Profile of a Pioneer in Ohio Dominican University Athletics
Mary Jo Feak was one of the greatest pioneers of women’s athletics at Ohio Dominican University (ODU). Feak began her 44-year teaching and coaching career in 1950 when ODU was an all women’s college, the College of St. Mary of the Springs. In recognition of her numerous and invaluable contributions to ODU athletics, Feak was inducted into the University’s inaugural Athletic Hall of Fame in 1997.
In 1953, Feak founded the Department of Education and Physical Education. It became the foundation of a career in which she served as the women’s volleyball, women’s basketball and cheerleading coach, as well as the intramurals director. Feak retired from Ohio Dominican in the mid-90s. In 2004, she died at the age of 76. However, her legacy to the University in helping to shape its athletics program remains strong.
“Her personality is still here in a way because of the expectations she had that we do things better,” said Paul Page, ODU’s baseball head coach and former athletic director. “Mary Jo was very determined to make sure that all athletes were treated equally. She was an advocate for all athletes, but female athletics was paramount in her thoughts.”
Ohio Dominican introduced women’s basketball in 1975 and volleyball in 1978. Feak spent eight seasons as ODU’s varsity volleyball coach from 1978 to 1986, compiling a 163-120 record. Sandy Rowley was a freshman at Ohio Dominican in 1980 and played volleyball for Feak. She recalled Feak’s enthusiasm for the institution and the student body.
“I was going to attend Ohio University,” said Rowley, who has been the Panthers’ volleyball head coach since 1989 and is also ODU’s senior woman administrator. “But I talked to Mary Jo a lot on the phone and her passion for Ohio Dominican showed up right away. The biggest thing I learned from her is that everything we do is for the University and for the kids. Mary Jo was a big believer in that. She never expected anything more out of anybody else than she expected out of herself. She was a mentor and a friend.”
Intercollegiate athletics had a very different feel to it during that time.
“When I came in, the seniors were the first to receive any type of scholarship dollar,” Rowley said. “It was a fairly young program and that was exciting. Until Alumni Hall was built in 1989, we practiced and played wherever we could get gym time.”
Ohio Dominican’s growth as an institution, particularly in regard to intercollegiate athletics, took shape under Feak’s guidance.
“We went through a difficult time,” said Page, who joined ODU in 1987. “Our programs were struggling when I got here and Mary Jo hated that. She was astute in determining what the issues were and how we’d go about addressing those issues. She was a huge resource for me and a huge advocate on doing things the right way.”
A fierce competitor, Feak’s lessons still remain with Rowley to this day.
“Mary Jo hated to lose,” Rowley said. “I still have motivation books from her in my drawers with her handwritten notes. I still hear her say quotes in my mind – I can still hear her say, ‘That’s unforgiveable.’ If someone missed a serve, you could hear her say that. Whether she was a fan or coaching, she would scream that.”
Road trips were adventuresome as well. The team travelled across the region in two vans, but the players knew which one to ride in given their class assignments.
“She always wanted to drive the van with the least amount of kids in it,” Rowley remembered. “She hated when the radio was too loud, so those of us who wanted to study always rode with her because it would be quiet. And whenever we could, we always stopped at McDonald’s. She loved it. Apparently, eating healthy wasn’t as big of an issue back then.”
Feak had a hand in more than just female athletics, though. She believed in equal treatment for every sport and every student-athlete on campus and, according to Page, kept “pushing the envelope” until the Athletic Department’s needs were met.
“The building of Alumni Hall was a dream for Mary Jo,” Page said. “When we built this facility, I remember listening to her talk about her pride about the first men’s basketball team that went to the national tournament in 1971. She was making sure the pendulum swung the right way. She was so prideful of the institution. She didn’t want it viewed in a negative light.”
With Ohio Dominican sponsoring just a handful of varsity sports at the time Feak was on campus, the intramural program was extremely popular, and she played a big part in expanding its influence. She was also an active faculty member, heading up Ohio Dominican’s physical education program.
“Mary Jo was always at the intramural games, yelling and screaming for the kids, wanting them to have a good experience,” Rowley said. “She was so involved with all the students. She was here all the time.”
Her personality was much larger than her five-foot-two frame belied. Feak was well-known around campus, by student-athletes and non-athletes alike, and had everyone’s respect.
“If you weren’t doing your job, she’d let you know,” Rowley said. “She wasn’t afraid to hold you accountable. It didn’t matter if you were a student working in the gym or in her class. She had no problem going after big basketball players just as she would a volleyball player. Mary Jo knew there was a way to act and behave, and be a good ambassador for the University.”
Away from Ohio Dominican, Feak had two great loves, dancing and horseback riding. She earned a master’s degree in Modern Dance from Columbia University in 1953. She taught a horseback riding class at Ohio Dominican and won the national hunter pony championship in 1953.
“When you say her name, I smile,” Page said. “Even after she retired, Mary Jo was always around and was the biggest cheerleader we had. She had a lot of pride when we had success, and she should have because she was a big part of that.”
Rowley agreed. “By the time I got here as a student, female athletics had already been established because Mary Jo was here to lay the groundwork.”
ODU is a full member of the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division II and a member of the GLIAC. The University sponsors 18 varsity sports, including baseball, softball, football, volleyball, as well as men's and women's basketball, cross country, golf, soccer, tennis and track and field, both indoor and outdoor.
Ohio Dominican University is a four-year Catholic private comprehensive liberal arts and master’s institution, founded in 1911 in the Dominican tradition. The University has approximately 2,700 students and offers undergraduate degrees in 42 majors as well as seven graduate degree programs. Ohio Dominican uses a student-centered approach, with a commitment to quality teaching and learning.