By Jeremy Langley
She is known as a true pioneer, coach, mentor, and friend. When it comes to women’s athletics at Southern Arkansas University, there is no name more revered than that of Dr. Margaret Downing.
When she arrived on campus in 1965 (at what was then known as Southern State College), Downing found a college well-known for its successful men’s athletic programs. Women’s sports were non-existent; however, that would not be the case for long.
Over the next two decades, Downing’s Riderettes won eight basketball championships and a total 223 ballgames. In addition to her basketball duties, she would go on to coach women’s volleyball (winning a conference championship in 1974), golf, track and field, swimming, and softball. Downing started every women’s athletic program in existence at SAU today.
Janet Cooper Wood ’78 remembers what it was like playing for Downing during the years Title IX came into existence, requiring equal opportunity for women’s athletics.
“While I was performing my work study duties as her secretary in 1974 and 1975, I was privy to all the conversations she had with some national office as she was fighting for us to receive scholarships,” Wood recalled. “She has been ‘stern’ with many of us, but trust me, she never cast her wrath on us the way she did those folks!”
Wood said Downing’s influence stretched beyond the hardwood as she invested of herself into each player.
“I attribute 100 percent of my success as a player and coach to ‘Miss D’,” she said. “She was not only an outstanding coach but a great mentor as well. She was very strategic in her recruiting and chose players she knew would complement each other. Another valuable lesson learned – always surround yourself with successful people.”
Karlene Coleman Hooker ’78 feels the same way. She considers herself somewhat of a grandchild of Downing’s as she was coached by two of Downing’s former players before coming to SAU to play for Downing herself.
“She has been a real presence in my life, and by extension, the lives of my children and the thousands of students I have coached and taught over the last 38 years. If a difficult situation arose in my classroom or on the court, I would find myself trying to figure out how Miss D would handle the situation.”
Downing’s efforts have not gone unnoticed by those outside SAU. She was inducted into the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics Hall of Fame in 1987 and the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 2012. She was an inaugural member of the SAU Sports Hall of Fame in 2003.
For more than a half century, Downing has invested in the lives and futures of countless SAU students, and she continues part-time employment in the College of Education today. Those who have been touched by Dr. Downing now have an opportunity to honor her through the Margaret Downing Society, an effort to raise a $100,000 endowment in her honor. All proceeds from the endowment will be used to advance women’s athletics on the SAU campus.
Alumni and friends may become members of the Downing Society with a gift of $1,000 paid in a lump sum or over the course of multiple years. All Downing Society members will be listed on a permanent plaque at the new Mulerider softball field house, which will be named in Downing’s honor at the completion of the campaign.
For more information about the Margaret Downing Society, visit www.saudevelopment.com/Downing, call (870) 235-5375, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.