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Downing built winner at SAU

February 3, 2012 at 11:52 a.m.

One of the true pioneers in the history of women’s basketball in Arkansas, Dr. Margaret Downing was the head coach at Southern Arkansas University from 1965-84.

But that is far from the lone label the Watson Chapel High School alumna carries and miles away from the impact she had on athletes and students with whom she contacted, including current SAU sports information director Houston Taylor.

“(Downing) was as big on academics as she was athletics,” Taylor said. “My last two years I had her in tons of classes. Before I got down here I knew about her reputation before I met her. In a classroom she was no-nonsense … but you learned. As a teacher she had the ability to get across the idea of fundamental learning and the lifelong effects of it.”

And though she will not be able to attend Saturday’s Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame Induction ceremony due to neuralgia associated with shingles, Downing will be represented and rewarded in this year’s class of inductees.

Downing’s nephew, Neal Sanders, will give Downing’s acceptance speech. Sanders is the son of Downing’s older sister Virginia, whom Downing is currently staying with as she continues to recover. Sanders made the trip from Wichita, Kan., to assist.

“She is really more like my big sister,” Sanders said. “We have always been very close. And these are her words. I am basically just going to read her remarks. I am just a conduit to deliver her message.”

Downing said she chose Sanders because of her affection for him and his love of sports.

“He was diagnosed with polio at age 12,” the 80-year old Downing said. “At the time he was very active in sports. He loved it … still does. He loves the Razorbacks and still keeps up with everything today. It just seemed to me that this was the way it was supposed to be. He was the person who was supposed to deliver my message.”

Downing, a 1949 graduate of Watson Chapel, where she played basketball for then-coach Howard Thomas, did not limit her impact to the classroom, nor was it felt just in the athletic venues.

Downing was recognized on a global horizon as well. In addition to her tireless work in the state of Arkansas, she was the manager of the U.S. women’s basketball teams twice in the Pan-American Games. She also served as the president and treasurer of the U.S. Olympic Committee for Women’s Basketball, the president of the Arkansas Women’s Intercollegiate Sports Association and the president of the Southwest Region of the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women. Downing served at one time or another on the AAU’s national basketball rules committee, the U.S. National Basketball Committee and the International Basketball Committee.

While Downing’s final coaching itinerary stopped in Magnolia, she impacted other places along the way, including at the high school level in Monticello, Texarkana, North Little Rock and at the Tennessee School for the Deaf. She also coached collegiately at Connecticut College for Women, Central Connecticut State College and Ouachita Baptist University at Arkadelphia.

Her Ouachita teams were nationally ranked as she paved the way for Carolyn Moffatt. From 1965-84, Moffatt’s teams went 213-162. Moffatt was a posthumous inductee last year into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

At what’s now Southern Arkansas, Downing’s inaugural basketball team captured an Arkansas Women’s Extramural Sports Association championship. AWISA was founded in 1969 and her teams won seven of the first eight titles. Her 1972-73 squad placed second, and the 1976-77 team shared the championship with Arkansas-Monticello. Downing retired from coaching basketball with a record of 223-163 at the school.

AWISA’s initial coach of the year award in 1978 was awarded to Downing. She was also named the SAU honor professor for the 1987-88 school year.

Downing didn’t just coach basketball. She served as the head swimming and diving coach from 1966-68 and again from 1969-73, claiming an AWESA championship in 1967 and an AWISA title in 1969. Her swimming and diving squads finished second in the conference on two other occasions.

Downing also won an AWISA championship in softball in 1980. She coached volleyball for three years from 1973-75, winning an AWISA championship in 1974 and placing second the other two seasons.

Though she has no regrets concerning her career, she did say there was something left on the table.

“The next generation,” she said in a voice that reflected her current painful situation. “The thing that I remember most is the times we all had together, the efforts the youngsters made together. It was great to work with all these young people. There just never was enough time to reach enough of them through.”


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