By TERRELL LESTER
Editor at Large
Basketball made her a star. Made her famous. Gave her the world.
What she gave basketball in return was an All-American career. A lifetime ambassadorship. A pilgrimage of honor.
Dixie Woodall became an international symbol for American basketball. First as player. Then as a coach. Then as a diplomat.
Dixie Woodall, from Creek County, Oklahoma, took the game of basketball to the capitals of the world.
From Russia and Switzerland to China and South America, to every port o’ call in between, Dixie Woodall combined basketball skills and palace diplomacy into global celebrity.
Yet she was an even brighter star back home.
A three-time All-American.
A national championship coach.
And, as of 2005, a member of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.
Dixie Woodall, a product of the Oklahoma farmland, had scaled the basketball mountaintop.
It was not her goal.
But it was her destiny.
Dixie Woodall was born to greatness.
She has been hailed as the best athlete to ever graduate from Kiefer High School, outdistancing softball Hall-of-Famers Dutch Ausmus and Dude Ausmus.
She parlayed her two years at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College, graduating in 1959, into a national and international playing career, long before the advent of the WNBA.
She was a member of the Nashville Business College’s 1960 AAU national championship team.
Playing for the Raytown Piperettes, she was selected to the AAU All-American teams in 1964, 1966 and 1967.
In 1967, Woodall was a member of the United States squad that earned a silver medal in the Pan American Games.
She played on U.S. teams that toured South America, played in the World Championships, and crisscrossed Asia.
By the early 1970s, she returned home to finish her degree in education at Northeastern State at Tahlequah and set her sights on another plateau of competition.
She made brief coaching stops at Kiefer and Bixby before being beckoned by Seminole Junior College and president Elmer Tanner in 1974.
By her second season, she had guided Seminoles to a runnerup finish in the national junior college tournament. She won the championship in 1976, and placed second again in 1977.
Oral Roberts, the university and the president, lured her away from Seminole following that 1976-77 season.
Over raspberry tea and breadsticks recently, Woodall revisited those halcyon days.
Bob Brooks, then athletics director at Oral Roberts University, had contacted Woodall several times about taking the women’s basketball program.
She finally agreed to visit. She was happy in Seminole, and had no interest in moving to Tulsa, although the campus was less than 10 minutes from her home.
Other colleges and universities had approached Woodall with no success.
Brooks’ persistence eventually prompted her to listen.
The first thing Brooks wanted to know, Woodall said, was, “Where do you go to get these good players?”
“I said, right around here,” Woodall said.
She had built her foundation and eventual success at Seminole with Oklahoma players, from small towns such as Stroud, Fort Towson, Olive.
Seated in his office, Brooks told Woodall that he was leaving for a moment to order lunch for the two of them.
“And he never came back,” Woodall said.
“And, then, in a couple of minutes, in came Brother Oral. He just came in and sat down. I didn’t know him, but I knew who he was.
“He was very congenial.”
Roberts and Woodall talked briefly. He asked if she were interested in the women’s coaching job at ORU.
Woodall said she was not. She was quite comfortable at Seminole, she said.
“I had no intention of leaving. I said, ‘You know, you’re not what I’m looking for, and this is not what I’m looking for,’” Woodall told Roberts.
At that point, she said, Roberts began writing some numbers on a piece of paper.
“He showed it to me and said, ‘Will this kind of money bring you here?’”
She looked at the paper and said, “When do you want me?”
He said, “Monday.”
“I said, ‘I’ll see you Monday.’”
Woodall returned to ORU with a core of players from her Seminole success, players like Sherri Salyer Peckham of Stroud and Sharon Tucker of Fort Towson.
Woodall’s first team at ORU, 1977-78, posted a 31-9 record, still the school’s high-water mark.
Over four seasons, she compiled a 109-26 record. Then, the persistent Tanner called her back in 1981.
“It was just home,” she said. “I liked Oral Roberts, but Seminole just felt like home.”
She returned to the junior college, and remained another six seasons before retiring. In 10 seasons at Seminole, she fashioned a record of 281-71. And she found time to serve as an assistant coach for the United States in the 1977 World University Games in Bulgaria. It was a silver medal-winning effort.
Before closing the chapter on ORU, Woodall offered comments on her assistant coach, and the sports information director.
Terry Scott, now the state championship boys coach at Tulsa Central High School, worked as Woodall’s assistant.
“He was a great assistant,” she said. “A class act.”
Andy Furman was the SID. He eventually resigned his ORU post and took a job with a horse racing track back east. “Oh, I loved him,” she said, laughing as she called him “a head case.” “But he really took care of me. Lake Kelly (the men’s coach) always said Andy gave us all the good publicity.”
Woodall called Sherri Salyer Peckham, the former Stroud All-Stater, “One of the greatest athletes ever.”
Then, Woodall was asked to do a little comparison between yesterday and today.
“What I see the difference is now is that there were a few great ones then. There’s a lot of great ones now,” Woodall said.
“We didn’t have all these big schools playing ball. We just had the small schools, like Olive, Kiefer, Berryhill, Mounds. We had these little schools. We had a few girls.
“And, of course, we didn’t have the training. I coached kids in high school that didn’t even have a proper diet.
“The kids now don’t have that.
“There were some girls that played for me, and some that I played with, that could play with anybody today. But not very many. There are so many good ones now.
“And, they’ve got better coaching.
“I know that they have better training and weight programs. We walked everywhere we went. I milked cows. I worked in a field. I loaded hay. And I know girls who worked in the field.
“You build muscles that way, too. But the diet’s different, too.”
When Woodall left Northeastern A&M in 1959, she hit the road with the AAU teams. She squeezed in a few college hours here and there while playing on the road.
Eventually, she returned home and finished her degree work at Northeastern State at Tahlequah.
She was asked to talk about her own playing career.
“I was to be hired,” she said with a smile.
“I was a great shooter. I was a good shooter. I couldn’t out-run, out-jump, out-defense anybody. But I had, still have, great eyes. And I had a good touch,” she said.
“If you give me the ball, I’d score.”
“I look around and I see a lot of people who were more athletic. I just had a little natural ability.”
Her scrapbooks are filled with memories now, of travels to exotic places, of basketball games won and lost, of players recruited and graduated.
She walks a little slower now than when she was hustling through airports and directing fast breaks.
But Dixie Woodall, at the age of 66, still remains close to the game that made her an Oklahoma icon.
She visits Seminole regularly, and talks with players who were not even born when she coached there.
She follows the Oral Roberts program closely, and has thoughts and evaluations on coach and personnel.
And, of course, she still lives at Kiefer, where she became acquainted with basketball, and she still observes and studies those who might follow in her footsteps.
Happily tracking her former players, she even laughs that maybe, just maybe, she could be coaxed into ending her retirement long enough to coach their grandchildren.
The Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, which opened in 1999 in Knoxville, Tenn., might have to add another wing for Dixie Woodall’s next generation of coaching success.