One of the pioneers in West Virginia University athletics is gone.
Kittie Blakemore, who passed away this week at the age of 91, was the Mountaineers’ women’s basketball coach for 19 years, but she was also much, much more.
“Very saddened by the loss of Coach Blakemore,” said current WVU women’s basketball coach Mike Carey, who with a record of 410-217 is only one of West Virginia’s six women’s basketball head coaches with more career victories than Blakemore. “She was an incredible coach, person and friend. My thoughts and prayers go out to her family and friends. She will be deeply missed.”
A native of Manassas, Virginia, Blakemore earned her bachelor’s degree in education in 1950 from James Madison University and taught in public schools in Virginia and Florida for the next decade. She then enrolled at WVU, where she obtained her master’s degree in physical education in 1961. At that point she joined West Virginia University’s faculty, working as a professor in WVU’s physical education department and later in the athletic department until her retirement in 1997.
In 1972, the Federal Education Amendment, known as Title IX, became law, opening previously shuttered doors for females in high schools and colleges. Title IX didn’t only pertain to athletics, but that was an area where it became prominent, forcing schools to provide athletic opportunities for females. West Virginia University didn’t have any varsity intercollegiate sports programs for females when Title IX went into effect in 1972, but that would soon change. Within the next year gymnastics, tennis and basketball would be the inaugural women’s varsity sports programs at WVU.
“I was on the job one week when Wincie Ann Carruth, Martha Thorn and Kittie Blakemore (who were all faculty members of WVU’s physical education department at the time) came to me and said, ‘We want to start women’s (intercollegiate) athletics at West Virginia’,” remembered Dr. Leland Byrd, who served as WVU’s A.D. from 1972-78. “I told them I was all for it, but we didn’t have any money (the annual athletic department budget was $5 million at that time). They said it wouldn’t take much, because most of the coaches we would use were already on the staff. Red Brown (who was Byrd’s predecessor as WVU’s A.D.) had already set the budget for that coming year, but I increased it by $10,000. I didn’t know where the money would come from, but I increased it, and that’s what we used that year to fund our women’s sports. I think we paid each of the coaches (Blakemore for basketball, Thorn for tennis and Nanette Schnaible for gymnastics, which were the first three women’s intercollegiate sports programs started by WVU in 1973 followed by swimming and volleyball in 1974, softball in 1976 and track/cross country in 1977) $1,000 (on top of their teaching salaries). That was $3,000 of the $10,000. We got uniforms for the basketball team, but I don’t think the gymnastics team and tennis team got anything more than t-shirts or something like that. The rest went for travel, and that’s how it started. Considering how little those coaches had to work with, they really did a great job of laying the foundation.”
With Blakemore as its coach, West Virginia’s women’s basketball team played its first game on Jan. 16, 1974, defeating West Liberty, 59-55. The winning ways were rare for Blakemore’s squad that first season, as the Mountaineers finished 4-10 with what was basically a club team made up of players from the University’s general student population who had tried out. The program would not award scholarships for another six years. Despite the drawbacks, Blakemore spent the next 19 seasons building the WVU women’s program. With the help in later years from associate head coaches Bill Fiske and then Scott Harrelson, Blakemore amassed a record of 301-214 in her 19 seasons at the helm. Her best team was her final one. Led by star players Rosemary Kosiorek, Donna Abbott, Jocelyn Branham and Lori Wilson, the Mountaineers put together a 26-4 record in 1991-92. That team earned the program’s second-ever NCAA Tournament berth (the other being in 1989), entering as the No. 4 seed in the East where it knocked off No. 5 seed Clemson in a first-round thriller before losing to No. 1 seed Virginia in Charlottesville in the second round.
That was Blakemore’s final game as the Mountaineers’ head coach, though she did remain on as the athletic department’s senior women’s administrator until her retirement five years later. Throughout her days as a coach and administrator, she also taught a variety of classes for WVU — everything from fencing to leadership.
“Miss Kittie embodied what we all aspire to be, and I couldn’t have asked for a more impactful mentor and friend,” said WVU senior assistant athletic director Terri Howes, who took classes from Blakemore during her days as a student at West Virginia and then eventually worked with her in the athletic department. “Generations of women were forever inspired and empowered by her leadership and the path she helped pave. She led with integrity, passion and most important care. She always put the student first and never lost sight of the fact that we were in the business of education, whether on the court, in the classroom or in life. We have lost a true icon of West Virginia University.”
After retiring from WVU, Blakemore moved back to Manassas to care for her mother, Jessie Blakemore, who passed away in 2001 at the age of 100.
Kittie continued to live in Manassas after her mother’s death, though she was a frequent visitor back to West Virginia, particularly when one of her former players was honored. Her health had remained fairly good through the years, but then she reportedly suffered a stroke a couple of weeks ago and passed away on July 29.
In all, it was an incredible life – coach, teacher, friend, college administrator, trailblazer. Blakemore even spent time in her young days in the movie business, performing as an extra synchronized swimmer in the background of Esther Williams movies.
Hers was certainly a life well lived.
“Kittie was my friend, my mentor, my biggest cheerleader and at one time my boss,” said Linda Burdette-Good, who was the Mountaineers’ gymnastics coach from 1975-2001. “She set a great example for everyone in the athletic department. She was an incredibly nice, kind individual, but she also had a competitive side. You saw that in how she coached, but I also saw that off the court. Kittie, Martha, Veronica (Hammersmith, West Virginia’s softball and volleyball coach), Bruce Wilmoth (a professor in WVU’s physical education department) and myself used to get together for board games in the evenings. They were fun, but boy, Kittie really wanted to win. That was true of everything she did. She was very nice, but she was also very competitive. That’s why her players loved her.
“She was an amazing person and she’ll never be forgotten,” concluded Burdette-Good.