Pioneer for T-Bird Athletics + TAF Donor
By: Olivia Hugentobler & Hayley Robertson
When Kathryn Berg began her time at Southern Utah University (SUU), the landscape of women’s intercollegiate sports was very different from what students see today. Berg started her coaching career after teaching physical education at Richfield High School and Orem Junior High until 1968. After putting in great time and effort to these programs, she decided to take her expertise to SUU. There were many women who were eager to be a part of the athletics program at SUU, but there was no one courageous enough to coach these "controversial" teams; thus, Berg took on the challenge. From that point on, Berg became a crucial advocate for women in sports. She coached and led gymnastics, volleyball, basketball, softball, tennis, and swimming as well as track & field during her 33 years at SUU.
We had the opportunity to talk to Berg about her landmark career in the world of athletics, her challenges, and what she gained from her experience. Berg was eager to share her story and describe what being a woman in athletic administration was like in the early ’70s. “In the beginning,” Berg said, “it was very unpopular for women to participate in intercollegiate athletics because the main feeling from the men was that we were taking from them, so most of the time we would constantly be taking little steps forward and then little steps back.” In her first year as a coach, female athletes only had the opportunity to do “play days” in which they would go to different universities and play several games in one or two days. It was not until Berg’s second year that these athletes were allowed to play limited schedule games.
The budget was minimal for these women teams, leaving them with little money to purchase uniforms. They were given the simple white shirt and shorts that were provided to all students that enrolled in open recreation. Berg knew how desperately her athletes wanted to feel special and valued by the intercollegiate sports community, so she collected all of their white shirts and sewed numbers and personalized patches onto each one. She committed herself around the clock to these student-athletes and her passion showed in every little detail. Budget issues were only one of the many hurdles these female athletes had to overcome. “We were told we were only allowed to practice early in the morning or after the men and open recreation practiced, and so for several years, we practiced at six in the morning. Sometimes, we would even have to practice after 9 PM if we had to use the PE building. That was a real challenge.” Berg also recounts walking over one evening to check on the field that her softball team planned to play on the next morning. When she arrived at the field, she found no clean up had been done; it was covered in snow. After gathering her athletes, they worked together to roll snowballs off the field to play their game the next morning. Berg fondly remembers all of her athletes being incredible women; they worked hard not only because they loved their sport, but also in hopes of making the experience better for everyone that came after them. Over the years, Berg has made remarkable strides for women in athletics. The work she put into the program was invaluable and the outcome has changed the lives of women athletes forever. It was an obstacle for her to keep pushing for change, but she believes that this was the best challenge of her life as it gave her the ability to communicate, get along with others, and be a better coach. When asked how she was able to continue advocating for herself and women athletes alike, she responded, “You can never do anything alone. You have to have a great support system.” She attributes this program’s achievements to the wonderful faculty, staff, and coaches that motivated her and others to succeed. Above all, she attributes the overall success to the women athletes who she tearfully said “sacrificed so much, for so little.” She hopes that these athletes live an extraordinary life and continue to look back on the lessons they learned and the blessings they received from their sacrifices. She hopes that these amazing athletes will be recognized for their efforts because without them and their sacrifice, this program would not be where it is today.
Seeing all of this hard work and dedication begs the question, how can the Thunderbirds continue to have coaches and athletes dedicated and motivated to create positive change like Berg? In Berg’s opinion, “If you want to be a coach, you must make sure you have paid your dues; you have either played, studied, or done all that you can to prepare yourself.” While Berg, her athletes, and women everywhere have pushed for more representation in sports, a glass ceiling still remains today. Coaching and sports administration is still a male-dominated field, and this proves challenging for many women who want to take their shot at these positions. Berg advises women who wish to take on coaching: “Be strong, determined, straightforward, have integrity and be willing to meet challenges and not win them every time. You always have to try to move forward. Most importantly, give credit to others, be humble and recognize your own weaknesses.” Though Berg faced obstacles while creating a space for women in college sports, she loved SUU and the opportunities it gave her to grow. When contemplating her past, Berg reflects, “The time I spent at Southern Utah University was the best of times, including all the challenges. It was wonderful. I am so thankful for the setting of Southern Utah University, the community, the university family, and the opportunities it gave me. With the help of others, I was able to build something very special to Southern Utah and I look at that and think, ‘Hey Kathryn, you played a big part in the foundation of that program.’” SUU, as well as female athletes everywhere, are in debt to Berg for her years of dedicated service and aim to continue the legacy she created for intercollegiate women athletics throughout the state. Berg, who is also a donor to the Thunderbird Athletic Foundation, is one who will go down as one of the most influential Thunderbirds in history.
About Kathryn Berg Dr. Kathryn Berg served as a coach and associate athletic director for 33 years. In 1968, she also taught and led track and field, gymnastics, volleyball, basketball, softball, tennis and swimming teams. She chose to coach all of these sports due to the lack of female coaches and wanting to set an example for these young athletes. Her task was to develop the institution’s women’s intercollegiate athletic program. It thus became the “founding pioneer” of Thunderbird women’s athletics, also helping to oversee SUU’s transition to NCAA Division I. She is a member of several halls of fame and aided in establishing the Utah Summer Games. In 2005, the SUU softball field was named in her honor, and the following year she received an honorary doctorate. A native of Heber, Utah, she is a graduate of BYU, where she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Her doctorate is from the University of Utah. Today, she is a champion of SUU students and a strong advocate for Thunderbird alumni.
Folks like Kathryn Berg make a difference. YOU can also be a difference-maker by supporting the Thunderbird Athletic Foundation. It only takes $4.17/a month, or $50 a year to support our Thunderbird Scholarship Fund. Kathryn is also a member of this fund and proudly supports it every year. You can donate via this website or FlyWithSUU.com!