Brumfield Was a Game Changer

Former Vandy basketball star helped write early history of program

by Graham Hays

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Harriet Brumfield set records. Lots of them. She was Vanderbilt’s first All-SEC women’s basketball honoree. By the end of her sophomore year, she was the program’s all-time leading scorer. She left as the all-time leading rebounder. She made every necessary entry in the record book to ensure it is impossible to write the story of Vanderbilt women’s basketball without her.

That’s what Hall of Famers do.

But in this year of all years, as the country celebrates the 50th anniversary of Title IX and the revolutionary changes it brought about in women’s sports, Brumfield’s legacy isn’t just about the record book. She isn’t just a part of the historical record. She lived history as it happened.

That’s what this Hall of Famer did.

When Brumfield arrived at Vanderbilt in 1981 from Robinson High School in Tampa, Florida, Title IX was less than a decade old. The landmark legislation promised that no person shall be “excluded from participation” in any “education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance” on the basis of sex, theoretically throwing open the doors to sports participation for girls and women in most settings. But changing society wasn’t as easy as flipping a light switch.

Vanderbilt didn’t sponsor a varsity women’s basketball team until the 1977-78 season. The program didn’t have a scholarship student-athlete until Cathy Bender arrived a season later. And those events still occurred before the NCAA sponsored a women’s basketball championship.

Brumfield earned a place in history when she became the program’s first All-SEC selection after averaging 19.7 points and 10.6 rebounds per game as a freshman during the 1981-82 season. Not until Chantelle Anderson arrived nearly 20 years later would another freshman earn first-team honors. Brumfield’s honor is doubly notable because it technically came before she ever played an SEC game. While the conference recognizes an all-conference team for the 1981-82 season from among member schools, the SEC didn’t officially sponsor the sport until the 1982-83 season (when Brumfield promptly repeated her all-conference accolades as a sophomore).

When Brumfield and her teammates went 20-14 and earned a postseason bid during her freshman season, it wasn’t to the inaugural NCAA tournament. The Commodores instead competed in the final AIAW national tournament, marking the end of an era for the governing body that supported women’s collegiate sports through the first decade of Title IX. Although increasingly and unfortunately forgotten, the AIAW was where Pat Summitt first coached a team to a Final Four and where a legend like Nancy Lieberman won national titles.

Brumfield was a part of that era. She also led Vanderbilt into a new era.

Vanderbilt’s roster tells the story of an era of radical change. The season before Brumfield arrived, just three Commodores came from beyond the borders of Tennessee. No one on the roster stood even 6 feet. When the 6-foot-2 Brumfield took the court the following season, she was one of eight players from out of state on a roster that included just three Tennesseans.

The season before Brumfield arrived, Vanderbilt played 14 of 28 games against teams from the state of Tennessee and never traveled farther afield than Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

By her final season in 1984-85, the Commodores played just seven games against in-state opponents and traveled to tournaments in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Austin, Texas. The program was on its way to becoming the nationally relevant presence that it remains to this day.

Brumfield’s records were eventually surpassed, as records inevitably are. Anderson and Wendy Scholtens passed her in career points. She now sits third in rebounds, too, only Scholtens and Karen Booker ahead of her. The first to be a three-time all-conference honoree, she now shares that distinction with Anderson, Heidi Gillingham and Scholtens.

But as a pioneer who bridged past and present, AIAW and NCAA, anonymity and SEC, Brumfield will always have a place all her own in the story of Vanderbilt women’s basketball.