saying that they had these two donors, a million dollars each, to endow. They wanted to remain anonymous, and they wanted to put it in my name. I about dropped the phone.”

Remember, Harper described her leadership style as, “Treating everybody the same and letting people know you care about them.”

That care was reciprocated in a major way for a pioneer who has had an incredible impact on everyone she has come in contact with.

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