Margaret Ruth Downing (1931–2023)

Margaret Downing was a pioneer in women’s sports, especially basketball, in Arkansas in the second half of the twentieth century. Her coaching accomplishments covered a wide range of sports, and she did much to help Southern Arkansas University (SAU)—where she spent the bulk of her career—transition into the new world of intercollegiate athletics ushered in by the enactment of Title IX.

Margaret Ruth Downing was born on August 22, 1931, in Waldo (Columbia County). She grew up in Waldo before pursuing her undergraduate education at Arkansas State Teachers College (now the University of Central Arkansas), in Conway (Faulkner County) graduating in 1953 with a BSE. She earned a master’s degree from the University of Tennessee in 1960 before earning her doctorate from Texas Woman’s University in 1973.

Downing first honed her skills as a high school coach in Monticello (Drew County), Texarkana (Miller County), and North Little Rock (Pulaski County). She also coached at the Tennessee School for the Deaf, while her college experience prior to SAU included Connecticut College for Women, Central Connecticut State College, and Ouachita Baptist University (OBU) in Arkadelphia (Clark County), where her teams were nationally ranked.

Downing became head women’s basketball coach at what was then Southern State College (now SAU) in Magnolia (Columbia County) in 1965 and eventually turned the school into a leader among the state’s basketball programs. From 1965 to 1984, she led the team to a record of 223 wins and 163 losses. Those wins included eight championships over the two decades while competing at the state level in what was initially called the Arkansas Women’s Extramural Sports Association (AWESA) but later became the Arkansas Women’s Intercollegiate Sports Association (AWISA). She was the inaugural recipient of the AWISA’s coach of the year award at the conclusion of the 1977–1978 season. Downing’s squads competed nationally in AAU tournaments.

Downing also served as the head swimming and diving coach, filling that role from 1966 to 1967 and again from 1969 to 1973. During those periods, the Southern State College women’s swim team won an AWESA championship in 1967 and an AWISA crown in 1969, while also finishing as conference runners-up on two other occasions. Downing coached the college’s volleyball team for three seasons from 1973 to 1975, winning the AWISA championship in 1974 and finishing second on the other two occasions. She coached the softball team to the AWISA championship in 1980. She also coached both golf and track and field. Downing’s record of versatility was at once a testament to her broad-based knowledge and coaching skills as well as the way female athletes were treated in the earlier part of her career. The advent of Title IX in the early 1970s altered the athletic landscape, allowing for a greater number of specialized coaches, and in fact Downing was a pioneer in developing programs that would enhance the newly mandated opportunities for female athletes.

Downing was a well-respected and beloved teacher who was recognized as SAU’s Honor Professor in 1988. After stepping down as head coach of the SAU Riderette basketball team in 1984, she expanded her previous teaching to a full-time post, even serving as chair of the Department of Health, Kinesiology, and Recreation from 1991 to 1997. She served as dean of the School of Education from 1998 to 2002, when she retired after thirty-seven years at SAU. Even after her retirement, she continued to serve the university in a part-time capacity as Professor of Health, Kinesiology, and Recreation.

Downing was a nationally known figure in the world of women’s athletics, managing U.S. women’s basketball teams in the fifth and sixth Pan-American games and serving as business manager in the Pan-Am games in Winnipeg, Canada, and Cali, Colombia, and for the World Tournament in Prague, Czech Republic. Downing was also a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee for Women.

Her varied professional memberships included the joint national AAU-DGWS basketball rules committee, the U.S. National Basketball Committee, and the International Basketball Committee for Women. She also served as president and secretary of the U.S. Olympic Committee for Women’s Basketball, and served terms as president of both the SWAIAW and AWISA.

Downing was inducted into the NAIA National Hall of Fame in 1987 and Southern Arkansas University Sports Hall of Fame as part of its inaugural class of 2003, and the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 2012. In 2018, the stands at Dawson Field were packed at SAU’s Mulerider Softball Complex to watch as university president unveiled the complex’s new name: Dawson Field at the Dr. Margaret Downing Softball Complex.

Downing died on January 17, 2023, in Little Rock (Pulaski County). She is buried at Memorial Park Cemetery in White Hall (Jefferson County).

For additional information:
“Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame Will Induct SAU’s Margaret Downing Tonight.” Magnolia Reporter, February 3, 2012. (accessed December 21, 2022).

“Downing Built Winner at SAU.” Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, February 3, 2012. (accessed December 21, 2022).

“Dr. Downing’s Riderettes Keep Connection with Coach.” Stater Magazine (Winter 2021). (accessed December 21, 2022).

Langley, Jeremy. “The Dr. Margaret Downing Society.” Stater Magazine (Winter 2015). (accessed December 21, 2022).

Nelson, Rex. “Southern Arkansas University’s Dr. Margaret Downing: Hall of Famer.” Magnolia Reporter, January 27, 2012. (accessed December 21, 2022).

Obituary of Dr. Margaret Ruth Downing. Magnolia Reporter, January 19, 2023. (accessed January 20, 2023).

William H. Pruden III
Ravenscroft School


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