A person’s legacy isn’t always readily apparent – the mark they made may take years to be recognized or celebrated.
But in Sallie Beard’s case, one needs only to look at the Missouri Southern athletics program to see a legacy that is not only firmly established but one that continues to thrive.
The former athletics director served the campus for 37 years before her retirement in 2009. Her accomplishments included breaking ground in women’s athletics, coaching a variety of sports and overseeing a period of transition that would change the face of sports not only for the university but for the entire region.
On Monday, Oct. 13, Beard will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Association of Collegiate Women Athletics Administrators. Recipients of the award – which is given each year to administrators who dedicated their professional careers to advancing women in sport – will be honored during the Nike Lifetime Achievement, Legacy and Presidential Leadership Awards Luncheon as part of the NACWAA National Convention in Louisville, Ky.
Beard’s career at Missouri Southern began as a student. During her senior year, she was offered a position teaching physical education at Missouri Southern by Dr. Leon Billingsly, president of the college.
“We had lived in the same neighborhood and he’d watched me grow up,” she said. “I guess he thought he could trust me to be on the faculty.”
The start of the fall semester in 1972 found her on the other side of the classroom.
“It was pretty interesting being classmates with some of these students and the next semester being their instructor,” Beard said. “But the students were very supportive and made it an easy transition, all things considered.”
At the time of her hiring, Missouri Southern didn’t offer an athletics program for women. In 1974, a group of female students approached her about starting a women’s basketball team and she agreed to serve as its coach.
Two years earlier, the passage of Title IX had opened the door for women in educational programs and activities by preventing discrimination on the basis of sex. Beard said startup athletic programs had begun to spring up around the country.
“We had to practice at 5:30 every morning in order to get gym space,” she said. “It took a serious commitment on the part of the female students who participated.”
The team, she said, went 11-2 during its inaugural season. Besides her work with the basketball team, she would also organize Southern’s first tennis and softball teams and would later coach track and field.
In 1974, Beard was appointed women’s athletic director, and much of her focus was on “grassroots” efforts to create more opportunities for female athletes.
“The college stepped up and provided us with an operating budget and scholarships,” she said. “There were boosters in the community who participated, but it was largely an institutional commitment at that point.”
Beard served as director of women’s athletics for 25 years and in 2001 became the school’s first sole athletic director.
“It was a fairly easy transition,” she said. “We had a great, supportive staff. The coaches had seen me work as the women’s athletic director and were open to me being at the helm. That meant a lot to me, and I felt like I was their advocate.”
Among her accomplishments during her tenure as athletics director were growing the athletics program, helping to make the transition from the NAIA to NCAA Division II and the MIAA, adding track and field for both men and women, creating two softball fields and brining new turf, track surface and lighting to Fred G. Hughes Stadium. The current construction of the field house at the stadium originated during that time period, as well.
“That came out of a committee that did a lot of work under my watch,” she said. “We submitted (the proposal) to the board in 2006. It’s neat to see Jared Bruggeman bring that to fruition.”
Beyond her work on the Missouri Southern campus, Beard served as conference president for the MIAA from 1999-2001, and on the NCAA Division II Management Council. From 1979 to 1983, she was on the games committee for the NAIA Indoor and Outdoor Track & Field Championships. In 1981, she served as an assistant coach for the U.S. Olympic Team at the World University Games in Romania.
“I accompanied the team to Bucharest at a time when it was really loaded with noteworthy athletes,” she said. The team included Edwin Moses, Carl Lewis and Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
Beard was twice named NAIA District 16 Coach of the Year and was among the inaugural class of the MIAA Hall of Fame in 2010.
Beard said she learned of the NACWAA honor in mid-August and feels humbled to be among past recipients of the award such as Judith Sweet, Christine Grant and Donna Lopiano.
“They are all – to use the cliché – trailblazers in women’s athletics,” she said.
The term “trailblazer” is one that certainly applies to Beard, said Patty Vavra, current head coach for women’s track and cross country at Missouri Southern.
As a student, Vavra was recruited by Beard to play for the women’s basketball team.
“She ended up being my basketball coach and then my track coach,” she said. “As a coach, she was very demanding but she also had a great heart for this place. When I say ‘demanding,’ I mean that she was the right person to say, ‘These are the things that are expected.’ You have to have someone who will ask you to do the right things.
“She worked us hard, but we had great times, too. I think that was the characteristic that was needed to set high standards for women in athletics.”
Looking at Beard’s career path and all of the transitions made during that time – not just for women’s athletics but the athletics program as a whole – Vavra said that it’s readily apparent that Beard was “the right person at the right place at the right time.”
“She helped develop a high level of respect and recognition for Missouri Southern at the national level,” she said.
When asked what lessons she took away from her career, Beard said that you should be ready to take on opportunities that come your way.
“You never really know what kind of impact those opportunities will have,” she said. “I was fortunate in that many of the things that came my way led to a lot of changes on this campus and to the face of athletics in the NCAA.”